TODAY marks a hundred years since the start of the Armenian genocide. On April 24, 1915 the Ottoman government arrested some 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul. They were later executed. Armenian property was swiftly confiscated while Armenians in the Ottoman army were killed. In the years between 1915 and 1923, up to 1.5 million Armenians – a number hotly contested by Turkey – were believed to have perished either through direct killings or on forced death marches across the desert as the Armenians were forced out of Turkey.
More than 20 countries have now formally recognised the genocide against Armenians, including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, Italy, France and Russia. On Wednesday Austria joined this group of nations, with a parliamentary declaration describing the 1915 killings as genocide. Today, the German parliament is expected to pass a resolution declaring the killings of Armenians an example of genocide. Earlier this month at an anniversary mass, Pope Francis described the extermination of the Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century”, incurring the wrath of the Turkish government.
The Erdogan government swiftly recalled its ambassador to the Vatican and accused the Pope of having “discriminated about people’s suffering”. It reacted as brazenly in the case of the Austrian parliament’s declaration. “We reject this biased attitude of the Austrian parliament, trying to lecture others on history, which has no room in today’s world,” said the Turkish foreign ministry in an announcement. It was yet another example of the pressure Turkey has persistently applied on other governments not to officially recognise the genocide.
Turkey has always claimed the mass killings of Armenians were not orchestrated and were the result of the turmoil of war. In short, there was no premeditation or orchestrated plan to exterminate Armenians, many of whom died of starvation and disease after being deported into desert regions by the Ottomans. Turkey also claims the number of people killed was greatly exaggerated. They acknowledge 300,000 deaths.
Turkey’s stance defies the evidence. The International Association of Genocide Scholars, which estimates the death toll at over a million, in a letter sent to Tayyip Erdogan in 2005, said “it is not just Armenians who are affirming the Armenian genocide, but it is the overwhelming opinion of scholars who study genocide.”
The truth is that the world was a much harsher and crueller place a hundred years ago when states could deal with their perceived enemies with such ruthless inhumanity. We like to think that such crimes could not happen now, though the horrors that happened in Rwanda must temper such a view. But the crimes perpetrated against the Armenian people a hundred years ago cannot be dismissed. Instead of denying it happened, Turkey should acknowledge it and apologise. Such an apology is decades overdue.