By David Tolbert
Denial, the last bastion of those who commit genocide, disrespects the victims and their communities and lays a foundation of lies for a future that is likely to be characterized by even more conflict and repression. Given this, one must ask: Is acknowledging the Armenian genocide in Turkey’s long-term interest?
Scholars have identified a “template of denial” that perpetrators of such crimes use to maintain the status quo. First and foremost, they do not acknowledge that genocide took place. Instead, they invert the story to portray the victims as perpetrators. They then insist that a larger number of victims came from the perpetrator’s group and downplay the total number of victims. Official documents that might challenge this version of events are destroyed.
Based on this new story, deniers then argue that the crime does not fit the legal definition of genocide in international conventions. Other states are then pressured to accept the revised account and not to call the crime a genocide. The crime is to be relativized in whatever way possible.
The Turkish government has been following this template for a century. But there is another path that Turkey can follow, one that has been traveled by countries with historical burdens that are at least as heavy: ending the politics of denial and embracing acknowledgement, thereby opening the way for reconciliation and progress.
For Turkey, the first step would be for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to apologize to the Armenian community for the genocide. The apology would have to be straightforward and credible, unlike his recent statement, in which he effectively denied the genocide by referring vaguely to “the events of 1915” and trivialized the Armenians’ suffering by equating it with that of “every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire” at the time. Erdoğan would have to acknowledge publicly that genocide was committed, recognize the state’s failure to protect its citizens, and offer a promise that such atrocities will not happen again.
Another crucial measure would be to establish a truthful and accurate historical record of what happened to the Armenians. To this end, an independent commission – composed of a mixture of national and international experts – should be established to build on the work of the unofficial Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission. Pertinent recent examples of such official commissions can be found in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Turkey should also provide reparations for Armenians, whose plundered property has enriched the modern Turkish state. Initiatives should aim to address the material needs and, at least symbolically, compensate the losses suffered by Armenians inside and outside Turkey. Monuments and memorials can also serve an important purpose in providing an enduring reminder not only of the victims, but also of the state’s promise never to allow such atrocities to happen again.
In a country where perpetrators of genocide have been placed in the pantheon of national heroes, all of this would not only help to alleviate Armenians’ frustration and grief; it would also send a message to Turkey’s citizens, especially its many minorities, that the state takes human rights and the rule of law seriously. This is no trivial matter: Turkey currently bears the dubious distinction of having the highest number of judgments for human-rights violations rendered against it by the European Court of Human Rights.
But symbolic measures, while important, are not enough to bring about real progress. Turkey’s government must demonstrate its commitment to ensuring that its laws and institutions effectively protect the human rights of all of its citizens. In doing so, it would improve its standing in Europe and beyond.
Turkey has an important role to play in its region and the world – one that is undermined by its continued denial of the Armenian genocide. Its disingenuous approach to the genocide is inconsistent with its efforts to cultivate a reputation as an honest, reliable partner.
By acknowledging the Armenian genocide, Turkey would establish itself as a mature democracy and reinforce its standing as a legitimate regional power. This would enhance geopolitical stability by strengthening Turkey’s capacity to mediate and support initiatives in regional contexts where impunity reigns, such as in Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Sudan.
Clearly, the benefits of acknowledging the Armenian genocide are far-reaching. But perhaps most compelling are the dangers of maintaining the status quo. As the psychologist Israel Charny has put it the denial of genocide enables “the emergence of new forms of genocidal violence to peoples in the future.”
Erdoğan need not emulate Willy Brandt’s famous Kniefall von Warschau, when Germany’s then-chancellor genuflected before the monument to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But, in his own way, he needs to apologize sincerely on behalf of the Turkish state and declare convincingly, “never again.”
David Tolbert is President at the International Center for Transitional Justice and a former assistant secretary-general at the United Nations.