“An Inconvenient Genocide, Who now remembers the Armenians?” – Geoffrey Robertson QC

Geoffrey Robertson is an Australian-British barrister and a Queen’s Counsel. He lately appeared at the European Court of Human Rights, next to Amal Clooney and two other representatives of the Armenian government, as a third party in appeal in the case Perinçek v. Switzerland. We will later mention this case, and how Perinçek was first condemned for racial discrimination and then won in appeal because of freedom of expression.IMG_4845

An Inconvenient Genocide is a paradigm on how to legally punish genocide deniers without infringing on freedom of speech. What makes the particularity of Robertson’s work, is that he presents it as if we were ourselves in a court with him: (a) what are the facts and evidences, (b) what it means in terms of law and recognition, and (c) what kind of reparations could be implemented.

I will expound the major lines for an overall comprehension, yet nothing replaces an in-depth analysis of this legal approach regarding the case of the Armenian Genocide.

(a) History, Facts and Evidences

The Armenian fate in the Ottoman Empire had already started at the end of the 19th century, with what is most commonly known as the Hamidian massacres, but also the killings in Urfa or Adana. In spring of 1915, the Ottoman Empire had passed a law for all Armenians to be deported to the Anatolian desert, whilst their goods were being confiscated. On 24 April 1915, the elites were arrested and rapidly killed. In a matter of months, up to two million Armenians had disappeared from Anatolia. (39-49)

There were countless eyewitnesses, such as journalists, German bankers, missionaries, aid organizers or consular officials. We can for example list the American Ambassador Henri Morgenthau, the German Ambassador in Constantinople Hans von Wangenheim and his successor Count Wolf-Metternich, the German missionary Johannes Lepsius, the German photographer Armin T. Wegner, the American General James Harbord, and the German Dr. Martin Niepage. This led to numerous publications in the NY Times and Le Journal. The Blue Book, reporting 150 statements of witnesses, was also compiled by and for the British government (66-67)

The above, as well as other evidence, show the responsibility of the Ottoman State, who falsely invented an anti-Turkish conspiracy to justify the clear intent to exterminate the Armenians from Anatolia. (89-90)

(b) The Law

It was the polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the word genocide in 1944. There was until then no international law that would punish the massacres of certain ethnic groups with the clear intent to exterminate it. The 1915 events against the Armenians were already called ‘crime against humanity’ at the time. It was after the trial of Soghomon Thelirian who murdered Talaat Pasha in 1921, one of the perpetrators of the massacres, that Lemkin started to think of the term that would describe the annihilation of a certain group. The word Genocide was born, meaning: genos (race or tribe, in Greek) and cide (to kill, in Latin).[1] (7,17)

In international law, when the intention of state agents to destroy a group – whether national, ethnic, racial or religious regardless of the size – is proven, it infers the state’s responsibility for genocide. Lemkin wanted to protect the identity of a group when he was working on this term, also basing the definition on the Jewish Holocaust. (92)

Although deniers say that there was no genocidal intent, the law works by inference and deduction in this area through common patterns such as:

“[…] deshumanisation, ethnic hatred fuelled by nationalist fervour, preparation, persecution, massacres, deportation laws, extermination followed by expropriation of property and afterwards (and still) denial […]” (108)

At the end of the Ottoman Empire, before it became the Republic of Turkey under the government of Atatürk, he himself recognized the deportations as ‘a shameful act’. (126) Yet, he is the one who put the perpetrators at high government positions instead of punishing them. (27)

Turkey justifies the events by claiming they have also suffered a great loss – which is true, but because of the war, not because of deportations and mass-killings. It also uses the relocation argument because of the war with Russia, but in reality, Armenians were not living in war zones and were expropriated. (131-135)

Nothing can justify a genocide, not even military necessity. There was a choice of a final solution. Together with the elements above and the “Turkification” theories, the genocidal intent is proven. According to Article 7 of the Treaty of Rome, such a crime becomes a crime against humanity when it is systematic, while a genocide is when there is an intention to destroy a significant part of the group. Genocide depends on the Genocide Convention whilst crime against humanity depends on International law and cannot have ‘amnesty’ or be limited in time. (114-147)

Robertson highlights many times in his work that stamping an event as genocide is a matter of law, and neither historians – who only establish the facts –, nor politics, are entitled to make such statements. Nevertheless, it is a great way to make the event noticed: (150)

“Statements in school textbooks, and in history or politics courses, may be the most important consequence of national or state recognition of the genocide – local education authorities will have a duty to recognize it as well. […] German students might well think – as many international lawyers think they should – that the Holocaust might not have happened had the Young Turk and German leaders been punished by the international courts which would have been set up by the Treaty of Sèvres and of Versailles. Failure to deliver on all the promises to try the authors of the Armenian genocide ‘made the Nazis more brazen and the Holocaust more likely. It still remains recognized in Turkey, where textbooks are censored and it is a crime to speak of what happened to the Armenians – even though many thousands reside there’ (David Matas)” (151)

It is important to consider the situation in the US and in the UK. They were amongst the first countries to report the events back in the days. Today, however, because of Turkish lobbying as well as close relationships with the country, both states fail to show their ethical interest. (156-158)

The UK was one of the first allies to condemn this crime and took important actions. Over the years, its position has changed to muteness. Here is the response to the debate at the House of Lords in 1999:

“‘HMG is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension. But given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey, and that recognising the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK or the few survivors of the killings still alive today, nor would it help a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, the current line is the only feasible option’” (163)

Also, the British equivocation lays in the fact that the government bases its contemporary point of view on historians who received money from the Turkish government, while numerous British historians, genocide scholars and barristers denounce the genocide. The UK does not have much interest in Armenia and the country has a rather small diaspora. It does not even talk about it as a crime against humanity. (170-186)

In a case of genocide denial, it is critical to prove the racial discrimination or social danger. It is the responsibility of a state to prevent such behavior. (194-199)

In 2005, in Lausanne, Perinçek claimed: ‘the Armenian Genocide is an international lie’. At first, Perinçek was convicted and fined after the Swiss Armenian Association filled a criminal complaint. Later, he won in appeal at the ECHR because of freedom of speech. The Court failed to understand the consequences on the Armenians living in Turkey (201-208). The case is now in appeal again, as mentioned in the introduction.

The Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor Hrant Dink, wrote a large number of articles about the effects on the Armenians regarding the denial of the genocide. He was himself in favor of freedom of speech, also for deniers. He became a hated enemy in Turkey and was assassinated by an extremist in 2007, whilst local police had withdrawn his protection. In the same line, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and the historian Taner Akçam also appear on the long list of courageous Turkish citizens who were prosecuted for talking about the genocide. (211-212)

(c) Reparations

To Robertson, ‘reparations’ is a legalistic word that is not always properly used. It refers to the “over-punitive” actions taken against Germany at Versailles in 1919, although it failed at punishing its complicity in the Armenian Genocide. Collin Tatz, a genocide scholar, prefers the word ‘Wiedergutmachung’ which means ‘making good again’ – even though money is the only thing left. (217-218) As far as Turkey is concerned:

“An apology, at least for a crime against humanity, would be an important form of reparation, as it would counteract the damage done by the ‘genocide justification’ school currently promoted by the Turkish government. Its ‘on-going campaign of denial, de-legitimization and disinformation affects the Armenians as a psychological continuation of persecution.” (219)

Apart from money, reparations could also be restoration of goods, restoration of names of streets and place, honest history in textbooks, restoration of homeland:

“Might reparations include the homelands from which the Armenians were unlawfully extirpated in 1915? This was promised by the Treaty of Sèvres, which was never brought into effect and was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne, which made no mention of reparations and effectively betrayed every promise made to the Armenians by the Allies. They had – and still have – to be content with a small land-locked territory around Yerevan, carved out of Russian Armenia. It stands in the shadow of Mount Ararat, the great Christian symbol of renewal after the flood, which is located just a few kilometres inside the domain of Turkey. Many of the old ‘Armenian homelands’ have been repopulated by Turkish citizens who would not, presumably, wish to become Armenians. If the boundaries were to be redrawn, either as a result of arbitration or, better, as a symbolic gesture of atonement by Turkey, the gifting to Armenia of Mount Ararat and its environs would go a long way towards healing the rift between the two nations.” (226-227)

To conclude, Robertson was able to prove the genocidal intent, thus it infers a punishment by law. The current government of Turkey, proven to be the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, has the moral responsibility of that crime. Robertson also highlights the Armenian responsibility to punish the Armenian terrorists of the 70s-80s who committed attacks against Turkish people. Eventually, he encourages common scholarly projects between the two countries to be made with a wish of reconciliation. (237-245)

This brilliant work came out at the eve of the 100th year of the Armenian Genocide; also called Centennial for it is still denied. It offers a great defense for this case and can help prevent future genocides: by punishing the perpetrators and recognizing the intents.

[1] Lemkin’s incredible journey to fight for the recognition and prevention of the crime of Genocide is remarkably well detailled in Samantha Power’s book : A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide.

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