.
W

hen discussing accountability for past atrocities, human history has been kind to the perpetrator. The story of the Armenian Genocide offers one of many examples of this painful reality. Geopolitical interests pervade a long history of complicity in historical revisionism that has not only benefited Turkey but empowered its leaders and other nationalist entities to continue acts of injustice against other minority groups across the country. While by no means the end of the story, the Biden administration’s recognition of the events of the early 20th century – a genocide of horrifying proportions – may create some accountability for the Armenian community and future justice for minority groups across Turkey.

To be sure, simple rhetoric is not justice, will never bring back the roughly 1.5 million Armenians who lost their lives, nor immediately shift Turkey’s behavior towards other minority groups. Rhetoric alone rarely changes a state’s actions immediately, as Turkish responses to U.S. President Joe Biden’s statement on April 24 suggest. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded harshly to Biden’s statement, stating, “We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the US.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun added, "We consider this statement, which lacks any legitimacy or legal and scientific authority, as null and void."

Yet, regardless of the degree of overcharged rhetoric out of Ankara, the truth of the subject is legitimate. The Armenian Genocide was the first of its kind in the 20th century, brought upon by the slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman Empire declined, a nationalist movement known as the Young Turks, led by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), slowly consolidated power. Known for its particular brand of right-wing ethnonationalism that espoused pan-Turkic and pan-Islamist thought, the CUP spearheaded the forced deportation and mass murder that occurred in Armenian lands between 1915 and 1923.

Evidence of atrocities, such as pictures of skulls spread amongst the remains of burned structures, as well as eyewitness accounts from various communities and countries, spell out a systematic effort to exterminate and expel the Armenians from eastern Anatolia. Even Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior at the time and the primary architect of the genocide, was quoted in 1915 during World War I, saying “Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, i.e., the indigenous Christians, without being thereby disturbed by foreign intervention. What on earth do you want? The question is settled. There are no more Armenians."

The United States and other powerful nations have been complicit in such behavior by failing to speak out. This complicity only works to foster an environment ripe for human rights atrocities by failing to promote truth and reconciliation – thus allowing history to repeat itself. As Garo Paylan, the only Armenian member of the Turkish parliament, has highlighted, “if a crime is not sentenced, it can be repeated.”

Such evidence has not produced real accountability for Armenians. Only 30 countries recognize the Armenian Genocide today, and the United states danced around the issue for decades. U.S. President Ronald Reagan mentioned the genocide in passing in 1981, and President Barack Obama considered recognition during his terms. Still, geopolitical interests have always taken precedence, especially given Turkey’s regional location during the Cold War and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Turkey understands its geopolitical importance and has developed a sense of impunity. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) appeared to be on the verge of reconciliation with Armenians in 2014 after Erdoğan’s offer of “condolences” for the mass killings, as well as 2009 efforts towards reopening the Turkey-Armenia border. Unfortunately, these efforts shifted as Erdoğan consolidated power and slowly increased nationalist rhetoric, especially after the apparent coup attempt against his government in 2016. This event had a particular impact on Ankara, which bolstered its efforts to establish national unity by increasing attacks on minority groups and political parties such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Turkish efforts have also reached the United States, as brawls between Erdoğan’s guards and Armenian protestors outside of the Turkish Embassy in Washington depicted in 2017. This moment, among others, arguably led the U.S. Congress to pass resolutions in 2019 recognizing the Armenian Genocide – a clear sign of deteriorating relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Images of Turkish security forces beating Armenian Americans on American soil, seemingly without impunity, were rightly viewed as overreach by Washington and the American public.

Yet even a shift in U.S. policy towards Turkey – one more willing to condemn Turkish actions – has not changed Ankara’s democratic slide or mistreatment of minority groups. Rather, Turkey continues to outlaw any commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. It refuses to normalize relations with Armenia – partially due to the genocide issue – although normalization issues are more complex. It went so far as to support Azerbaijan’s 2020 war with Armenia with Syrian mercenaries and arms in a blatant violation of international law. Aside from this, public threats against the U.S. decision to recognize the genocide prove that Turkey is uninterested and unwilling to atone for its past and is empowered by the belief that it can continue to operate with impunity.

Ultimately, Turkey’s continued belligerence in this regard is ethnonationalist – just as it was in 1915. Erdoğan and the AKP, while not as extreme as the CUP, have slowly accommodated the Turkish right for political survival and thus the pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic sentiment espoused by the CUP 100 years ago. Their rejection of international law and norms based on ethnonationalism in Turkey and Azerbaijan reflects this reality. This adventurism suggests Ankara is focused on building national pride to bolster its legitimacy. The willingness of Turkish security forces to commit or encourage violent acts against perceived enemies such as Armenians in Washington or Kurds in Turkey and northern Syria supports this notion.

Worse, the United States and other powerful nations have been complicit in such behavior by failing to speak out. This complicity only works to foster an environment ripe for human rights atrocities by failing to promote truth and reconciliation – thus allowing history to repeat itself. As Garo Paylan, the only Armenian member of the Turkish parliament, has highlighted, “if a crime is not sentenced, it can be repeated.”

This statement personifies why truth matters today, regardless of geopolitical considerations. While imperfect, ensuring truth is a crucial step to preventing future atrocities and requires the international community to demand accountability. The Biden administration has recognized this important fact – albeit much remains to be done – that the international community has a responsibility to ensure communities have a voice and outlet to speak their truths in the face of powerful opposition.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois is a freelance writer covering MENA diplomacy, peace, and conflict topics at the intersection of global governance. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex situated in Yerevan, Armenia serves as a place of remembrance for the 1.5 million Armenians who perished during the first genocide of the 20th century. Photo by Shant Ka via CC.

April 29, 2021

While by no means the end of the story, the Biden administration’s recognition of the events of the early 20th century – a genocide of horrifying proportions – may create some accountability for the Armenian community and future justice for minority groups across Turkey.

W

hen discussing accountability for past atrocities, human history has been kind to the perpetrator. The story of the Armenian Genocide offers one of many examples of this painful reality. Geopolitical interests pervade a long history of complicity in historical revisionism that has not only benefited Turkey but empowered its leaders and other nationalist entities to continue acts of injustice against other minority groups across the country. While by no means the end of the story, the Biden administration’s recognition of the events of the early 20th century – a genocide of horrifying proportions – may create some accountability for the Armenian community and future justice for minority groups across Turkey.

To be sure, simple rhetoric is not justice, will never bring back the roughly 1.5 million Armenians who lost their lives, nor immediately shift Turkey’s behavior towards other minority groups. Rhetoric alone rarely changes a state’s actions immediately, as Turkish responses to U.S. President Joe Biden’s statement on April 24 suggest. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded harshly to Biden’s statement, stating, “We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the US.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun added, "We consider this statement, which lacks any legitimacy or legal and scientific authority, as null and void."

Yet, regardless of the degree of overcharged rhetoric out of Ankara, the truth of the subject is legitimate. The Armenian Genocide was the first of its kind in the 20th century, brought upon by the slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman Empire declined, a nationalist movement known as the Young Turks, led by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), slowly consolidated power. Known for its particular brand of right-wing ethnonationalism that espoused pan-Turkic and pan-Islamist thought, the CUP spearheaded the forced deportation and mass murder that occurred in Armenian lands between 1915 and 1923.

Evidence of atrocities, such as pictures of skulls spread amongst the remains of burned structures, as well as eyewitness accounts from various communities and countries, spell out a systematic effort to exterminate and expel the Armenians from eastern Anatolia. Even Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior at the time and the primary architect of the genocide, was quoted in 1915 during World War I, saying “Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, i.e., the indigenous Christians, without being thereby disturbed by foreign intervention. What on earth do you want? The question is settled. There are no more Armenians."

The United States and other powerful nations have been complicit in such behavior by failing to speak out. This complicity only works to foster an environment ripe for human rights atrocities by failing to promote truth and reconciliation – thus allowing history to repeat itself. As Garo Paylan, the only Armenian member of the Turkish parliament, has highlighted, “if a crime is not sentenced, it can be repeated.”

Such evidence has not produced real accountability for Armenians. Only 30 countries recognize the Armenian Genocide today, and the United states danced around the issue for decades. U.S. President Ronald Reagan mentioned the genocide in passing in 1981, and President Barack Obama considered recognition during his terms. Still, geopolitical interests have always taken precedence, especially given Turkey’s regional location during the Cold War and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Turkey understands its geopolitical importance and has developed a sense of impunity. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) appeared to be on the verge of reconciliation with Armenians in 2014 after Erdoğan’s offer of “condolences” for the mass killings, as well as 2009 efforts towards reopening the Turkey-Armenia border. Unfortunately, these efforts shifted as Erdoğan consolidated power and slowly increased nationalist rhetoric, especially after the apparent coup attempt against his government in 2016. This event had a particular impact on Ankara, which bolstered its efforts to establish national unity by increasing attacks on minority groups and political parties such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Turkish efforts have also reached the United States, as brawls between Erdoğan’s guards and Armenian protestors outside of the Turkish Embassy in Washington depicted in 2017. This moment, among others, arguably led the U.S. Congress to pass resolutions in 2019 recognizing the Armenian Genocide – a clear sign of deteriorating relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Images of Turkish security forces beating Armenian Americans on American soil, seemingly without impunity, were rightly viewed as overreach by Washington and the American public.

Yet even a shift in U.S. policy towards Turkey – one more willing to condemn Turkish actions – has not changed Ankara’s democratic slide or mistreatment of minority groups. Rather, Turkey continues to outlaw any commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. It refuses to normalize relations with Armenia – partially due to the genocide issue – although normalization issues are more complex. It went so far as to support Azerbaijan’s 2020 war with Armenia with Syrian mercenaries and arms in a blatant violation of international law. Aside from this, public threats against the U.S. decision to recognize the genocide prove that Turkey is uninterested and unwilling to atone for its past and is empowered by the belief that it can continue to operate with impunity.

Ultimately, Turkey’s continued belligerence in this regard is ethnonationalist – just as it was in 1915. Erdoğan and the AKP, while not as extreme as the CUP, have slowly accommodated the Turkish right for political survival and thus the pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic sentiment espoused by the CUP 100 years ago. Their rejection of international law and norms based on ethnonationalism in Turkey and Azerbaijan reflects this reality. This adventurism suggests Ankara is focused on building national pride to bolster its legitimacy. The willingness of Turkish security forces to commit or encourage violent acts against perceived enemies such as Armenians in Washington or Kurds in Turkey and northern Syria supports this notion.

Worse, the United States and other powerful nations have been complicit in such behavior by failing to speak out. This complicity only works to foster an environment ripe for human rights atrocities by failing to promote truth and reconciliation – thus allowing history to repeat itself. As Garo Paylan, the only Armenian member of the Turkish parliament, has highlighted, “if a crime is not sentenced, it can be repeated.”

This statement personifies why truth matters today, regardless of geopolitical considerations. While imperfect, ensuring truth is a crucial step to preventing future atrocities and requires the international community to demand accountability. The Biden administration has recognized this important fact – albeit much remains to be done – that the international community has a responsibility to ensure communities have a voice and outlet to speak their truths in the face of powerful opposition.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois is a freelance writer covering MENA diplomacy, peace, and conflict topics at the intersection of global governance. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.