By Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director of World Without Genocide
‘Race murder,’ Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, called it – the extermination of all Christian Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I. And ‘race murder’ it was, with 1,500,000 men, women, and children dead of torture, starvation, and killing. Although this catastrophe was widely documented by eyewitnesses while it was happening, there was no global intervention to stop the slaughter.
The Armenian catastrophe became almost a footnote to history. In fact, when Hitler was asked how he thought he would be able to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews, he infamously replied, “Who today remembers the Armenians?”
This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and we remember the Armenians.
What happened after the Armenian genocide? Following massive human rights abuses like genocide, people need to restore their belief in justice. This also restores their dignity and brings the truth to light.
When the war ended in 1918, Britain, France, and Russia wanted the leaders in Germany, Austria, and Turkey to be held responsible for violating the laws of war and the ‘laws of humanity.’ They began planning for an international war crimes tribunal, the first one ever, to try the German Kaiser and Talat, Enver, and Jamal Pasha, known as the Young Turks, along with other leading Turkish perpetrators.
The new Turk leaders hoped that, by blaming a few members of the Committee on Union and Progress, the Young Turks, they would shift blame away from the Turkish nation as a whole.
However, the three Young Turk leaders were convicted in absentia. They had fled the country; two were ultimately assassinated and one was killed in battle.
The British Foreign Office demanded that 141 Turks be tried for crimes against British soldiers, and another 17 tried for the crimes against Armenians during World War I.
Government and military leaders were arrested. Military courts-martial and at least six domestic trials were held in provincial cities where massacres had occurred. Ministers from the Young Turks’ government, party leaders, attorneys, governors, military officers, and other officials were arrested.
However, despite public hatred for the previous regime, the response to these courts was lukewarm. On April 4, 1919, Lewis Heck, the US High Commissioner in Istanbul, reported, “It is popularly believed that many of [the trials] are made from motives of personal vengeance or at the instigation of the Allied authorities, especially the British.”
Under Ataturk’s leadership, a nationalist had movement emerged and many people were afraid that the trials were part of an Allied plan to divide the Ottoman Empire. On August 11, 1920, Ataturk’s government ordered a stop to all the court proceedings.
Failing to Find Justice
In the end, there was no international tribunal. Some scholars suggest that there wasn’t enough forensic evidence. Others assert there were no international laws to use at the tribunal. However, there also was little interest in a tribunal. The Allies saw a large Turkish population waiting to modernize, a huge potential partner just waiting for trade and economic development. The Allies didn’t want to risk their long-term economic relationship with Turkey.
The British also wanted their prisoners of war back. In 1921, they released 145 Turkish perpetrators who had been held on Malta and exchanged them for 29 British soldiers. This ended any possibility of an international tribunal.
Despite extensive personal testimonies, photographs, and court documents, the Turkish government consistently denies that genocide occurred. However, 23 countries, 43 US states and many cities, and leading scholars around the world recognize that what happened was, indeed, genocide and have labeled it as such.
The leading perpetrators were never prosecuted for their crimes. The survivors never received restitution for their losses. The victims’ descendants never found justice for the terror inflicted on their ancestors. But we can remember those who perished and those who stood up against the violence.
In Minnesota, Texas, California, and New Hampshire, every April is designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. Six genocides are officially memorialized during April – Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and the Armenian genocide. This year, we will all remember. Attend an event, watch a film, or stage a reading of our play “Upstanders: Taking a Stand against the Armenian Genocide.”
Moving Towards Justice
Holocaust survivor, Raphael Lemkin, read about the tragedy of the Armenians. Lemkin had lost 49 members of his extended family during the Holocaust. He felt that there had to be a word to describe the killing of a people, for which there was no word. There were many words to describe the killing of people, such as homicide, suicide, and fratricide, but there was no word to describe the horrors perpetrated on the Armenians and, twenty-five years later, on the Jews.
Lemkin coined the word genocide, with geno from the Greek meaning tribe or group, and cide from the Latin meaning ‘to kill.’ Once he had the word, he felt that there had to be a law to prevent and to punish this crime. He wrote the United Nations Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by the United Nations in 1948.
What can we conclude? Some scholars say that the documents (encoded telegraphs and letters) attached to the verdicts of those regional trials prove that the Armenian deportations were aimed at total annihilation of the Armenian population. These trials and verdicts are important arguments against the denial of the Armenian Genocide.
But, just like with the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg in 1946 and subsequent trials throughout Europe after World War II, most of the Ottoman officials who perpetrated the mass killings and property theft later held important positions in the military and political elite of Turkey.
The implementation of transitional justice following genocide or other atrocity crimes is critical. We need laws to prosecute the perpetrators. We need truth and reconciliation commissions to bring the guilty together with victims, witnesses, and survivors.
We need reparations for land, artifacts, money, and other assets that have been stolen. We need vetting of public officials to be sure that those who committed atrocities don’t stay in positions of power.
The path to justice in the world perhaps started with the Armenian genocide. Raphael Lemkin’s word and the UN Convention made the intent to exterminate a people, based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, a crime. The first international criminal tribunal came close to reality with the attempt to prosecute the Young Turks. Although this tribunal never came to fruition, the three Allied nations of France, the UK, and Russia (later the Soviet Union) became three of the four major participants in the Nuremberg trials of 1946, the first international criminal tribunal to prosecute individuals for atrocity crimes. The Nazi trials at Nuremberg might not have happened without Britain, Russia, and France talking about an international tribunal for the Armenian atrocities. We remember the Armenians and these small steps towards global justice.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the founder and Executive Director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul. The organization provides education about past and current conflicts and advocacy at the local, state, and national levels to protect innocent people, prevent genocide, prosecute perpetrators, and remember those affected by genocide.
Kennedy has received many awards for her work, including Outstanding Citizen from the Anne Frank Center, Higher Education Leader of the Year from the National Society for Experiential Education, Outstanding Service Award from the Midwest Sociological Society, two awards from the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Women’s Press Change-maker award.
World Without Genocide received a Certificate of Merit from the State of Minnesota, Office of the Governor, for efforts to seek justice and to eliminate genocide around the globe; and the 2014 Minnesota Ethical Leadership Award.
Kennedy is an adjunct professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law and is the Minnesota representative to AMICC, a national organization that advocates for the International Criminal Court. She also serves on the Human Rights and Relations Commission for the City of Edina, Minnesota, and on the Board of Directors of the Minneapolis University Rotary Club.
Kennedy received her BA degree from the University of Michigan and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota.