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Explainer: What were the Armenian massacres and why is it controversial to describe them as a 'genocide'?

Recognition of the killings as ‘genocide’ is the subject of a dispute between Turkey and Armenia.

shutterstock_785841286 Armenians killed bu Ottoman forces during the Armenian massacres in 1915 Source: Shutterstock/Everett Historical

YESTERDAY, THE US House of Representatives passed a resolution which officially recognised the massacre of Armenians during World War I as ‘genocide’.

In doing so, the US has joined a small group of countries around the world which consider that the massacres and forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from 1915 to 1917 were genocidal.

The country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hailed the resolution as a “bold step” towards serving historical justice for the descendants of survivors of the massacres.

International recognition of the killings as ‘genocide’ has long been a top priority of Armenian foreign policy, and has been supported by vigorous campaigning by Armenian diasporas across the world.

However, the label is disputed by Turkey, which grew out of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. It says that both Armenians and Turks died as a result of the war.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit out at the US resolution as the “biggest insult” to the Turkish people, while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested it was passed as “revenge” for recent Turkish actions against the Kurds in Syria.

But what actually happened during the massacres? Why are they considered ‘genocide’, and is this label accurate? 

World War I and the ‘enemy within’

For centuries, ethnic Armenians alternated between the rule of the Ottoman and Persian empires, roughly in the area between the Black and Caspian Seas.

According to estimates of Western scholars, between 1.7 and 2.3 million Armenians were living in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire – around where present day Armenia is located – by 1915.

However, Ottoman authorities had become suspicious about the loyalty of Armenian subjects since the late 19th century, when a nationalist movement for the foundation of an Armenian state, autonomous from the empire’s rule, gained momentum.

Then in 1914, the empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary against Russia, France and Britain.

Major battles erupted in Armenian-inhabited provinces, and the Ottoman authorities unleashed a propaganda campaign portraying Armenians as an “enemy within”, with some believing they were loyal to Russia.

100-years-since-beginning-of-armenian-genocide Armenian women and children rescued by a French Cruiser in 1915 Source: DPA/PA Images

On 24 April, 1915, hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals were rounded up in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul. Most were later executed or deported.

Around the same time, new laws were introduced to authorise the deportation of Armenians and confiscation of their property.

Hundreds of thousands of them were marched into a desert in present-day Syria. Those who survived were put into 25 concentration camps.

Armenians were subjected to mass shooting, burning and poisoning, according to accounts by foreign diplomats and intelligence agents at the time, before the Ottomans surrendered in 1918. 

The event has become known as the most tragic event in the history of the Armenian people, which they call ‘Meds Yeghern’, or the ‘Great Crime’.

Armenians estimate that up to 1.5 million of their mostly Christian kin were killed between 1915 and 1917 by Turkish forces.

However, Turkey argues that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against the Ottomans and sided with invading Russian troops.

Armenians now commemorate the massacres on 24 April – the day in 1915 when thousands of Armenians intellectuals suspected of being hostile to Ottoman rule were rounded up.

shutterstock_249571189 Armenian orphans being deported from Turkey around 1920 Source: Shutterstock/Everett Historical

Was it ‘genocide’?

According to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, the crime is defined as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Many both at the time and since have described the massacres inflicted upon the Armenian people as such.

Describing the bloodshed in a July 1915 cable to the Department of State, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau said: “A campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion”.

Later on, Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘genocide’ in the 1940s, cited the Armenian massacres as a defining example of the term’s meaning.

And in 2000, 126 scholars – including Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, historian Yehuda Bauer, and sociologist Irving Horowitz – published a statement in The New York Times, affirming that the “Armenian genocide is an incontestable historical fact”.

However, Turkey has consistently refuted the claim, saying that what happened to the Armenian people was civil conflict and a collective tragedy in which equal numbers of Turks and Armenians perished.

Just 32 countries around the world, as well as the European Parliament, have accepted the definition so far, although recognition is gathering pace, with around half of those nations first viewing the massacres as a genocide this decade.

For its part, Ireland still does not recognise the massacre as genocide.

A statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Irish Times in 2015 acknowledged the “terrible events which resulted in the tragic deaths of very large numbers of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire”, but did not use the word.

armenian-genocide-centennial-commemoration-istanbul People gather in Istanbul to on the hundredth anniversary of the rounding up of intellectuals in 2015. Source: Depo Photos/PA Images

Modern international relations

Although the massacres occurred more than a century ago, the dispute over them still plays a role in international relations, both in the Middle East and further afield.

The issue has stymied efforts to forge relations between Turkey and Armenia: Ankara and Yerevan have no diplomatic ties, and the border between the two countries is shut.

In 2009, the two signed agreements known as the Zurich protocols in a bid to normalise relations, but the process was never ratified and was ditched by Yerevan in March 2018.

Even if Turkey and Armenia found a way to establish ties, Ankara would have to placate its ally Azerbaijan, which remains wary of any warming between Turks and Armenians.

Baku has repeatedly threatened to use force to retake the Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh, which is controlled by Armenian separatists after a war between the two countries in the early 1990s.

turkey-us President Erdogan addresses his party over the US resolution Source: AP/PA Images

In recent years, Turkey has also been involved in disputes with countries such as France, the Netherlands and Germany over their recognition of the massacres as genocide.

Following the passage of the resolution in the US House of Representatives yesterday, Turkey summoned the US ambassador to Ankara and President Erdogan said there was “a question mark” over whether he would proceed with a planned visit to the United States.

Erdogan claimed that the vote was politically motivated because of recent events in Syria, and suggested he could pass a counter resolution, having previously touched on the mistreatment of Native Americans in the US.

“A country whose history is full of the stain of genocide and slavery neither has the right to say anything nor to lecture Turkey,” he said on Wednesday.

As it stands, it remains to be seen whether anything significant will occur as a result of the US resolution.

However, one thing is for sure: it’s yet another episode in the gradually deteriorating relationship between the two allies.

With reporting from - © AFP 2019

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