The French Parliament is right. It’s time to speak the truth on the Armenian Genocide. By Stewart Munn
For all the tragedies of the First World War, the Armenian Genocide is probably the least widely known. If you ask most people about the Great War they will tell you about the horrible sufferings of the Somme, Paschendale or Gallipoli. However, if you mention the fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire to a layman, you will most often be met with blank expressions.
This ignorance is a result of almost a century of forceful and aggressive PR campaigning by the Turkish State to deny, distort and misrepresent history. Historical estimates suggest that 1.5 million ethnic Armenian Christians died at the hands of the ailing Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. This is coupled with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Assyrians and Greeks around the same time. These deaths were inflicted through brutally enforced deportations, grotesque death marches and systematic murder in death camps. At the time of the Genocide, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs and facing the prospect of a Russian invasion from the east. The Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians were seen as a problematic ‘fifth column’ within the Empire; Christians who would supposedly side with the Russians as liberators. Ridding the Empire of this insurrectionist element was seen as a necessary action for the Turks to win the war and maintain their Empire.
The heir to the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey, has energetically denied the deaths of Armenians from 1915-1923 as genocide, insisting instead that these deaths were part of the larger conflict that was the First World War. In fact, this campaign to conceal the truth has been very successful. Only twenty countries have officially acknowledged that the Ottomans carried out genocide against their Armenian subjects. The United Kingdom and United States are not among those twenty countries. At one point it appeared that Barack Obama would add his voice to the calls of recognition of the plight of the Armenians. However, once in office he subsequently backtracked. Turkey is seemingly too important an ally for the United States to speak the truth to for fear of upsetting her.
Fortunately for those who want to see justice, the French Parliament is unwilling to bend to Turkish demands. The French parliament has approved a bill that will make denying genocide, but implicitly the Armenian genocide, a crime. The bill was supported by both the UMP and the Socialists, demonstrating that both sides of the political spectrum in the Fifth Republic are united on this issue.France is one of the twenty countries who recognise the Genocide, regardless of Turkish threats.
These threats have now manifested into tit-for-tat actions. The Turkish Government, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has now frozen all political and diplomatic ties withFrance. Military ties have also been suspended in retaliation to the French bill. This is not an uncommon action from the Turkish State. We have seen over the past few years the somewhat immature nature of their foreign diplomacy, the dramatic deterioration of relations with Israel being a case in point. However,France and Turkey are NATO allies and with Turkey seeking to join the EU, this only complicates matters.
France under Nicholas Sarkozy is hostile to Turkish entry into the EU. Turkish treatment of the Kurds, her poor human rights record, the issue of Cyprus, and an extended history of military interference in the political arena have long scared the French off from allowing Turkey to join ‘their’ club. The issue of the Armenian Genocide is also a major sticking point for the French. Whilst the issue of the Genocide remains there is no chance ofTurkeyjoining the EU.
France is right to vote in parliament on the Armenian issue. The issue of the Holocaust, Rwanda or Bosnia is not contentious with other Western Governments. The UK, US, Germany and all other Western Governments agree that these were acts of mass murder, genocide and systematic slaughter. So what’s stopping them acknowledging the truth about the Armenians? Fear of provoking Turkey should not be a reason for denying the truth. Turkey is a friend of the West and she has to respect that our Governments and our people are not content to sit quietly while injustices, however old, remain unrectified. This is an issue that transcends religion and race; it is an issue of humanity. The million-plus Armenians who perished at the hands of the Ottomans deserve justice, and the French political establishment is acting in a courageous and correct way. It is a shame that the UK and the US will not follow suit and commit to a concrete act of solidarity to the Armenian people.
This writer believes that a strong relationship between the West and Turkey should continue and that Turkey’s presence in NATO is a positive element of the alliance. But this should not be at the cost of the principles and ideologies that Western culture is founded upon: rule of law, justice, tolerance, freedom of speech and equality. Denying the Armenian Genocide and pandering to those who deny it is hypocritical in an era where our civilisation seeks to be a beacon to those in the Arab world who are casting off dictatorships. For the West, especially leading lights such as the UK and US, to sidestep the Armenian issue in favour of an easy ride with Turkey sends out the wrong message to those we mean to inspire. Principles are easily lost in the modern political world, and, because of the actions of her Parliament, the French deserve to be praised.