The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide refers to the wholesale massacre of Armenians in 1915 during the course of World War I. Those massacres were perpetrated throughout different regions of the Ottoman Empire by the government of the Young Turks who were in power at the time.

Numbers and Dates

A large number of scholars and historians agree that 70% of the Armenian population (roughly one and a half million) were killed during this period – most of them within three months of April 1915. Full-scale massacres and deportations of Armenians continued throughout 1916 and occurred with lesser intensity until 1923. Almost 2000 towns and villages were emptied of their native Armenian inhabitants.

Armenian annual commemoration on 24 April

The first phase of the massacre of Armenians began with the arrest and murder of 1,000 Armenian leaders in Constantinople [modern-day Istanbul, capital of Ottoman Turkey] on 24 April 1915. This date is therefore significant and commemorative for Armenians across the world.

After ridding the Armenian people of its intellectual leaders, Turkey implemented the second phase. Having conscripted some 300,000 Armenian males into the army, the Ottoman Turkish authorities later disarmed and killed them.

The third phase of the genocide witnessed the mass killings, deportations and death marches of women, children and the elderly into the Syrian Desert. During those marches, many of the weak or exhausted were killed or died. Women were raped. The deportees were deprived of food and water. Starvation and dehydration became commonplace.

The final fourth phase comprises the denial to date by the Turkish government that 1.5 million Armenians were killed deliberately during the period from 1915 to 1923.

Why was the Armenian Genocide perpetrated?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was undergoing significant changes. One of those changes was the adoption of a policy of Turkification aimed at creating a new and single homogenous nation of Turks in the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Such a nation ran contrary to the multi-ethnic empire created in the 15th century after the Central Asian Turkic tribes conquered the region.

As a result, Armenians became prime victims of this new policy for numerous reasons. As inhabitants of the lands that once comprised ancient Armenia, they had lived there for over 3000 years. Hence, they had very strong national and Christian identities that they refused to surrender. The Turks, on the other hand, considered those territories as their own heartland. With the adoption of the new policy of Turkification, they concluded that physical elimination was the only way to get rid of those unwanted ethnic elements.

Recognition of the Armenian Genocide

On 11 December 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 96(1) on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Convention condemns any deliberate act of destruction of ethnic, religious or cultural groups. This was the first resolution on genocide, proposed by Raphael Lemkin, who coined in 1944 the term ‘genocide’. He also described the crime of genocide as being ‘the systematic destruction of whole national, racial or religious groups. The sort of thing Hitler did to the Jews and the Turks did to the Armenians’.

The UN Commission on Human Rights adopted in 1985 a report entitled Study of the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which stated ‘[…] the Nazi aberration has unfortunately not been the only case of genocide in the 20th century. Among other examples which can be cited as qualifying are … the Ottoman massacres of the Armenians in 1915 – 1916’.

Why is the Armenian Genocide denied?

Modern-day Turkey denies that its preceding Ottoman regime perpetrated genocide against Armenians. It claims that the massacres merely constituted a case of civil war between Armenians and Turks, whereby the latter were the victors. The Turkish version alleges that Armenians were traitors since they fought with Russia against Turkey during World War I in order to gain independence. This, they add, constituted treason and was the core conflict.

Yet, the vast evidence points to the absence of any civil war or even any armed conflict between Turks and Armenians at that time. The Armenians were neither allowed to carry arms, nor did they have a central government or authority to co-ordinate their actions.

Furthermore, the plan to rid Turkey of Armenians was finalised in October 1911, prior to World War I, during a series of secret conferences of the ruling Young Turks’ government. This means that the World War, as well as the alleged ‘Armenian co-operation with Turkish enemy Russia’, become groundless pretexts since the Ottoman Turkish plans were set in motion before World War I had started in 1914.

What do Armenians want?

The central plank of Armenian demands is the recognition by Turkey, and indeed all nations, of this genocide. It is unacceptable in modern-day terms to deny that 1.5 million men, women and children died as a consequence of a Turkish policy of destroying or uprooting a whole people during 1915-1923. This request for recognition is a moral issue that would restore truth with justice and lead towards reconciliation.

Just like the Jewish Holocaust and other subsequent genocides throughout the last century, history should not deny the Armenian Genocide. Nor should the world as a community shy away from recognising it simply for geo-political reasons that make Turkey more important than Armenia in the interests of some countries.

Further information

Watch the compelling movie “Aghet: Ein Völkermord”, by Eric Friedler, which tells the full story of the Armenian Genocide using witness accounts and official documents.

Distinguished human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC meticulously analysed the clauses of the definition of genocide with regard to the Armenians. Read his article.

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