(May 6, 2021 / Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) The recent formal recognition by President Biden of the genocide of the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century is not merely a pro forma gesture to the Armenian people. It is of vast historical significance. It corrects a century-old historic anomaly by acknowledging a reality that, due to political pressure from Turkey, has been deliberately overlooked.
The U.S. declaration
On April 24, President Biden, in an official statement commemorating Armenian Remembrance Day, expressed the United States’ formal acknowledgment and recognition of the Armenian genocide by Ottoman-era Turks during the years 1915-1923.
The atrocities by the Ottoman authorities included the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders and the systematic deportation and massacre of one-and-a-half million Armenians in different parts of Turkey.
Rejecting the U.S. declaration, the Turkish foreign ministry stated:
“We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the president of the U.S. regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on April 24 … This statement of the U.S. … will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual friendship and trust.”
The consistent Turkish rejection of the allegations of genocide appears to run counter to considerable historical evidence pointing to the large-scale massacres that took place. A joint declaration by Britain, France and Russia, dated May 24, 1915, accused the Turkish government of responsibility for crimes against the Armenians:
“For about a month, the Kurd and Turkish populations of Armenia have been massacring Armenians with the connivance and often assistance of Ottoman authorities. … Inhabitants of about one hundred villages were all murdered. In that city, the Armenian quarter is besieged by Kurds. At the same time, in Constantinople Ottoman Government ill-treats inoffensive Armenian population.
“In view of those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce publicly to the Sublime-Porte that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.”
The Turkish denial
The Turkish rejection of the U.S. declaration is consistent with the standard policy of denial of successive Turkish regimes. This despite eyewitness accounts, official archives, photographic evidence, diplomats’ reports and the testimony of survivors.
Turkey has even attempted to disrupt academic conferences and public discussions dealing with the Armenian Genocide. A notable example was the attempt by Turkish officials to force the cancellation of a conference in Tel Aviv in 1982 at which the Armenian Genocide was to be discussed. Such demands were amplified with threats to the safety of Jews in Turkey. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council reported similar threats over plans to include references to the Armenian Genocide within the interpretive framework of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
While there seems to have been a general consensus in the international community regarding the reality of the genocide, many countries (including Israel) have refrained from formally acknowledging it. The reasons for this reluctance vary, from bilateral relations and commercial interests to Turkey’s status in the international community and the considerable political pressure employed by the Turkish government.
Israel and the Armenian Genocide
Israel’s position has been influenced by many moral, humanitarian and political factors.
In 2001, Israel’s then-foreign minister (and later president) Shimon Peres, basing himself on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, refrained from drawing a parallel with the Armenian situation, claiming that “what the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not a genocide.”
In 2011, when the subject was discussed in Israel’s Knesset, Speaker Reuven Rivlin (currently president) expressed his intention to convene an annual parliamentary session to mark the Armenian Genocide. Speaking to an Israel-based Armenian action committee, Rivlin said, “It is my duty as a Jew and Israeli to recognize the tragedies of other peoples.”
While the issue was referred to the Knesset’s Education Committee for more extensive deliberation, such recognition never materialized. Ultimately, because of Israel’s commercial, security, tourism and aviation interests with Turkey, as well as its relationship with Azerbaijan (Israel’s leading supplier of oil), then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman made it clear in 2015 that Israel did not intend to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Implications of the U.S. declaration
The U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide portends a significant paradigm change in the way attempted genocides, large-scale atrocities and systematic murder and repression are likely to be perceived within the international community in general, and by major powers specifically.
Recent occurrences of such atrocities include:
• The 2015 attempted genocide of the Iraqi Kurds, committed by Islamic State (ISIS), Iraqi government forces and Iran, as well as the systematic attempt by ISIS to exterminate the Yazidis, Assyrian Christians and Shi’ites in Iraq since 2014.
• The ongoing attempted genocide by Myanmar of the Muslim Rohingya people that commenced in 2017.
•The repression of the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs in China since 2016.
• The attempted genocide and ethnic cleansing by South Sudan’s president against the Nuer tribal ethnic group in South Sudan since 2018, as well as ethnic massacres and killings by Arab militias of minority, non-Muslim groups in Darfur.
• The attempted genocide, displacement of millions, and ethnic cleansing of Christian militias by Muslim leadership in the Central African Republic.
• The mass killing of Yemenis by the Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2017.
• The ongoing persecution of Christians in Nigeria by radical Islamists.
Threats by Iran to annihilate Israel
The same moral and historical logic that brought the U.S. administration to finally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide might be expected to lead to similar acknowledgment of Iran’s oft-voiced genocidal intentions with regard to Israel:
• In 2005, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, called Israel a “tumor” and echoed the words of the former Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, by saying that Israel should be wiped off the map.
• In a 2006 speech during an emergency meeting of Muslim leaders in Malaysia, Ahmadinejad said, “the main solution to the Middle East crisis is for the elimination of the Zionist regime.”
• In 2008, marking Israel’s 60th Independence Day, Ahmadinejad declared: “Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken. Today, the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is on its way to annihilation.”
• In June 2008, the Iranian presidency issued a statement calling to “wipe Israel off the map”: “O dear Imam [Khomeini]! You said the Zionist regime is a usurper and illegitimate regime, and a cancerous tumor that should be wiped off the map. I should say that your illuminating remark and cause are going to come true today. The Zionist regime has lost its existence philosophy … the Zionist regime faces a complete dead end, and under God’s grace, your wish will soon be materialized, and the corrupt element will be wiped off the map.”
• In 2014, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on social media that: “This barbaric, wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel, which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.”
A 9-point table, published on Twitter, outlining why and how Israel should be eliminated: “The only means of bringing Israeli crimes to an end is the elimination of this regime. … The only means of confronting a regime that commits crimes beyond one’s thought and imagination is a resolute and armed confrontation.”
• In January 2019, the head of Iran‘s air force, Brig. Gen. Aziz Nasirzadeh, called to eliminate Israel from the Earth: “The young people in the air force are fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the Earth.”
The 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide determined in its third article that incitement to genocide is a crime under international law. Iran is plainly violating this basic provision of international law.
It is incumbent upon the international community and the United Nations, in particular, to respond with commensurate measures. The silence of the international community can and will continue to be interpreted by Teheran as a form of acquiescence to Iran’s declarations.
The above panoply of threats, when complemented by Iran’s intentions and ongoing efforts to acquire nuclear capability and weaponry, must surely be taken into consideration by the U.S. administration, as well as by the European countries, as a central factor in any resumed negotiation with Iran.
There cannot exist a double standard that acknowledges and condemns past occurrences of genocide, while out of the same “political correctness” that was demonstrated vis-à-vis Turkey, and “out of fear of offending Iran,” overlooks, ignores, downgrades and sidelines genuine, ongoing threats by the Iranian leadership to destroy the State of Israel.
Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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