April 27, 2004

More on Genocide

I'd like to add a few notes to Mark's post on the New York Times' decision to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Genocide is defined in international law by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. One of the clearest and most convincing pieces of evidence of the Armenian genocide is the eye-witness acount of Leslie A. Davis, who was American consul in Harpoot and reported on it to the State Department. It puts paid to Turkish claims that Turkey was merely suppressing a rebellion by the Armenians. Suppressing rebellions does not require the mass killing of women and children and the elderly.

It may seem surprising that Turkey continues to deny that the Armenian holocaust took place. No one now alive could bear any responsibility for it, and the evidence is so overwhelming that the denial has no effect other than to make Turkey look bad. Nor were all Turks at the time guilty of genocide. Indeed, some Turks acted heroically to save Armenians, as described here. I think that there are two reasons for Turkish intransigence. One is that the Armenian genocide is the original sin of the Turkish Republic. Although strictly speaking it took place under the Ottoman Empire, it was the tail end of the Empire, and the people responsible were the Young Turks who created the modern Turkish state. In many ways their accomplishment was remarkable. They succeeded in preventing Turkey from being colonized and created a modern, democratic, secular state. Turkey has had its problems, but it has been much freer, more democratic, and more successful at modernization than any other Muslim country. To take but one example, women have had the right to vote and to be elected to national office since 1934. It is understandably painful for those who are justly proud of this accomplishment to recognize that the founders of modern Turkey had blood on their hands.

The other reason that Turkey is unwilling to acknowledge the Armenian genocide is that the Turkish Republic is founded on ethnic nationalism. The Ottoman Empire was a multiethnic state in which the unifying force was Islam. The Turkish Republic, as a secular state, has Turkish ethnicity as its unifying force. The existence of other peoples with territorial claims is thus a threat to the ideological foundations of the Turkish Republic. Turkey has been fairly tolerant of minorities with no territorial claims. Anti-semitism, for example, has not been much of a problem in Turkey. But groups like the Armenians, the Greeks, and the Kurds, who have claims to Turkish territory, are problematic. The Armenian problem was largely resolved by genocide, and the Greek problem by exchanges of population with Greece, but the Kurds remain a major thorn in the side of Turkey. Until very recently, Turkey denied the very existence of the Kurds and their language. Kurds were referred to as "mountain turks". The use and teaching of Kurdish was banned. Turkey only recently relented on this in order to obtain entry into the European Union. Turkey still opposes the creation of a Kurdish state, even in Iraq, for fear of arousing Turkish Kurds.

It's important to remember these things because, perhaps, the next time, somebody in power will care and put a stop to it. Adolf Hitler said "Who now remembers the Armenians?" and went on to carry out his own genocide. But memory is not enough. It is also necessary that the people with the power to prevent genocide care enough to do it, and most of the time, they don't. When the Hutu began to exterminate the Tutsi in Rwanda in April of 1994, the international community did nothing. At the time, there was a small United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda under the command of Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire. General Dallaire's expert opinion was that he could have stopped the massacre with only 5,000 troops. He appealed repeatedly for more troops and permission to stop the massacre but never received them. I remember watching his testimony before Parliament. I'd never seen a general cry before.

General Dallaire has described his experience in a moving book Shake Hands with the Devil. It is a damning indictment of the United Nations bureaucracy and of the governments of the countries most concerned: Belgium, France, and the United States, which blocked movements within the UN to stop the killing.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 27, 2004 11:24 AM