Friday, April 24, 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of Red Sunday, the day when Ottoman officials rounded up and arrested around 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople. This event is seen by many as the start to the Armenian Genocide.
Almost all those men would eventually die either in captivity or at the hands of the Ottomans, along with another estimated 1.5 million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, making one of the deadliest genocides in human history.
Yet despite this event being so horrific that Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin had to invent a new word – “genocide” – to describe it, the event is sadly unrecognized by many in the world today.
Turkey denies that the “events of 1915” were a genocide, saying that the killings were just part of World War I and were justified due to Armenians support of Russia during the war.
Most other countries (including the United States) don’t formally recognize the massacres as genocide. Yet, there is overwhelming consensus among scholars of genocide and of Ottoman history that these killings were, in fact, a genocide.
It is time that Turkey and the rest of the world finally acknowledge this and give the victims and their families the basic decency of knowing that the world recognizes what happened to them.
Resat Kasaba, Professor of Ottoman History and the modern Middle East at the University of Washington, put it best when he talked on the subject.
“I think it is important to recognize the Armenian Genocide because without an honest acknowledgement of history, it is hard for us to look in the eyes of the children and grandchildren of the victims and survivors. Sometimes, passing of time makes this even more important.”
Without this, we deny those who are victims of genocide everywhere even the most basic compassion and justice.
In addition, the refusal to recognize events as a genocide can have harmful ramifications in the real world, as we tragically saw in Rwanda in 1994. The entire world danced around using the word “genocide” to describe the massacres in the central African country.
The Clinton administration went as far as instructing its spokesman to instead say that “acts of genocide” were occurring (thus exempting themselves from their legal obligation to act under the Genocide Convention).
In large part because of this language and its resulting inaction by the major world powers, 800,000 Tutsis were killed in a span of three months. While the reluctance to admit that the events of 1915 constituted a genocide won’t result in any more dead Armenians, it sets a dangerous precedent for the next time that genocide occurs.
Admittedly, it does look like the situation is slowly improving. On Tuesday, Austria became the 24th country to recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide, with Germany set to become the 25th at the time of writing.
In addition, many regional governments (including 43 of the 50 United States) have recognized the genocide as well.
In Turkey, it is still illegal to “insult Turkishness,” a broad term which has been interpreted to include acknowledging the genocide.
Additionally, Turkey’s foreign minister responded to Austria’s recent recognition of the genocide by saying that “this declaration will have permanent negative effects on Turkey-Austria relations.”
Less expected but just as unfortunate, at the time of writing it had already been announced that Obama would avoid using the word “genocide” in a statement he will make to mark the event’s 100th anniversary.
In 2006, Obama criticized President Bush for not acknowledging the genocide, according to CNN. However, he still has yet to do so.
100 years of denial and avoidance is long enough.