Why The US Govt Won't Recognize A Genocide That Killed 1.5M Armenians
The Armenian Genocide began 100 years ago today, on April 24, 1915.
Every single year on this day, governments across the world join Armenia in recognizing and commemorating this crime against humanity.
The Armenian Genocide left 1.5 million dead, and displaced millions more from their homes. It led to a massive diaspora, scattering Armenians across the globe.
Today, the second largest Armenian community outside of Armenia lives in the United States. In spite of that fact, the US government continues to avoid officially recognizing what occurred as genocide.
History is complicated and its interpretation is often constrained by a convoluted web of bias.
We have to be wary of accepting everything that we read or hear as fact, and debate is vital in this regard. But when it comes to crimes against humanity, we cannot afford to allow discourse to distort the truth.
What happened to the Armenians, beginning a century ago today, was genocide.
During World War I (1914-1918), the collapsing Ottoman Empire systematically executed and deported mass numbers of Armenians. Before the war, two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire. By 1922, only around 200,000 remained.
Like the Jews during the Holocaust, Armenians were made a scapegoat by the Young Turks for the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks were an ambitious group of young officers who seized power as the empire fell.
It sought to modernize and homogenize, or "Turkify," its country, and Armenians were an easy target.
For centuries, Armenians operated as merchants throughout the Caucasus region.
They were a savvy businesspeople, and were often more affluent than many Turks. Business does not discriminate, so the Armenians had ties with many peoples throughout the region, including the Russians.
At that time, however, the Russians were fighting the Turks.
Consequently, the Young Turks accused the Armenians of supporting Russia. This was a broad generalization designed to vilify the Armenians, and it helped justify discriminatory policies that led to the genocide.
On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman government began arresting prominent Armenians, particularly intellectuals and community leaders. Later, they were executed.
The government then decided it would deport anyone deemed a threat to security. This was a policy deliberately aimed at expelling the Armenians. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Armenians, including women and children, were forced to march through the desert to Syria.
Many were killed, or died of disease or starvation along the way.
As Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the former American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (1913-16), once wrote:
When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.
Yet, even to this day, the Turkish government refuses to admit what happened was genocide.
It continues to characterize it as a messy aspect of a violent and bloody war, rather than a deliberate attempt to target and exterminate the Armenian people.
This is precisely why the US government refuses to officially recognize what happened to the Armenians as genocide. Simply put, it doesn't want to damage its relationship with Turkey, an important NATO ally.
Last April, after a US Senate committee resolution called the killings a genocide, the Turkish foreign ministry released this statement:
We reject this attempt at political exploitation that distorts history and law and we condemn those who led this prejudiced initiative.
Obviously, the Turkish government would not appreciate any explicit references to genocide in regard to this subject.
In January 2015, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, contended that an impartial board of historians should deliberate over the matter. This would be both insulting to Armenia and counterproductive, as a majority of historians already agree what occurred was genocide.
In fact, the term "genocide" was largely inspired by what happened to the Armenians during WWI.
It was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish origin who lost much of his family during the Holocaust. Lemkin combined the Greek word "genos," meaning race or tribe, with the Latin word "cide," meaning kill.
He developed the word after doing extensive research on the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottomans.
On Friday, President Obama took the opportunity to commemorate those Armenians who died, without going as far to say it was genocide. He characterized the killings as an "atrocity," not genocide.
In perpetuating this regressive and politicized stance, the president is besmirching his own legacy, and setting an extremely dangerous precedent.
When we speak about the Holocaust, we acknowledge how important it is to never forget the Nazis deliberately and systemically attempted to wipe Jews from the face of the earth. In conversations surrounding genocide, we cannot afford to distort history.
The same standard must be upheld for the Armenian Genocide.
We cannot allow politics to get in the way of truth and justice. One of the most vital steps in preventing future crimes against humanity is fully acknowledging those which have already occurred.
More than 20 countries, including Russia, Canada, Sweden, Italy, France, Uruguay, Argentina and Belgium, have recognized what happened as genocide.
Therefore, it's time for every government, from Turkey to the United States, to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide.
In the process, we might finally move forward from one of the worst crimes in modern history.
Citations: Heres Why the US Wont Recognize the Armenian Genocide (Defense One), Armenia on Day of Rain and Sorrow Observes 100th Anniversary of Genocide (NYT), For Anniversary of Armenian Genocide Obama Calls It an Atrocity Instead (NYT), Armenian genocide dispute (BBC News), Armenian Genocide of 1915 An Overview (NYT), Erdogan And The Armenian Genocide The Dangers Of Distorting History (International Political Forum )