This year marked the special anniversary of a gruesome event that occurred in the twentieth century. On the 27th of January, the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Although this very tragic event can be considered an important symbol of the dramatic course of the first half of the twentieth century, there is no widespread debate amongst states and social actors whether or not the Holocaust constitutes an act of genocide. Much more controversial were the debates this year on the Srebrenica Genocide and the Armenian Genocide. Although it means a lot to the victims and survivors when they feel justice has been served through the recognition of their sorrow, the powerful mechanism of genocide recognition, or non-recognition, is often also used as a political tool.
A small recap: what is genocide?
There is no academic consent on what the exact definition of genocide is. For instance, the Turkish historian Taner Akçam defends in several publications, including his book A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2006), the view that the atrocities committed by the Ottomans are in fact an act of genocide.¹ Others historians, like the American scholar Bernard Lewis refuse to call the events ‘genocide’. He argues that there is no evidence that the Ottoman authorities indeed intended to exterminate the Armenians. Although he acknowledges that there have been mass killings, he says that these incidents need to be considered within the context of several Turkish Armenians deserting to the hostile Russian forces.²
Genocide is “any […] act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial of religious group.”
Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), as adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, defines genocide as “any […] act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial of religious group.”³ Following these guidelines, the definition has been applied to the Armenian Genocide in particular. The U.S.-based International Association of Genocides Scholars (IAGS) declared in 1997 that “the mass murder of over a million Armenians in Turkey in 1915 is a case of genocide which conforms to the statutes of the [CPPCG].”4 However, as Lewis and other scholars do not agree with the claims of IAGS, this statement could hardly serve as a judgment on behalf of the academic world on the issue whether or not the events in 1915 were in fact an act of genocide.
The same disunity can be found in the geopolitical sphere. The Armenian Genocide is currently recognised by 28 states, including Argentina, France, Germany, Lebanon and Russia.5 Whilst regional entities, like many U.S. states and countries like Scotland and Wales, exercise a recognition policy with regard to the Armenian tragedy, the United Kingdom and the United States have refused so far to recognise the Armenian Genocide on a state level.6
Similar patterns can be identified when the Srebrenica Genocide is being discussed. The United Kingdom and the United States proposed earlier this year a resolution to the UN Security Council recognising the massacres of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops in 1995 as a genocide. While the Russian government did recognise the Armenian Genocide, they refrained from recognising the massacre in Srebrenica as such. Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, justified the Russian veto against the recognition of this genocide by claiming that the adoption of such a resolution would have only caused more tension in the volatile Balkan region.7
Genocide: a very contentious issue
Mr Churkin’s statement demonstrates that the usage of the word ‘genocide’ is highly sensitive, as the Serbian government would have probably responded with much anger. The main reason is that they do not see the events of 1995 as a genocide committed by Serbian troops. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic hailed the failure to adopt the resolution as a “great day for our country.”8 However, Russia’s refusal to recognise the Srebrenica massacre as genocide because of the tension it would create, does not add up when comparing it to their recognition of the Armenian Genocide. One could use the argument of increased tension as a justification not to recognise the Armenian Genocide either. Instead, it seems that perhaps the good relations of Russia with both Armenia and Serbia have something to do with it.9
Recognition in the Armenian case does complicate relations of the recognising state with Turkey. Indeed, very hawkish reactions came from the Turkish government when several world leaders recognised the Armenian Genocide and attended the 100th commemoration ceremony in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Turkey recalled its Ambassador to the Holy See after Pope Francis I described the massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as ‘an act of genocide’ at a mass in the Saint Peter’s Basilica.10 Francis I was the first Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church to talk publicly about genocide in relation to the Armenian case. Shortly after the commemoration ceremonies in April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly chastised his counterparts from France, Germany and Russia after they referred to the massacre as genocide. Erdogan accused them of “supporting claims based on Armenian lies” and added that “the last countries to speak of genocide are Germany, Russia and France.”11
Dealing with history, memory and a nation’s own wrongdoings in the past is a very contentious issue. Perhaps with the notable exception of Germany in dealing with the Second World War, countries like Belgium, France and the Netherlands are also relatively hesitant when their own dark pages from the colonial era are being discussed.
Turkey consents with the view of Lewis discussed earlier. According to Ankara, there were indeed massacres and human tragedies, but they were the sad consequence of the war.12 As the Armenian Genocide coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, many perpetuators were among the founders of the modern Turkish republic. Therefore, researcher Akçam makes the case that it is really hard for people to (in)directly call the founding fathers of their nation murderers.13 The same applies to the Srebrenica case. The Serbian government is very cautious in using the word ‘genocide’, as it might have electoral consequences. For Serbs it is also very hard to see themselves being judged. Given the fact that the events of 1995 are relatively recent, many contemporary Serbians can recall the violent conflicts and their consequences in the Balkans.14 For various reasons, states are thus likely to protest if internal ethnic struggles are depicted as genocide.
For different reasons, states protest if internal ethnic struggles are depicted as genocide.
The political game around genocide recognition
It is possible to carefully discern some strategies when it comes to genocide recognition. Especially Western states are very much divided on the question whether or not to recognise the Armenian Genocide. Erdogan’s sharp criticism of France and Germany demonstrate that countries risk a row with Turkey. It is exactly for this reason that certain countries do not officially recognise the events in Turkey as a genocide. Officials from the White House and State Department acknowledged that the Washington D.C. made the tactical choice not use the word ‘genocide’ in official statements.15 Although President Barack Obama, as a Senator from Illinois, previously said he would recognise the Armenian Genocide if he was in office, he continued the line that characterised the American stance on this issue for decades. U.S. officials cited the importance of relations with Turkey (especially in the fight against the Islamic State) and the safety of U.S. diplomats and military in Turkey. That is to say, the damage that recognition (and Turkish anger) could bring to the USA would far outweigh the immediate benefits. For similar reasons, Israel is highly unlikely to recognize the Armenian Genocide.16
However, other states do explicitly recognise the genocide. For instance, Germany seems to perceive it as its moral responsibility. Regarding the Armenian Genocide, President Joachim Gauck said: “In this case we Germans must come to terms with the past regarding our shared responsibility, possibly shared guilt, for the genocide against the Armenians.”17 This seems to suggest that Germany values its self-imposed historical responsibility more than its relations with Ankara. Germany’s post-war governments were obsessed with the politics of history and memory. This specific focus was aimed at improving Germany’s image in the world.18 For France, their own Armenian minority could be a factor in play. France hosts the largest Armenian diaspora in Europe that maintains a very strong sense of ethnic identity.19 As one of the very few heads of state, President François Hollande attended the centennial commemoration in Yerevan and France is very explicit in the debate on the Armenian Genocide.20
There is, however, a third option as well. Recognisers seem to talk about the Armenian Genocide whilst non-recognisers rather speak about the Armenian Question. Although the Dutch Parliament adopted a motion in 2004 calling for full recognition, the government talks about ‘the question of the Armenian Genocide’. This strategy has been chosen in an attempt to both recognising the sorrow of the Armenians and to keep up the good relationship with the Turks.21
On a case by case basis then, recognition is used as a political tool by other states in order to maximise their gains from (not) doing so.
In conclusion, it is clear that a political game is played when states decide whether to recognise a genocide as such. The alleged perpetrators will generally oppose any such move, as it could affect their domestic strength and thereby their international standing. Recognition of a certain tragedy as genocide, can have consequences for the important relationship with the state that is being blamed for it. On a case by case basis then, recognition is used as a political tool by other states in order to maximise their gains from (not) doing so. However logical this may seem to states, it is a tragedy that this happens at the expense of genocide victims. They are looking for closure on a terrible event, while states merely use it as a political game. Should we consider this acceptable?