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Why was there ever a debate over Armenian genocide?

Why was there ever a debate over Armenian genocide?

Not too many people outside of the Armenian community were paying attention in 2019 when the US Congress, by an overwhelming majority in both houses, passed a resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide of 1916-16. The reason was because then President Trump refused to sign the bill. At that time a spokesperson for the Armenian National Committee of America wrote “Despite last year’s near-unanimous Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide, President Trump has, once again, granted Turkish President Erdogan – an openly anti-American dictator – a veto over honest U.S. remembrance of Turkey’s WWI-era genocide of millions of Armenians and other Christians.”.

The facts briefly are these.

For centuries Armenians had occupied the eastern part of Turkey and parts of adjacent Azerbaijan and Russia. They were orthodox Christians and even before the genocide had been subject to abuse from the Turkish Muslim majority.

In January 1915 Turkey, which entered WWI on the side of the Germans, attempted to push back the Russians at the battle of Sarıkamış, only to suffer the worst Ottoman defeat of the war. Although poor generalship and harsh conditions were the main reasons for the loss, the Young Turk government sought to shift the blame to Armenian treachery. Armenian soldiers and other non-Muslims in the army were demobilized and transferred into labour battalions. The disarmed Armenian soldiers were then systematically murdered by Ottoman troops, the first victims of what would become genocide. About the same time, irregular forces began to carry out mass killings in Armenian villages near the Russian border.

A man surveying human bones in the Syrian desert
Armenians on forced march to concentration camps

Throughout summer and autumn of 1915, Armenian civilians were removed from their homes and marched through the valleys and mountains of Eastern Anatolia toward desert concentration camps. The deportation, which was overseen by civil and military officials, was accompanied by a systematic campaign of mass murder carried out by irregular forces as well as by local Kurds and Circassians. Survivors who reached the deserts of Syria languished in concentration camps, many starved to death, and massacres continued into 1916. Conservative estimates have calculated that some 600,000 to more than 1,000,000 Armenians were slaughtered or died on the marches. Other estimates suggest the genocide reduced the Armenian population in the area by 90 percent.

Globe accounts of the genocide from 1915
Scene of a recent massacre

What is amazing has been the ability of successive Turkish governments to create any doubt that the genocide happened, given the overwhelming photographic and journalistic evidence available. Over the more than a century, Turkey has managed to persuade western governments to refrain from calling the events genocide. They either argue that the scope of the killings is exaggerated or resort to suggesting that because it was not “official” policy it can’t be called genocide. But too much evidence contemporary to the events exists. The British politician James Bryce who served as ambassador to the US strongly condemned the Armenian Genocide. Bryce was the first person to speak on the subject in the House of Lords, in July 1915. Later, with the assistance of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, he produced a record of the massacres that was published as a Blue Book by the British government in 1916.

When President Biden made his declaration last week, bringing the United States into line with most of the rest of the world, including Canada, in recognizing the genocide, it left as the most notable outlier—the UK. Maybe the US action will prompt reconsideration in  Britain but its official policy apparently hasn’t changed sine a 1999 Foreign Office briefing for ministers said that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK. It goes on to say that “The current line is the only feasible option” owing to “the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey”.

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