The Armenian genocide occurred a century ago, but the continued denial of it by the Turkish government still has consequences. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
On April 24, 1915 Ottoman Turkish authorities arrested 200 Armenian intellectuals and business leaders across Western Armenia (present day Eastern Turkey). One of those arrested included my relative. Within a few weeks, all 200 were murdered. Across Western Armenia, the systematic murder of Armenian men began. Women and children were deported and walked what is commonly called the death march. Although the ultimate destination was the Syrian desert, most died along the way. By 1923, 1.5 million lay dead, or three out of four Armenians living under Ottoman rule. Western Armenia became drained of her native inhabitants.
Justice denied for Armenians means justice denied for other ethnic groups in the world. State sponsored violence against ethnic groups is far too common. A century after the Armenian genocide, governments still use violence, deportation and murder to rid their countries of ethnic groups they deem a problem.
Since the Armenian genocide ended, countless others have occurred. Before invading Poland in 1939, Hitler infamously said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” By the end of World War Two, six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germans. Genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and Myanmar have taken the lives of millions. Continued Turkish denial gives a proverbial green light to governments to craft and carry out genocidal policies to rid their nations of people groups they deem undesirable. It sets a terrible trend. The Myanmar government hotly denies that what has happened recently to the Rohingya is a genocide. Already they are taking a page out of Turkey’s play book.
Genocides will persist in part because Turkey so successfully carried out the Armenian genocide and continues to deny what happened. As long as Turkish denial continues, governments like Myanmar will carry out genocides and deny their actions after murdering thousands or millions. Justice denied to one people group has a way of ricocheting down through history. One country getting away with genocide paves the way for other governments to carry out genocides because they can look to the Turkish government as an example.
The refusal to use a word partly coined to describe what happened to our ancestors is perhaps the cruelest part of Turkey’s ongoing denial campaign. Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to describe the atrocities committed against the Armenians a century ago and the Jews during World War Two. It is an incredible irony that the Turkish government refuses to use a term coined in part by what happened to Armenians to describe the near annihilation of Western Armenians.
Until the Turkish government faces its genocidal past, both Armenians and Turks will not be able to heal from their shared past. Genocide denial prevents Armenians from truly healing from what happened to our ancestors. It denies descendants restitution from the country that perpetrated mass murder against Armenians. Armenians have never even received acknowledgement of the genocide from Turkey, let alone restitution or reparations. Denying the genocide also makes Armenian living in Turkey feel unsafe. It is, after all, against the law to even bring up the genocide under article 301 of Turkey’s penal code.
Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian genocide is as much an injustice to Turks as it is to Armenians. Turkey is a country that is known to commit human rights abuses. Turkey leads the world in jailing journalists, and torture while in custody is widespread, according to Human Rights Watch. There is a link between the government’s continued denial of the genocide and respecting human rights. As Turkish historian Taner Akçam said, “If, today, Turkey struggles to establish a regime that respects human rights and continues to face significant hurdles in its democratization, it is due to the refusal to confront and face the crimes committed in the past.”