A Confused Century: The Armenian Genocide


The memorial of the Armenian Genocide.  Source,   License

The memorial of the Armenian Genocide. Source, License

The 24th of April next year will mark the hundredth anniversary of what  many Armenians consider the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. From 1915 to 1922, it is alleged that the Young Turks at the helm of the Ottoman Empire orchestrated the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. Today, the Turks vehemently deny that genocide occurred at all. Turkey’s strategic importance to the conflict in Iraq means that Obama isn’t too keen to strain the alliance. Like clockwork, Tony Abbott has also kept his mouth shut; if only issues of more trifling importance could provoke a similar reaction in our Speedo-clad commander. Twenty three countries have tendered their official recognition of the event, along with a handful of regional and state governments, but why are the rest of us resting in silence?

Part of the difficulty lies in the minefield that is genocide prosecution. The United Nations’ Genocide Convention (UNGC), the primary apparatus for conviction of genocide, is an understandably flawed document; how could it not be? The atrocity that is ‘genocide’ is fiendishly difficult to define, let alone formally acknowledge. For example, the UNGC stipulates that intent must necessarily be proven in order to prosecute for genocide; how the fuck, in contexts that are typically mind-bendingly vast and complex, is this meant to be done?

"How do we acknowledge all of these concerns with one document that must apply to all cases and set a universal standard for genocide?"

Perhaps such a requirement does have a place somewhere in the Convention, but whose intent are we looking to prove? If it’s more than one person, can we automatically assume that every member of a group is acting of their own volition and has not been threatened to comply or die? How do we account for differing belief systems, cultural gulfs, and all else that may influence our understanding of individual intent? Moreover, how do we acknowledge all of these concerns with one document that must apply to all cases and set a universal standard for genocide? The issue is massive, and it’s not confined to the plight of the Armenians in 1915. Forget cultural relativism; surely common humanity dictates a united condemnation of crimes as heinous as these. Even if we can’t prevent them, we must at least find a way to acknowledge them.

In 1921, an Allied effort to convict Ottoman officials for war crimes, sometimes referred to as the Malta Tribunals, was abandoned due to a lack of evidence and insufficient international judicial norms. This failure exemplifies the issues we face in attempting genocide prosecution: evidence can be manipulated or eliminated by the aggressor, and, as previously stated, the UN’s current apparatus for trial is too flawed to be effective.

Some historians who recognise the Armenian Genocide put forward that the Young Turks made an active effort to separate the state from any genocidal activities occurring. Some of these were supposedly carried out by the ruthless Special Organisation, a specialised unit mobilised to function as a bureaucratised instrument of genocide. However, because the imperial leadership cell carefully held the Special Organisation at arms’ length, they could never be held accountable for its actions. Given the conditions, this makes it difficult to prove that the Special Organisation wasn’t operating of its own accord. As for the lack of judicial structure at the Tribunals, the word ‘genocide’ wasn’t even coined until 1943, so the prosecution would have been an insanely murky undertaking - the Allies didn’t even know what they were trying for!

It seems ridiculous to note that something as major as official recognition of genocide can so easily be swept under the rug in favour of strategic relations. Perhaps it’s for the greater good; perhaps it isn’t. The Ottoman archives in Ankara are open to the public, but they remain largely untapped; it will be interesting to see if the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide next year sparks any movement on the global stage.