Turning a blind eye: the Armenian genocide

April 24th marks the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian genocide; an event in history which continues to be deeply controversial and bitterly contested to this day. The mass killing of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the remains of the war-torn empire in WW1, is widely regarded by historians as one of the world’s first modern genocides. However, over a century later, Turkey still resists calls to accept responsibility for the atrocities caused. Instead, they maintain a staunch position of denial; a sustained campaign with damaging political and human costs on the past, present and future.   

armenia 1 As Gregory Stanton (President of Genocide Watch) observes, the process of denial in itself is the marked final stage of genocide. Perpetrators try to wash their hands clean of violence using a multitude of tactics which Turkey has pursued over generations:

  1. Dispute the scale of atrocities: figures collected by scholarship indicate the death toll to range at least from 800,000 to over 1.5 million, with only 300,000 Armenians surviving post 1922 in the Ottoman empire. Turkey outright rejects this number, undermining research methodology and claiming casualties to be 500,000 at most.
  2. Claim Muslim Turks were also victims of ethnic violence: Turkey has highlighted the propensity for history to selectively ignore mass deaths of Turks during the same period, however these casualties were largely a direct result of war as opposed to a systematic annihilation of a group.
  3. Question the ‘intent to destroy’: As per the genocide convention, Turkey refutes this condition has been met. They reframe the forced deportations and death marches across the Mesopotamian desert as ‘temporary relocations’ due to security concerns, with mass deaths being due to starvation not intentional extermination
  4. Blame the victims: Killings were justified and in self-defence of enemies of the Ottoman empire who held pro-Russian sentiments and were rightly held suspicious

Despite these rebuttals, academic scholarship counters Turkish denialists with well-established evidence denying any historical ambiguity, with a unanimous consensus that genocide occurred. These tactics may be predictable, but what is striking is the persistence of Turkish denialism that remains undiluted even today. The movement of ‘Turkification’ established by founder of the succeeding republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, shows the sustained power of social engineering on the conscience. Collective amnesia of their multicultural roots and historical revisionism in narrating the events of 1915 have led Turkish citizens to deny involvement in essentially, a mass murder. This ingrained social pathology of a version of events is hardwired into minds and thus difficult to overcome with time. Even worse, attitudes of denial are all managed through the state apparatus whereby Turkish nationalism trumps efforts to recognise Armenia; to the extent that it is still illegal to mention the genocide under Article 301 of the state’s penal code at the risk of insulting ‘Turkish-ness’.

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Political costs of denial As of 2017, 29 countries have recognised the Armenian genocide; however, it comes at a price. States such as Germany have faced Turkey’s ire through the breaking of diplomatic ties and strained bilateral relations on announcement of recognising the Armenian massacre. The importance of genocide denial still forms a cornerstone of Turkish foreign policy with the state using their geopolitical leverage to subvert other countries attempts at acknowledgement. Efforts by Turkey in lobbying Washington or threatening retaliation, set a dangerous precedent of holding the world to ransom; for example, by withdrawing cooperation in other international conflicts such as Syria or Iraq. Strategic international allies such as the Israel, UK and US have yet to formally recognise the Armenian genocide to avoid harming relations, with responses ranging from feigning ignorance to tepid acceptance without using the ‘g word’ at a federal level. As a result, Turkish denialism has encouraged plus institutionalised bad behaviour wherein political gains are made at the expense of silencing our moral compass.

Human cost of denial  Perhaps even more devastating is the silencing of the voices of victims and their ancestors who still cannot fully heal without basic recognition of the crimes committed against them. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel notes, genocide denial is at its core a double killing, as its strives to destroy the memory of original atrocities. Turkish reluctance to own up to their part in past injustices has repercussions in the now with ethnic tensions and divisions still resurfacing years on. Armenia is a profound and cautionary lesson to what happens when the pillars of remembrance, education and action are not effectively instated post genocide. In essence, denialism is a type of learnt behaviour instilled at the individual and national level, as well as copied across the globe such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of response to the Rohingya crisis. It therefore makes it even more of an imperative that we call out atrocities with conviction when they occur, hold perpetrators to account and ensure victims get justice to prevent history from repeating itself.


This blog post was written by Aysha Adbul Khader who studies Politics and IR at LSE and is one of STAND UK's Regional Organisers.