Sunday, 25 January 2015

Armenian News - Armenian Legal Initiative Group UK - The Guardian ‘The Armenians want an acknowledgment that the 1915 massacre was a crime’ Geoffrey Robertson In 1915 Britain was determined to expose the Armenian genocide, so why have we since downgraded it to a ‘tragedy’?

Friday 23 January 2015

Just before the invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler urged his generals to 
show no mercy towards its people – there would be no retribution, 
because “after all, who now remembers the annihilation of the 
Armenians?” As the centenary of the Armenian genocide approaches 
– it began on 24 April 1915, with the rounding up and subsequent 
“disappearance” of intellectuals and community leaders in 
Constantinople – remembrance of the destruction of more than half
of the Armenian people is more important than ever. Although, as 
Hitler recognised in 1939 (and it is still the case today), the crime 
against humanity committed by the Ottoman Turks by killing the 
major part of this ancient Christian race has never been requited, 
or, in the case of Turkey, been the subject of apology or reparation. 

The “Young Turks” who ran the Ottoman government did not use gas 
ovens, but they did massacre the men, and sent the women, children 
and elders on death marches through the desert to places we only 
hear of now because they are overrun by Isis . They died en route in 
their hundreds of thousands from starvation or attack, and many 
survivors died of typhus in concentration camps at the end of the line. 
The government ordered these forced deportations in 1915, and then 
passed laws to seize their lands and homes and churches on the 
pretext that they had been “abandoned”. 

The destruction of more than 1 million Armenians was declared a 
“crime against humanity” by Britain, France and Russia in 1915, and 
these allies formally promised punishment for what a US inquiry at 
the end of the war described as “a colossal crime – the wholesale 
attempt on a race”. But the Treaty of Sèvres, designed to punish the 
Young Turks for this “colossal crime” – now called “genocide” – was 
never implemented. Modern Turkey reportedly funds a massive 
genocide denial campaign, claiming that the death marches were 
merely “relocations” required by military necessity and that the
massacres (the Euphrates was so packed with bodies that it altered 
its course) were the work of a few “unruly’ officials. In Turkey, today, 
you can go to jail – and some do – for affirming that there was a 
genocide in 1915; this counts as the crime of “insulting Turkishness” 
under Section 301 of its criminal code.

Conversely, in some European countries, it counts as a crime to 
deny the Armenian genocide. The parliaments of many democracies
 – France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, Greece and 
Canada, for example, recognise it explicitly, as do 43 states of the 
US. The problem is that Turkey – “neuralgic” on the subject (the word 
used privately by the British Foreign Office to describe its attitude) 
– has threatened reprisals and is too important geopolitically to 
provoke by affirming the genocide, lest it carry out threats to close
 its airbases to Nato and its borders to refugees. Thus Barack Obama, 
who roundly condemned the Armenian genocide in 2008 and promised 
to do so when elected president, dares not utter the “g” word. Instead, 
he calls it Meds Yeghern (Armenian for “the great crime”) and asserts 
that his opinion has not changed, although you must Google his 
2008 campaign speech to discover his opinion that it was genocide. 

As for Britain, the story is even stranger. No nation, in 1915, was 
more determined to expose and punish what it termed a “crime 
against humanity”. The evidence of the atrocities collected in Arnold 
Toynbee ’s Blue Book , although published by the government for 
propaganda purposes, has withstood all attempts to discredit it. 
Winston Churchill condemned the “infamous general massacre and 
deportation of Armenians … in one administrative Holocaust”, and 
Britain even attempted to put some of the perpetrators on trial in Malta
 only to find that there was no international criminal law at the time 
to punish government officials for killing their own people. However, 
in recent years, the FCO has briefed ministers to call the events a 
“tragedy” but to deny genocide because “the evidence is not sufficiently 
unequivocal” – an oxymoronic term (something is either unequivocal 
or it is not).

The FCO certainly knew that this “genocide equivocation” was dodgy: 
one internal memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 
admits that “HMG is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension. 
But given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and 
commercial) with Turkey … the current line is the only feasible option.” 
Ministers were also advised to avoid attendance at any 
commemoration of the Armenian genocide, and to avoid any 
mention of it at Holocaust Day memorials. 

This position could not hold, especially after the International Court 
of Justice declared the Bosnian Serbs guilty of genocide at Srebrenica , 
for killing 8,000 men and deporting up to 25,000 women and children. 
The claim that the evidence is “not sufficiently unequivocal” was 
then abandoned by the FCO (although the Turkish government 
website claims that this is still the UK’s position), and the search 
began for a formula that could answer the question: “Will HMG 
recognise the Armenian genocide?” without answering the 

Now, the FCO claims to empathise with the “suffering” of the
Armenian people in the “tragedy” of 1915, and says it is not 
for governments to decide a"complex legal issue". It has thus 
moved the “line” from genocide equivocation to genocide 
avoidance– a move slightly in the right direction. Last year there 
was even talk at the FCO of giving to the Armenian Genocide 
Museum copies of some files in the National Archives attesting to 
the Ottoman atrocities: this was turned down, ostensibly because 
the photocopying costs of £431.20 could not be afforded, but 
probably because the Turks would go ballistic. 

The FCO files recently recorded ministerial approval for “more active 
participation” in centenary events, but there has, as yet, been no 
lifting of the ban on reference to the Armenian genocide on 
Holocaust Memorial Day. The real test of this government’s 
willingness to accept historical truth will be whether it sends a 
senior minister – or any minister at all – to the genocide 
commemoration in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, on 24 April
Ministers will be present at Gallipoli for the centenary of the ill-fated 
British-Anzac Dardanelles landing on 25 April, and it would be 
simple for them to fly there from Yerevan, were it not for the certainty 
that Turkey would deny them entry. 

The Dardanelles landings were in fact the trigger for the commencement 
of the genocide, and (together with Russian military activity on Turkey’s 
eastern front) were used as an excuse for the destruction of the 
Armenians, on the pretext that they might support the allied invasion. 
But the evidence of the government’s genocidal intent is overwhelming, 
coming as it does from appalled German and Italian diplomats and 
neutral Americans, to whom the Young Turk leaders admitted that they 
were going to eliminate “the Armenian problem” by eliminating the 

There can never be justification for genocide. This was understood by 
Raphael Lemkin , the Polish lawyer who coined the word and worked 
tirelessly to have the annihilation of the Armenians recognised as an 
international crime. In 1948 the UN’s Genocide Convention achieved 
Lemkin’s objective. Its definition of the crime includes the destruction 
of part of a racial or religious group by, for example, inflicting on it 
life-threatening conditions (such as death marches). Applied to 1915, t
his produces a verdict of guilt, beyond reasonable doubt.

It was, of course, a century ago: does it still matter? A century is just 
within living memory: last year a 103-year-old woman, once a small 
child carried by her mother across burning sands, took tea with Obama 
and the world’s most famous Armenian descendant (Kim Kardashian!). 
The mental scars and psychological trauma for the children and
 grandchildren of survivors throughout the diaspora will continue 
until Turkey acknowledges the crime, and offers an apology.

International law may provide some assistance: there are assets 
expropriated in 1915 that can still be traced, and many ruined churches 
that can be restored and returned. Armenians want restoration of their 
historic lands in eastern Turkey, which is asking too much (although 
I have suggested that the majestic Mount Ararat, overlooking Yerevan, 
might be handed over by Turkey as an act of reconciliation). But what 
they want most is what they are plainly entitled to have: an 
acknowledgment from Turkey, and for that matter from the UK, that 
what happened to their people in 1915 was not a tragedy but a crime. 
A crime against humanity – as Britain said in 1915, and should, 
in 2015, repeat.

• Geoffrey Robertson’s An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now 
Remembers the Armenians? is published by Random House. 

If you want to know more about the history of the 
British Government's so unimpressive policy on the 
Armenian Genocide, read on:

The UK Government’s Position on the Armenian Genocide
Presented at the Commemoration of the Church of Wales’
Recognition of the Armenian Genocide
Temple of Peace, Cardiff
22 April 2013

This presentation will cover key elements of the British Government’s policy on the Armenian Genocide, the destruction of up to 1.5 million people between 1915 and 1923, from the perspective of an Armenian born a British subject resident in the United Kingdom. This is representative of the experience of representative groups that approached the political establishment.

It will show that the United Kingdom started with a strong political and moral position that addresses the core issue that then deteriorates to the present dissatisfying stance that avoids the key question with discredited arguments. The theme is that: Sadly with successive governments, “what it says on the tin is not what you get” .

With the advent of the First World War, the allies, Britain, France and Russia, issued a joint statement in May 1915:

“In view of those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilisation, the Allied Governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible for these crimes all the members of the Ottoman Government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres”.
Note the use of the term “crimes against humanity and civilisation”.

The Foreign Office had ample evidence of what was happening through British representatives in various Middle East countries. Material from many sources, both UK and overseas, were collated in the ‘Blue Book’ prepared by the historian Arnold Toynbee, submitted to the Foreign Secretary then deposited in the House of Commons as an official document (British Governmental Document Miscellaneous No 31).

The definitive tripartite statement and the ‘Blue Book’ are extensively referred to and quoted from. But research by Dr Nassibian at Oxford University (Britain and the Armenian Question 1915-1923) into the cabinet papers of that time exposes a different underlying picture. The three countries issued the statement to keep the Armenian conscripts and volunteers fighting at the front, and to persuade the United States to join the Allies. Pledges to the Armenians made in the House of Commons by Lloyd George and Balfour were described by the historian AJP Taylor as “weapons of war” rather than “to be fulfilled”. Aneurin Williams was moved to write that the “Christian population in Armenian Turkey faced the threat of annihilation”. Even the German ambassador to the Sublime Porte stated in a despatch to Berlin, a close ally of Turkey, that the deportations were not based on military considerations. Many Germans were military officers in Turkey who witnessed, first-hand, the effectiveness of the extermination of a race evicted from its ancestral lands, and they later became involved with the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”.

“Deportations” is the favoured term used by the Turkish state and nationalists in making their case.

In-fighting between the Allies for the spoils of war, and the courting of Turkey led to the future of the decimated Armenian population in Turkey dropping from the number one priority in a British Cabinet paper down to 24, then disappearing altogether. Reasons for these changing priorities ranged from the financial cost to the Exchequer to the risk that independence for Armenia may make the Muslims in India restless, an argument not used to prevent the extraction of Palestine and other Arab countries from Ottoman Turkey. Throughout this period, Armenians looked up to Britain – a British military officer serving in the Caucasus described Armenians as holding a “blind, strange faith in England and anyone English” .

Armenians entered the UK in numbers in the second half of the 20th century and lobbied their MPs, senior government figures and the Foreign Office (now known as the FCO, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office). The common request was for the UK to publicly recognise the Armenian Genocide, and to intercede with the Turkish authorities to do the same. After Armenia became independent in 1991, this request reflected the new republic’s objectives. Meanwhile Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993, and these remain closed to this day. A vestige of the Iron Curtain exists because of the outstanding genocide recognition issue. The blockade is contrary to international law and should be condemned by the UK.

In 2008, the Armenian Legal Initiative Group commissioned Geoffrey Robertson, a Queen’s Counsel and eminent specialist in international law and human rights, to examine the British Government’s policy and conduct, and the validity of its arguments. Documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act surfaced in extensively redacted versions after several representations. Robertson concluded that the FCO’s objective was predominantly to appease a “neuralgic” Turkish government even though the British Government was open to criticism. Officials saw no practical benefits to be gained from the UK recognising the genocide and apparently the current line of evasion was the only feasible option. The QC described the FCO department as an “ethics-free zone” .

Let us go through key points repeated over the years in letters to UK Armenians.

“The massacres of 1915-16 were an appalling tragedy which the British Government of the day condemned. We fully endorse that view “ (Keith Vaz, Minister of Europe) This is consistent with Winston Churchill’s assessment that” … there is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political purposes “. He also used descriptive terms such as “administrative holocaust” and “clearance of a race” . (“The Aftermath”)

Note that the term “holocaust” was used before the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War.

However, subsequent points made almost negate this welcome endorsement.

“Neither this government nor previous British governments have judged that this evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that the events should be categorised as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN Convention.” (Douglas Alexander, Lord Malloch-Brown, Keith Vaz, Baroness Scotland) The FCO documents prove that the government undertook virtually no research on this matter. It did not consult academic or legal authorities, or called for expert papers. Authoritative United Nation’s and the government’s own documents were ignored.

“… when over a million ethnic Armenian citizens in the Ottoman Empire were killed – many massacred, some victims of civil strife, starvation and disease which affected the whole population of Eastern Anatolia” (Geoff Hoon, April 2007).

Letters from the Turkish ambassador to the FCO reveal satisfaction on the line taken by the UK government in attributing ethnic cleansing to external causes as this diminishes the roles of civil and military authorities. This is precisely the line taken by denialist spokespersons. It is truly regrettable that the FCO adopted this explanation as the small number of photographs of the deportations available to us, plus numerous eye-witness accounts, depict the use of the military summoned by the civil authorities escorting columns of citizens marched to their fate.

“We extend our deep sympathies to the descendants, and the assurance that the massacres will not be forgotten.” (Margaret Thatcher in May 1990 after it was pointed out that her state visit to Turkey was on 24 April that year)

Since the original commemoration in 2001, the Armenian Primate or community organisations have rarely been invited to the Holocaust Memorial Day events . Indeed, representations for inclusion have normally been ignored in London, Manchester and regrettably Cardiff since 2010. The HMD Trust website does however contain an entry explaining the significance of the 24th April as well as two survivor stories.

“It is not the business of government to review events of 80 years ago with a view to pronouncing on them” (Baroness Ramsay 1990). Joyce Quinn, as Minister of State, extended this in 1998 to “according to today’s values and attitudes” .

Genocide as a crime does not change with the passing of time. There have been many apologies about the treatment of citizens by governments around the world – including the British – confirming this argument as invalid.

Indeed, 21 sovereign nations formally recognise the Armenian Genocide in addition to 19 international religious, academic and representative organisations. “There is genuine debate amongst historians” (Baroness Scotland, Denis MacShane, Joyce Quinn). “It is for historians to interpret the past and society learns and benefits from their assessments of events” .

In March 2000, 126 Holocaust scholars – holders of academic chairs as well as directors of Holocaust research and study centres – issued a statement affirming the Armenian Genocide as incontestable and urged Western democracies to formally recognise it. This has since been re-affirmed regularly by the International Association of Genocide Scholars which includes the most respected experts in this field. They have also written directly to the Turkish Prime Minister disputing the official Turkish narrative, and urging him to face up to the truth. These representations have all been ignored.

Keith Vaz, the then Minister for Europe, did name three dissenting academics – Bernard Lewis, Heath Lowry and Justin McCarthy. All held chairs funded by the Turkish government, and the latter was forced to resign when he was discovered to be preparing letters issued by the Turkish ambassador in the USA.

Recent fresh analyses of available Ottoman Turkish archives by two Turkish scholars, Taner Akcam and Ugur Ungor, support the genocide thesis. Both work outside Turkey to avoid prosecution under Article 301 for “insulting Turkishness”, a legal means for the state to suppress discussion on any topic that does not follow the official Turkish narrative.

To this day, the British Government chooses to ignore the overwhelming views of independent experts in this area. In fact it has gone further than this with the March 2010 debate in the House of Lords when Baroness Kinnock said that “The Blue Book should be considered alongside other documents relating to the events of 1915-16 in archives round the world.” This undermining of British Government contemporaneous research is something the Turkish parliament has pressured their Westminster counterparts to do for many years. The ‘Blue Book’ has been translated into Turkish and sent to all Turkish MPs this year by Lord Avebury and the historian Ara Sarafian.

“We must restrict the use of the term ‘Genocide’ to events which occurred after the adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention & Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (FCO Directorate). “We must not attribute acts of the past to the present Turkish government before establishment of the modern state” (Francis Maude and Mike O’Brien; dates). “It is not common practice in law to apply judgements retrospectively” (FCO Turkey Team).

Geoffrey Robertson (QC) dismissed these points as “fiction”. There are no such precedents, practices or restrictions . Moreover, the convention’s introduction makes clear that genocides have occurred through the ages. Raphael Lempkin, the architect of the UN Convention, specifically mentioned that the Armenian’s history triggered his work. The FCO appears not to understand the importance of nations acknowledging their past crimes against humanity without exceptions. It even wrote the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Deed objectives with a start date of the Second World War.

“Genocide is a precise term and is best assessed by a competent court. However, there is no such court with the authority to make such an assessment. Therefore, it is inappropriate for the British Government to apply terms to events on which no legal judgement can be made.”

The government has now abandoned its previous discredited arguments and moved further away from developments in international law. Political leaders are now indicted by international prosecutors for trial in courts convened under a wide global remit.

“Truth and reconciliation process conducted as a joint exercise by the parties involved. We would continue to encourage the parties to embark on such a process which must be owned by the people.” (Geoff Hoon, Minister for Europe) “.. look to the future in the interests of the region and the wider international community” (Baroness Ramsey)

“The UK will not make any statement that has the potential to jeopardise this process.” (Baroness Kinnock, March 2010)

Turkey scuppered the “truth and reconciliation process” originally proposed in the USA. It will not open diplomatic relations with Armenia nor open its border until Armenia drops its claims for recognition whereas Armenia wishes to negotiate with no pre-conditions whatsoever.

It is also a flawed process. If the suggested sub-committee is set up by politicians concludes that genocide did not occur so as to facilitate international relations, what will this mean for decades of research by the most eminent of independent experts over many continents that point unequivocally in the opposite direction?

Let the British Government listen to the opinions expressed by independent Turks. Ragip Zarakolu, a brave publisher of books on subjects such as the Armenian Genocide and Kurdish issues, and as a result hounded through Turkish courts, said: “Turkish denialism plays to gain time in an Oriental way. Everybody knows what really happened in 1915 to the Armenians, an ancient people rooted in Anatolian geography … … there was not only ethnic cleansing but also of cleansing of writing, maps and books in an unfortunate continuation of the genocide at a different level.”

In summary, the British Government started with a contemporaneous forthright First World War statement that it then contradicted with a varying series of inconsistent, morally bankrupt points that are unlikely to lead to tangible positive outcomes.

A letter earlier this month in time for this commemoration from David Liddington, the current Minister of Europe, reiterates the current argument so there is no change of mind. There was one piece of news – that he had gone to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on his visit to Armenia in September 2012. This is welcome but does not satisfy the expectations of the Armenian people and the interest of preventing crimes against humanity. 

In the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, the British Government’s stance will be subject to detailed scrutiny worldwide. It is in the UK’s interest to progress from its current unsatisfactory policy that will continue to be viewed as unacceptable in comparison to those of other nations. The huge risk is that the UK will be portrayed as denying genocide.

Armenian Legal Initiative Group UK 

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