Over the course of this week, the Turkish government will be called to account for some of the most heinous human rights violations ever to be witnessed. This demand for justice won’t address the state’s reported crimes against the population of Afrin in the name of national security. And it will undoubtedly entail little, if any, scrutiny regarding the country’s current repressive measures against pro-democratic constituents. Indictments will not be made in international criminal courts or special tribunals. And the victims and perpetrators will not be present. But, on and around April 24, in the streets, public squares, and memorials of dozens of countries, the world will be asked to condemn a century-old historical injustice, and to do so by naming it “genocide.”
April 24 is both a day of mourning and a day of outrage for Armenians. It marks the onset of the genocidal violence initiated on that same day in 1915 by the Ottoman state against its Armenian subjects. Within a few years and under the cover of the First World War, this well-planned program of extermination, deportation, and displacement all but annihilated the once thriving autochthonous population. Thousands more left voluntarily during the coercive years of the Turkish War of Independence. And those who have remained since the republic’s establishment under Kemalist rule have been subject to active marginalization, suppression, and cultural destruction over the course of successive governments.
These crimes and their perpetrators have gone unpunished, save for an ill-fated war crimes tribunal after the war. Worse still for Armenians dispersed around the globe, they have gone unacknowledged and have indeed been denied by Turkey as a program of genocidal destruction. Importantly, these crimes occurred decades before the codification of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. And this legal technicality—nullum crimen sine lege—made an adequate judicial reckoning impossible for the victims and their descendants. Faced with this legal impasse and overwhelmingly outmaneuvered by the Turkish state’s revisionist campaigns, both domestic and international, Armenian communities worldwide resorted to bringing about recognition through international pressure. They turned to Holocaust revisionism laws by way of example to compel official legal acknowledgment of these persecutions as genocidal acts.
These communities achieved their first real victories in the 1980s, notably in 1987 with the European Parliament Resolution on a political solution to the Armenian question, according to which the EP “believes that the tragic events in 1915-1917 involving the Armenians living in the territory of the Ottoman Empire constitute genocide within the meaning of the convention on the prevention and the punishment of the crime of genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948.” The text does not stop at recognition and lists, with intensifying emphasis, a set of criticisms and demands for the Republic of Turkey not only to recognize this chapter of history for what it was, but also to implement a slew of democratic reforms. These appear specifically in articles I.4 through I.9, which call for the protection of civil and minority rights as defined in the European Convention of Human Rights and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, and which stress Turkey’s responsibility to guarantee the free exercise of its Christian populations’ religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage.
Much has been stated on this resolution’s politicization of Armenian genocide recognition and its subsequent iterations in 2000 and 2005 as a vetting strategy to restrict or reject Turkey’s erstwhile bid for EU accession. Debate and criticism has also abounded on the more general issue of legislating this history, exemplified by Timothy Garton Ash’s denouncement of the 2006 French National Assembly bill to criminalize Armenian genocide denial: “What right has France to prescribe by law the correct historical terminology to characterize what another nation did to a third nation 90 years ago?” Regardless of the many arguments pro and contra on the legal regulation of historical discourse, the fact is that memory laws on the Armenian genocide have proliferated with declarations, resolutions, and proscriptions among some two dozen countries across four continents. These laws are here to stay, and they will serve as powerful precedents for future legislation.
That inevitability requires careful consideration of such laws’ formulations. The vast majority of existing legislation employs strictly declarative language, announcing with brevity, as does the one-line 2001 French law, the respective state’s official recognition of these crimes as genocide. A few—namely, Switzerland, Greece, and Slovakia—also criminalize public denial of the events as genocide. But the effectuality of such laws rests less upon their declarative or punitive powers, as it does on their explicit commitment to promoting and supporting the protection of human rights, and, in an increasingly connected world, to forging pro-democratic transnational solidarities. In that respect, the 1987 EP resolution serves as an important early model, as it identifies Turkey’s recognition of its and its predecessor state’s historical crimes as a significant step toward greater democratization and the implementation of marginalized groups’ civil, political, economic, and cultural rights. The resolution also stipulates the European Union’s commitment to encouraging and underwriting such initiatives.
Unfortunately, most governments have skirted this programmatic dimension, opting to restrict their Armenian genocide laws to pronouncements of recognition and/or condemnation. The Dutch parliament’s February resolution constitutes one such example. It requests simply that the government stop referring to “the question of the Armenian genocide” and that it instead employ the phrase “Armenian genocide” as a statement of fact rather than of unresolved controversy. The 2004 Dutch resolution likewise excludes any references to human rights violations in Turkey, emphasizing instead the necessity to “raise the recognition of the Armenian genocide” in EU-accession negotiations as a matter of cultural and political harmonization. Importantly, the Dutch government interpreted this parliamentary resolution as an independent legislative act that, as per the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, did not reflect the state’s official stance on the matter.
This seeming contradiction is not exclusive to the Netherlands. Israel, whose parliament struck down a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide within days of the February Dutch parliamentary vote, has demonstrated a similar intra-governmental divergence. Since 1989, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has obstructed attempts to introduce a genocide recognition law so as to maximize diplomatic engagements with Turkey. Yet, in 2000, the Minister of Education offered his public acknowledgment during April 24 commemorations in Jerusalem. And the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee declared its recognition in 2016. As a result, while the Israeli government does not officially acknowledge Turkey’s genocidal crimes, the country’s public education nonetheless provides open instruction about this historical reality. According to the Knesset’s 2015 deliberations (the 2018 deliberations await release) on the matter of recognition, this acknowledgment stems from an assumed moral imperative on the part of Israelis as survivors and descendants of genocidal violence, independent of Turkey’s increasingly dire human rights record. Indeed, no mention of any rights features anywhere in the transcript of the 2015 parliamentary discussion.
Institutional ambivalence has clouded much of these laws’ intended moral clarity, giving rise to forms of un-recognition or bi-recognition, as evinced by the Dutch and Israeli cases. Other examples include France’s 2001 law, which omits any reference to perpetrators; Germany’s 2005 resolution, which refers to “massacre and expulsion,” not “genocide;” and Bulgaria’s ironic 2015 recognition of the Ottoman-Armenians’ fate as “mass extermination”—also, not “genocide,”—as “identified with definite historical facts and authentic documents.” Supra-national bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, have likewise succumbed to similar kinds of irony and ambivalence. The ECtHR’s judgment on the Perinçek v. Switzerland case serves as an illustration, where despite the European Parliament’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, the court ruled in favour of Perinçek on the basis of his right to freedom of expression.
In this overall climate of moral-mnemonic ambiguity, Germany’s 2016 parliamentary resolution provides some lucidity. It firstly overwrites the 2005 law’s elusive terminology by identifying the crimes in question as “genocide.” Importantly, echoing the 2005 law, it provides an unprecedently self-incriminating justification for the law by acknowledging Germany’s “contribution to the crimes against the Armenian people” and its historical “responsibility” to make amends by mediating “reconciliation and mutual understanding” among Turks and Armenians “over the trenches of the past.” In this unprecedentedly self-incriminating declaration of official culpability, the text identifies the historical events and their institutionalized forgetting as a German national historical issue. But, aside from correcting national history or ethico-political role-modelling, the resolution reveals another important consideration concerning human rights. It states, “Particularly in view of the large number of Turkish Muslims living in Germany, it is an important task to bring to mind the past and so to make the first steps toward reconciliation.”
These first steps, as the resolution emphatically and repeatedly pronounces, entail the enacted commitment to freedom of speech and inquiry. Initiated by the Green party leader and MP, Cem Özdemir—a self-identifying part ethnic Turk—and signed by 10 other ethnic Turkish MPs, the law intimates its expectation of this commitment not just in the long term from Turkey, but also more immediately among Muslim Turks residing in Germany. In that respect, and resonating with Özdemir’s parliamentary speech on the day of the resolution’s vote, it addresses the Muslim Turks of Germany as a demographic extension of Turkey, which can, in turn, affect pro-democratic, human-rights driven progress in Turkey itself. To that end, the law also promises programmatic and financial support to generate historical awareness and, ideally, rapprochement through education and mediation both in Germany and among Armenians and Turks.
This law thus differs significantly from its counterparts in prioritizing human rights as the basis of Armenian genocide recognition. And in that sense, it briefly proved to be a success as a discursive anchor for civil society actors engaged in the promotion of human rights in Turkey. The Istanbul-based Human Rights Association indeed thanked the German parliament for this resolution, calling the decision “exemplary in showing the approach that the world must take with regard to crimes against humanity committed by states. … We thus salute the German Parliament on the occasion of its decision.” The letter also condemns denialist Turkish hostility to Germany on this occasion, denouncing “these discourses and actions [as] attacks on the will of elected representatives, on democracy, human rights, and universal law.”
If Armenian genocide recognition is to succeed in Turkey, its advocates among memory lawmakers must prioritize and address the country’s collapsing democratic system and ever-precarious human rights conditions. The EP and German approaches certainly offer workable precedents as they draw this historical issue away from identity politics and toward pressing current crises regarding viable governance and democratic sustainability. This week, commemorations of this catastrophic past can be strengthened in their call for justice by expressing a similar spirit of transnational solidarity with their Turkish counterparts, whose government will thwart their efforts to exercise their freedoms of expression and assembly.