Genocide (Armenia and Assyria)

– in Westminster Hall at 3:57 pm on 7th June 2006.

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Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister without Portfolio), Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair 3:57 pm, 7th June 2006

It is a pleasure to appear before you this afternoon, Mr. Cook, and a particular honour that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will be responding for the Government. Few Ministers, if any, know more about the subject and I could not have chosen a better Minister to respond.

I start with a minor point. The subject of this Adjournment debate appears on the Order Paper as "Genocide in Armenia and Assyria". I am not seeking to apportion blame, but that is not the title that was submitted. The original title was "Recognition of the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians". It would be obvious to you, Mr. Cook, and to many people, that to talk about genocide in Armenia, a country that has existed in its present form for a comparatively short time, and Assyria, a country that might have a millennia-old history but is not recognised in international boundaries, would be superfluous.

I wish to speak about the incidents in the then Ottoman empire, particularly in the spring of and throughout 1915, that led, I hope indisputably, to the planned, calculated genocide of the Christian community, which consisted principally of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. I shall seek to persuade my right hon. Friend that the time has finally come for Her Majesty's Government to join so many other countries, Parliaments and legislatures in recognising the genocide that occurred in that year.

I hope that it will be comparatively uncontentious to state a few basic facts. One and a half million Armenian residents of the former Ottoman empire died between 1915 and 1923 as a result of calculated genocide. I hope that it is not contentious to say that 3.5 million of the historic Christian population of Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks then living in the Ottoman empire had been murdered—starved to death or slaughtered—or exiled by 1923. I hope that those are not contentious points. I hope that no one would seek to deny that the process started on 24 April 1915 in Constantinople, where 1,000 Armenians were identified, taken from their homes and murdered. I hope that it is not contentious to reaffirm that 300,000 Armenian males were then conscripted into the Turkish army, unarmed and then murdered, and that death marches into the Syrian desert took place.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

I do not wish to contest what my hon. Friend says, but I point out that the oppression of the Armenians started much earlier, in the 19th century, particularly under the reign of Sultan Hamid, who was one of the really evil people in this history.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister without Portfolio), Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair

Were I to attempt to address the history of the Armenian and Assyrian peoples, I would require far longer than the time that Mr. Speaker and you, Mr. Cook, have allocated to me. I shall refer later to the Caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid. For the record, I confirm that my hon. Friend is correct—massacres took place in 1895 and 1909, and throughout this period—but I am concentrating on 1915, because it is the first example of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the 20th century. For that reason, it is vital that we identify the full horror of what occurred.

I say that the events are uncontentious, yet Turkey's greatest living writer, Orhan Pamuk, is currently the subject of attack and vilification, and even a court order, for stating that the Armenian and Assyrian genocides took place. The modern Turkish Government, of whom I am no enemy and who are not entirely responsible for their precursor Ottoman empire, deny to this day that genocide took place.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The real problem is that article 301 of the Turkish penal code makes it an offence to insult Turkishness, and that is what Orhan Pamuk has been charged with. During the past year, 29 other journalists have been charged under that article, and eight have been convicted. Article 305 talks of acts against the fundamental national interest—

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

It applies in respect of the Armenian genocide and, of course, advocating troops going out of Cyprus. Article 318 is being used to oppress journalists in a similar fashion.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister without Portfolio), Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair

I freely and publicly admit that there are few in the House who have a deeper knowledge of the Turkish penal code than my hon. Friend. He is absolutely correct. To deny genocide is bad enough, but for a state to structure within its legal framework a formal legalistic denial of it seems to be taking us into another area.

I said earlier that I hoped that what I was saying was not contentious, but we have heard that it is. I put to the House the simple question, "Did it happen?" There are those in modern Turkey who would say that there was no genocide—that there was inter-communal fighting, and that a movement of people chose of their own free will to march into the desert and die; and that the decision was freely taken by people in the eastern Ottoman empire to leave their homes, in which their families had lived for hundreds of years, and to move away from their livelihoods and their ancestral lands and to choose instead a lonely death.

I find that view unconvincing, and I cite as evidence one of the most remarkable books that I have ever read. It is by Viscount Bryce and Arnold Toynbee. That book was published during the first world war at the express instigation of the then Foreign Secretary in order to respond to the reports that were then reaching Her Majesty's Government, particularly via the United States Ambassador Morgenthau, of what appeared to be a systematic programme of genocide.

Toynbee, a distinguished Oxford historian, produced one of the most thoroughly researched and empirically backed volumes that I have ever read. Over and over again, it lists evidence from people who were there at the time. The original version was censored, because it did not name the witnesses. I am grateful, as is the House, to Ara Sarafian, who has published the full uncensored edition of "The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon", which identifies those who were there at the time—those who witnessed with their own eyes the horrors to which I refer.

I give credit to Lord Avebury, known to many of us as Eric Lubbock, who with me and the tireless campaigner Odette Bazil, presented a copy of the book to Downing street last year. We know that Lord Avebury is not well, and I am sure that we all send our best wishes to him. I also pay credit to Ninos Warda, whose famous book "Seyfo: the Assyrian Genocide in International Law" was recently published.

I also cite as evidence the "Blue Book"—provable, substantiated and sustained evidence. It contains 102 specific eye-witness reports by neutral or belligerent nationals—neutrals such as the United States, and belligerent nationals such as German missionaries. It also contains 10 full statements by missionaries and missionary societies and 66 reports from Armenian clergy, local residents and refugees, as well as the extraordinary documents released by the American State Department—the state papers of Edward Nathan, the US Consul in Mersina. To read his reaction to the unfolding horrors is to realise that this truly was the first genocide of the 20th century.

We have from the then Ottoman empire the evidence of the orders of the Minister of the Interior, Talaat Pasha, to the man whose position might roughly be described as analogous to that of a deportation Minister, Abdulahad Nuri, in which the Minister of the Interior orders Nuri to increase deportation and destruction finally to "solve the Eastern Question".

Genocide did happen—3.5 million people were killed or died in the desert. Why did it happen? Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians had lived in the Ottoman empire for many hundreds of years, and some for even longer; and there was not a systematic programme or pogrom until late in the 19th century. Without doubt there were isolated incidents, but something changed, particularly during the caliphate of Sultan Abdul Hamid, and especially with the election of the Committee for Union and Progress.

Ittihadve Terakki, normally referred to now as the Young Turks, were heavily influenced by ideologues such as Via Gokalp and Behaeddin Shakir, and created an ideology of Turkification. They harked back to an earlier Turkish empire, which they wanted to see freed of those who were not Muslims and not Turkish speakers. The Christians were the obvious target.

On 12 November 1914, the sultan-caliph addressed an imperial declaration to the Turkish army and navy, demanding their participation in what he described as a "jihad"—a word that few of us knew 10 or 15 years ago, but which now sadly resonates throughout Westminster and the city. "Jihad" was the word that he used on that day. The ruling triumvirate of Talaat Pasha, Jemal Pasha and Enver Pasha were all enthusiastic supporters of the process of Turkification.

If one asks modern Turks why they still deny it, in addition to giving the theory that people willingly wandered to their deaths, they will say that the Armenians in particular were traitors. The Turks will refer to the huge Armenian community around Van lake in Van province, and the fact that some Armenians fought with General Nicolaieff, who led the Russian troops south to the Van lake and the vilayets in the area. This is an argument that constantly arises. General Nicolaieff's fighting took place in July, long after the massacres had started. By May 1915, despite strong border censorship, reports were already being taken outside the Ottoman empire by travellers, missionaries and particularly employees of the Baghdad railway. Ambassador Morgenthau received a report that the River Euphrates was so choked with bodies that the water was breaking the banks and flowing beyond its course.

At that time, further evidence was identified. Previously, forced conversions to Islam had been demanded to spare people's lives, but the rule was changed so that, to be spared, families could convert only in groups of no fewer than 100, or they would not be allowed the protection of Islam. By late May and early June, wounded orphans and widows were arriving in Aleppo, Marash, Aintab, Tarsus, Adana, Sivas, Konia and Smyrna. Refugee bodies throughout the world were begged to help those people, who were arriving in such huge numbers.

I have referred to the slaughter in Van, one of the traditional Armenian centres. That was matched, if not exceeded, by the genocide that took place in Cilicia in the vilayet of Adana and sandjak of Marash. That population had already endured a massacre as recently as 1909. Despite that, the population had increased and it was a stable community that had established its own churches and schools. There was little unemployment and a strong tradition of arable land and animal husbandry. Yet that community had the great misfortune to live on a strategic route through the empire and, more than that, to be the chosen target for Muslim refugees from the Roumelian vilayets that had been ceded by Turkey in 1913 as a consequence of the Balkan war. Those refugees wanted the area around Cilicia, and they got it—over the dead bodies of the established local community.

Zeitoun was ethnically cleansed from April 1915; its inhabitants were driven into the Anatolian desert to die. Those who did not were harried to Sultania and beyond; we do not know where they ended up nor what happened to them. We have records of who they were, but none about what happened to them. We know only that they ceased to be.

It is intensely difficult even to describe what was happening in the Ottoman empire at that time. Typically, the pattern was that Turkish regular army troops—I underscore that; they were regular army troops—would surround a village or community such as Ourfa. The local community would defend itself, as Ourfa's did for a month. Then, inevitably, through force majeure, the Turkish regulars would surround, overcome and kill.

The one exception to that horrific repetition of slaughter was in Jibal Mousa in the vilayet of Aleppo. A French naval squadron lying offshore witnessed the inhabitants' defence of Jibal Mousa, aware of the horror—the certain death—that awaited them should the Turkish regular army manage to breach their defences. The squadron rescued the inhabitants and carried them to Port Said, where they came under British protection.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

That account was very moving. It is a pity that when the same happened in Smyrna in 1923, the navies of the world stood by and let that city burn to the ground with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants—Greek, Armenian and other Christian minorities. Ultimately, that led to an exchange of populations. My hon. Friend mentioned an example of when something was done by the rest of the world. Since then, however, the rest of the world has stood by and allowed the Armenians to suffer.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister without Portfolio), Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair

As I said, if I took right hon. and hon. Members down every bloodstained byway of the 20th century, I would exceed the time that I am allowed, Mr. Cook. My hon. Friend mentions the sacking of Smyrna and its replacement by Izmir. That is a scar on the history of our globe and our people. We know that.

I seek recognition of the genocide that occurred in the Ottoman empire. One might think that that ideologically motivated, militarily enforced genocide was so horrific, appalling and awful that recognition would be almost an irrelevance; after all, it would not bring anyone back to life. However, the relatives of those who suffered have experienced what they see as a double death: the deaths of their relatives and the death—the pain and agony—that they feel, knowing that those deaths are denied by those responsible. When we take those feelings into account, we begin to understand why recognition is so crucial and important.

I am massively indebted to the work of people whom I am proud to call my friends, such as Dr. Harry Hagopian, Raffi Sarkissian, Ninab Lamasso, Andy Dharmoo and so many others. They tell me over and again that until there can be recognition of the genocide, there can be no peace. Only when the denial has been confronted and the reasons for it analysed, and when the modern, secular Turkish Government finally understand what their ancestor Government did, can there be peace.

The friends whom I mentioned make that demand for the sake of remembrance, recognition, respect, redemption—and, yes, recompense. How otherwise can a people move on? The Armenian and Assyrian community has now spread to France, San Francisco, Australia and to our islands, where its people provide a service as ideal, model citizens. They are hard-working decent people, whom we are proud to call British and our brothers and sisters. Every time we look them in the eye, we see reflected the pain of the denial of their history. We simply cannot allow that situation to pertain.

I understand how difficult matters diplomatic are, and how Turkey is becoming increasingly important in the European context. It is a country for which I have no enmity; I have affection and respect for modern Turkey and only hope that it can do as this country has in respect of the crimes committed by our ancestors in centuries past. I hope that modern Turkey can accept what happened in its name and bring some peace.

Since 1965, many countries and bodies have recognised genocide: Uruguay, Cyprus, Argentina, Russia, Greece, the United States House of Representatives, Belgium, Sweden, Lebanon, the European Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the French Assembly, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, the Swiss Parliament, the Canadian House of Commons, the Slovakian Parliament, the Dutch Parliament, the Polish Parliament, the German Bundestag, the Venezuelan Parliament, the Lithuanian Parliament and recently even bodies such as Edinburgh city council and the legislative body of British Columbia. The Holy See recognised genocide on 10 November 2000. They have all recognised that genocide occurred, and I cannot see how we can fail to follow where they lead.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

There is another reason why we should remember that first genocide of the last century: to be able to look to the future. I remind my hon. Friend of what Adolf Hitler said some 30 years after that genocide: "Who remembers the Armenians now?" That was one of his justifications for what he was doing to the Jewish community during the second world war.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Minister without Portfolio), Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair

My hon. Friend's words are so prescient and important that I almost felt like pausing when I heard them. I remember standing on the steps of Downing street with the noble Lord Avebury, who repeated those words in the original German. As we know, when people said to Hitler, "You will never be forgiven for the genocide of the Jews", he said, "Who remembers the Armenians now?"

Genocide was the new horror of the 20th century. Technology had progressed in such a way that whole populations could be slaughtered. The 1915 Armenian and Assyrian genocide in the Ottoman empire was the first; sadly it was not to be the last, either in the last century or this one. Now no one seeks to deny that genocide took place.

I hope that we can be realistic, because only when we accept that ethnic cleansing and genocide take place can we confront their horrors. We owe that not only to our Armenian, Assyrian and Greek friends, or only to our Christian friends from the former Ottoman empire, but to ourselves. How can we seek to combat the evil of genocide when the very existence of such a major example is denied?

My hon. Friend Mr. Dismore quoted Adolf Hitler. I would like to close by quoting a contemporary of Hitler's, but a man who walked in the light rather than the darkness. In 1929, Winston Churchill stated:

"In 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor...There is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons."

Churchill was right then, and he is right now. I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to this Government and this country to play their part in assuaging the agony of those whose relatives died so horribly by recognising in this country the fact that genocide took place. I hope that by such recognition in this House of Commons, in this Parliament, ultimately we may influence the Turkish Government, because as long as we refuse to recognise that genocide took place, they have the perfect excuse for denial.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Mr. Hoon, you have nine minutes in which to reply.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 4:21 pm, 7th June 2006

Thank you, Mr. Cook. It is obvious from the passionate presentation of my hon. Friend Stephen Pound that he has a thorough and detailed interest in this difficult and painful subject, and we are all grateful to him for setting out his arguments with such clarity and, indeed, for securing this debate.

This matter has been debated in this House on many occasions, not least, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, in the immediate aftermath of the 1915-16 massacres that left so many dead and forced survivors into exile. What happened to ethnic Armenians and other smaller Christian minorities living in the Ottoman empire, including the Assyrians, was roundly and rightly condemned at the time. I extend the Government's deepest sympathies to the relatives and descendants of the victims.

That the events took place, and that the then rulers of what is now Turkey should bear some degree of responsibility for encouraging, allowing or failing to prevent them, is not a matter of dispute in this House, but the main concern of this Government is not what we call such horrific events but ensuring that the lessons are learned, and that relationships are rebuilt to ensure a peaceful and secure future for everyone living in the region. To that end, we shall continue to encourage the Governments of Armenia and Turkey to improve co-operation and understanding between their countries.

I want to deal with my hon. Friend's call for the United Kingdom legally to recognise the events of 1915-16 as genocide. The fact is that the legal offence of genocide had not been named or defined at the time when the atrocities were committed. The United Nations convention on genocide came into force in 1948, so it was not possible at the time of the events that we are considering legally to label the massacres as genocide within the terms of the convention.

I recognise that it is perfectly possible intellectually to try to apply the definitions of genocide from the convention to appalling tragedies that occurred, in this case, some 30 years before. The common practice in law is not to apply such judgments retrospectively. It is not possible for us properly to provide a substitute today for the submission of evidence, cross-examination or arguments that necessarily would have arisen in mitigation in a court of law, whether a local or international one, had there been one with the necessary jurisdiction and had the crime already been recognised and defined. Not least would be the issue of who should be charged with the offence in the circumstances. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the legal process that he is asking for would not necessarily be appropriate at this stage.

In any event, as I hope he will accept, historians question each other's accounts of what took place. The debate has primarily been about the causes of the events, those responsible for them and the extent to which the wartime security context may have been a factor, perhaps obscuring the motives of those who were involved. As a result, neither this Government nor previous British Governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that the events could be categorised as genocide, as defined by the 1948 UN convention on the subject.

However, I emphasise that that in no way diminishes the scale of the terrible individual and mass tragedies that occurred between 1915-16 and both before and after, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have made clear. The key now is to ensure that the full truth about those events is brought to light and that both Armenia and Turkey look to the future.

In that context, my right hon. Friend Mr. MacShane, my distinguished predecessor as Minister for Europe, raised the need for an independent inquiry on the events of 1915-16 at a European Union ministerial meeting with Turkey in March 2005, in an attempt to promote a truth and reconciliation process. I share the view that the work of establishing truth, if it is indeed to help towards reconciliation, must be conducted as a joint exercise by the parties directly involved. Outsiders can commend the idea to them, but they should not try to do the work for them, as the doing of the work by the parties themselves is an important part of the confidence-building and reconciliation process.

Last year, shortly after that idea was proposed, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and the leader of the main Turkish opposition party joined forces to call for an impartial investigation by Armenian and Turkish historians of the allegations. I understand that the Armenians felt unable to accept the proposal at that time, but we believe the Turkish proposal to be a welcome signal that Turkey wishes to engage with its neighbour and re-examine the issue. My conclusion is that the idea, or some variant of it, is not at an end, but that further developments in the international situation will be needed before the idea can be explored again and constructively developed.

Obviously, I cannot give the House an absolute assurance that Armenia and Turkey will undertake to move relations forward this year or even the next, although I certainly hope that they will, but I commend to the House the idea that the resolution of the questions raised by my hon. Friend should be pursued through some kind of truth and reconciliation process undertaken by the people of Armenia and Turkey. This Government will continue to encourage the parties to embark on such a process. In the meantime, we should resist the temptation to pre-empt its conclusions.

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INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF GENOCIDE SCHOLARS President: Robert Melson (USA) Vice-President: Israel Charny (Israel) Secretary-Treasurer: Steven Jacobs (USA) April 6, 2005 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Ankara, Turkey Dear Prime Minister Erdogan: We are writing you this open letter in response to your call for an "impartial study by historians" concerning the fate of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. We represent the major body of scholars who study genocide in North America and Europe. We are concerned that in calling for an impartial study of the Armenian Genocide you may not be fully aware of the extent of the scholarly and intellectual record on the Armenian Genocide and how this event conforms to the definition of the United Nations Genocide Convention. We want to underscore that it is not just Armenians who are affirming the Armenian Genocide but it is hundreds of independent scholars, who have no affiliations with governments, and whose work spans many countries and nationalities and the course of decades. The scholarly evidence reveals the following: On April 24, 1915, under cover of World War I, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens - an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches. Another million fled into permanent exile. Thus an ancient civilization was expunged from its homeland of 2,500 years. The Armenian Genocide was the most well-known human rights issue of its time and was reported regularly in newspapers across the United States and Europe. The Armenian Genocide is abundantly documented by thousands of official records of the United States and nations around the world including Turkey's wartime allies Germany, Austria and Hungary, by Ottoman court-martial records, by eyewitness accounts of missionaries and diplomats, by the testimony of survivors, and by decades of historical scholarship. The Armenian Genocide is corroborated by the international scholarly, legal, and human rights community: 1. Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, when he coined the term genocide in 1944,cited the Turkish extermination of the Armenians and the Nazi extermination of the Jews as defining examples of what he meant by genocide. 2. The killings of the Armenians is genocide as defined by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. 3. In 1997 the International Association of Genocide Scholars, an organization of the world's foremost experts on genocide, unanimously passed a formal resolution affirming the Armenian Genocide. 4. 126 leading scholars of the Holocaust including Elie Wiesel and Yehuda Bauer placed a statement in the New York Times in June 2000 declaring the "incontestable fact of the Armenian Genocide" and urging western democracies to acknowledge it. 5. The Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide (Jerusalem), the Institute for the Study of Genocide (NYC) have affirmed the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide. 6. Leading texts in the international law of genocide such as William A. Schabas's Genocide in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2000) cite the Armenian Genocide as a precursor to the Holocaust and as a precedent for the law on crimes against humanity. We note that there may be differing interpretations of genocide - how and why the Armenian Genocide happened, but to deny its factual and moral reality as genocide...

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