Genocide: just a word?

By: David Edmonds

In April 1915 there were hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Eastern Turkey: a year later they were gone.

One historian told me that this fact was the relevant one.  And whether or not we call what occurred a ‘genocide’ is a matter of semantics – of secondary significance. 

The family of virtually every Armenian was affected by the events of 1915/16.  Estimates about the numbers vary.   The Armenians say 1.5 million died.  Turkey says this figure is greatly exaggerated.

April 24th is Armenia’s genocide day, when the dead are annually commemorated.  Turkey’s refusal to recognize the genocide is a bacillus infecting relations between the two nations.  The land-border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed.  

The Turkish government position is that, whilst terrible events may have occurred, there was no official policy to wipe out the Armenian population.  But a recent scholarly book on the subject, ‘A Shameful Act’ by Taner Akcam – a Turk himself – is unequivocal on this point.  There is plenty of evidence of intent and central planning by the Ottoman authorities.

Armenian identity is shaped by this catastrophe.  I’ve just returned from Armenia.  Ask Armenians why it matters that Ankara accepts that a genocide took place and they say, ‘to make sure it doesn’t happen again’.    This is not paranoia:  as the Soviet Union collapsed, and Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war (over the disputed enclave of Nagorno Karabakh), thousands of Armenian citizens of Azerbaijan were forced to flee their homes:  Armenia faced yet another refugee crisis.

Nonetheless, it struck me that ‘Never-Again’ was not what really animated their passions.   What they want, plain and simple, is for their version of the calamity to be accepted as the historical truth – they would demand this recognition even if the threat to Armenia or diaspora Armenians was non-existent.    

For the acknowledgement of an important historical truth may or may not produce good consequences.  Regardless, it can be necessitated by justice.

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2 Responses to Genocide: just a word?

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Unjustified killing of a human being is murder. Given the value of each human being, it should not matter that only one or several are murdered. Race and nationality and ethnicity are not justification for killing someone? Why is that not enough to condemn people who murder large numbers of people?

    Originally, genocide was considered the attempt to extirpate a race. The victim designation broadened to include nationalities or ethnic groups. Seeking to extirpate broadened into killing people because of their membership in a disfavored race, nation, ethniciy. Is genocide worse than any other unjustified mass killing? Why is race or ethnicity or nationality so important as to make one kind of mass killing worse than another?

    When does mass killing count as genocide? The murder of black people by arabs (also black) in Darfur is either genocide or a terrorist addition to a civil war between rebels and the central Sudan government. Sympathizers of the government will tend to the latter (but downplay the terrorist aspect) while enemies of the government will tend to the former description.

    Was the bombing of Berlin, Dresden and Tokyo in WWII by Americans, genocide? The victims were Germans and Japanese and, in a sense, they were killed because they were of those nationalities?
    Of course they weren’t! (?)

    One reason for the difference might be that genocide is a ground for international intervention in wars that are normally considered part of the internal affairs of a country. Mass killing in general, such as happens during “revolutions” in various countries is not such a ground, even though the victims are normally all of a single ethnic/racial/national group. Why not simply make any mass murder a ground for intervention? Consider how that would affect the sovereignty of states in which particular groups are disfavored and often subject to persecution. After all, why stop at killing as a ground for intervention?

  • It seems to me that the plausibility of your general conclusion, depends on the moral weight you assign to justice. Should a historical truth also be acknowledge, if we can expect – although very unlike I suppose – that it will cause a civil war?

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