By: Aryeh Neier
Somalilandsun – One hundred years ago, on April 24, 1915, officials of the Ottoman Empire rounded up some 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople and prepared them for deportation. It was the beginning of a historic massacre, in which as many as 1.5 million of the two million Armenians living in the empire were killed.
In the weeks leading up to the tragedy’s centenary, the debate over whether the killings amounted to genocide has predictably flared anew. Pope Francis and the European Parliament are among those who have lent their voices to those who say they did – drawing the condemnation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others in his government.
Reactions like Erdoğan’s are unfortunate. Turkey has long portrayed the massacre of the Armenians as uncoordinated and unfortunate acts resulting from the chaos of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It would be wise to reconsider this position. The stance taken by Erdoğan and others fosters anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, by encouraging the impression that modern Turkey’s leaders and people, though not responsible for the crimes themselves, are guilty of denying them.
Whether or not the use of the word “genocide” is appropriate, Turkey should recognize that it is not alone among great states with a history of committing great crimes. For nearly a century after the United States was founded, slavery remained legal; untold numbers of Africans and their descendants suffered in bondage or died horrifying deaths. For another century, legalized racial segregation was maintained in much of the country. Many aspects of the nineteenth-century slaughter of the indigenous population in the US were genocidal in nature.
During World War II, Japanese troops may have murdered as many as ten million civilians in China, Korea, and elsewhere. And, of course, Germany engaged in genocide against the Jews and the Roma during World War II, as well as slaughtering many millions of ethnic Slavs.
Millions of Russians and others died in the Soviet Gulag system during Joseph Stalin’s rule. Millions more died of starvation in Ukraine as a result of his policies. Great numbers of ethnic minorities – “the punished peoples” – died during forced deportations from Western Russia.
In China, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward is estimated to have killed 36 million people, many of them by starvation. Their suffering was covered up by the communist regime, making it impossible to organize relief efforts. Mao subsequently launched the Cultural Revolution, which devastated China and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.
When India was partitioned following independence in 1947, perhaps as many as a million Muslim and Hindu civilians were murdered on religious grounds. And in 1971, Pakistani troops and allied militias massacred up to three million Bangladeshi civilians to suppress the Bengali drive for independence.
These countries have taken different approaches in facing up to the crimes of their past. On the far end of the spectrum is Germany. Memorials to the genocide and other war crimes have been given prominent placement in Berlin, the country’s capital, ensuring that residents of the city and visitors alike are constantly reminded of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Other countries have done far less to acknowledge the shameful aspects of their history, and many could do much more. But none responds as vehemently as Turkey does when the word “genocide” is used to describe what happened a century ago. The angry reaction – combined with the government’s diplomatic reprisals against those who use the word – has the perverse effect of stigmatizing present-day Turks as deniers of one of the great crimes of the twentieth century.
Turkey would be far better off facing up to the crimes of the past, as Germany has done. Germany’s horrific history is well known, but today few countries are as widely admired. Germany also has excellent relations with the countries whose people suffered most under the Nazis. The Holocaust is internationally recognized as belonging to a different era and being in no way representative of the country’s current leaders or its people.
The best way for a country to rehabilitate its reputation is to accept the truth about past atrocities and the responsibility, both symbolic and material, that it owes to the victims and their survivors. Only then can it draw a thick line between past and present.
The writer Aryeh Neier, is President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch and also the author of The International Human Rights Movement: A History.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.