I was having a discussion with my friend who asked me about the importance of historical and political recognition of the Armenian genocide. “Should people want governments around the world making official statements acknowledging the intentional destruction done by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian Wars?” The difference between the Armenian Genocide and ancient destruction is that there are still victims of the former and their healing is stunted by the active denial of the Genocide.
The reason that the Armenian Genocide matters in modern-day politics is 1) recognizing genocide helps the victims and possible future victims and 2) because the government of Turkey and certain sectors of the Turkish community actively work to silence or punish those that raise the issue.
Recognition helps make any victims whole, whether genocide victims or victims of any other massive crime. When (the lack of) law cannot provide compensation, at least recognition acknowledges to the victims that the world knows they have suffered and provides some solace. Recognition can also help limit the creation of future genocides as the famous Hitler quote of “Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?” implies. To engage in human rights is to take a victim-centered approach—to empower those that have been disempowered—and to learn what the victim wants and needs. If the victims want recognition, then it’s not a dismissible idea. Considering the stream of people passing my window to go to the Genocide Memorial, expected at many hundreds of thousands of people today, the Armenian people have made their desire clear.
Feelings of solace and peace are difficult to obtain when some people deny the existence of the genocide and actively attempt to persuade others to their side. The primary culprit here is the Government of Turkey, which has long denied the Genocide. Turkey has pressured Canada to essentially “unrecognize” the Genocide and has frozen all political ties with France when it almost passed a law criminalizing genocide denial. It’s because of Turkey that US Presidents are unwilling to use the word Genocide, even when they accept all events as true. It’s clear that denial of the Genocide is a key part of Turkey’s foreign policy.
Just as criticizing the policies of Israel is not anti-Semitism, criticizing the policies of Turkey is not to hate all Turks. Turks are often unable to learn about the Genocide as speaking open discussion of the genocide often leads to criminal sanctions. Turks learn about the massacres and deportation from government approved history books that paint the Turks as protecting their homeland from inside elements that wanted to destroy it. Unfortunately, the Turkish government also tries to alter the history books of other nations. Are modern Turks responsible for all the horrible things some of their ancestors did? “No, but they are responsible for realizing that they benefited and continue to benefit from those actions and institutions, … and to try to fix that shit.”
Recognition wouldn’t be painful for Turkey, just dangerous for its political leaders. Some people think that Turkey should compensate Armenians like Germany does for the Jews, but with almost no relevant international law on the subject in 1915, no one could force Turkey to provide compensation except for property that was taken from Armenians in violation of Turkey’s domestic law. Recognition would actually ease the pressure Turkey gets from many countries and would allow them to redirect a lot of their diplomatic resources. The only pain would be for the leaders from hard-line elements that flatly reject the Genocide. Unfortunately, fanatical people are the result of a biased history education, so they’ll have to be challenged at one point or another. Fortunately, there are people working on how to resolve this issue as smoothly as possible.
What can non-Armenians and non-Turks do about this situation? Recognize the Genocide as a genocide, regardless of the threats and accusations hurled at them by genocide deniers. That is the way to do justice to the countless victims of history.