Geoffrey Robertson remembers the Armenian genocide

April 12, 2015
Child victims of the Armenian genocide.

The Inconvenient Genocide: Who Remembers the Armenians?
Geoffrey Robertson QC, Vintage Books,
Sydney, 294 pages, 2014

On the eve of Nazi Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler urged his generals “to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language”.

“Only in such a way will we win [what] we need,” Hitler said. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians.”

The Nazi leader was referring to the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turkish empire in 1915 against the Armenian people within its borders.

On the eve of the centenary of the ANZAC's disastrous attempted invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli, Armenian communities around the world will commemorate this genocide on April 24.

Human rights Lawyer and author, Geoffrey Robertson makes the case in The Inconvenient Genocide that crimes committed against the Armenian people in 1915 constituted genocide and exposes Turkey's ongoing efforts to deny the fact.

On April 24, 1915, the day before the Allied landing at Gallipoli, Turkish authorities rounded up hundreds of Armenian intellectuals, academics, priests and community leaders. From May to September 1915, an estimated 2 million Armenian people were killed or expelled from the Ottoman Empire.

The adult men were massacred or sent off to death camps, while their families were sent on death marches through the desert. They were raped, drowned, burned alive or left to die of hunger and thirst.

Churches, monasteries and schools were destroyed. All material goods were confiscated. Girls were made sex slaves and forced to convert to Islam.

The death toll is estimated by historians to be between 800,000 and 1.2 million people. Armenian scholars put the figure as up to 1.5 million.

The Turkish government and historians who deny it was a genocide suggest only 600,000 people died.

The term “genocide” was originally coined by Rapheal Lemkin in 1944. It is a combination of the Greek term for race or people, “genos” and the Latin word for kill, “cīdere”.

It was coined to specifically define the crimes committed by the Ottoman empire in 1915 and those perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews and other ethnic groups in Europe.

Robertson refutes the denialist claims of the Turkish authorities who say it cannot be proven that the massacres against the Armenians constituted genocide. Pointing to the lack of written orders for exterminating the Armenians, Turkey says the Armenians were merely forcibly relocated, resulting in deaths at the hands of non-state forces and due to disease and lack of food.

Such actions, Turkey argues, may have been considered negligence, but no gas chambers were used nor meetings held to discuss “final solutions”.

This fiction is denounced by Robertson, who points out that while the Nazi regime left minutes of the Wannsee conference in 1942 where the Holocaust was planned, it used similar euphemisms and justifications as the Ottoman Turks.

The minutes state that able-bodied Jewish males were to be dispatched off to labour camps, while the women and children would be “evacuated” to the east — much like the Armenians were officially “relocated”. The term “Final Solution” was also never recorded in the minutes.

However, the actions of both the Ottoman empire and the Third Reich were justified by classing the targeted groups as a “disloyal” and “dangerous enemy”. Such claims were used to justify the same outcomes — from targeted ethnic cleansing to the property expropriation laws.

Such measures are defined as genocide under the 1945 London agreement that set up the Nuremburg War Crimes trial. It also matches the definition of genocide set out under article seven of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

To this day, Turkey denies the Armenian genocide and uses Article 301 of its penal code to prosecute citizens for “Insulting Turkishness” if they refer to the treatment of Armenians as genocide.

It also devotes huge resources to its genocide denial. When the New South Wales parliament recently voted to recognise the genocide, Turkey threatened to ban its MPs from attending the this year's Gallipoli commemoration.

Although 20 countries around the world have recognised the Armenian genocide, the United States and British governments have refused to, not wishing to alienate their political and financial interests best served by supporting the Turkish government that is an important ally in the “war on terror”.

Although past US presidents have condemned the Armenian massacres, none have labelled it a genocide. Barack Obama promised on the 2008 presidential campaign trail that he would recognise the Armenian genocide as president, but reneged on the pledge.

The British government has engaged in similar equivocation. Foreign office civil servants have dishonestly stated: “Neither this, nor previous governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorised as genocide.”

Instead, both governments have fallen back on pious hopes that Turkey will “address the facts of their past as part of their efforts to move forwards”.

Robertson’s book is important because it sets out how and why the crimes perpetrated by the Ottoman empire against the Armenian people in 1915 were indeed genocide — and should be legally recognised as such.

It is also only one of the first genocides to occur in the 20th century. If we want to prevent future genocides, it is crucial to always remember — and seek justice for — the Armenians.

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