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The need for human rights NGOs to fight the cancer of State-sponsored denial

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Alexis Krikorian


"A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length even become the laughing-stock of the world".

"Whoever can discern truth has received his commission from a higher source than the chiefest justice in the world who can discern only law ".

Henry David Thoreau. Slavery in Massachusetts.

Huge crowds of mourners bidding farewell to Hrant Dink (23rd January 2007, Istanbul)

In a global context where the right to the truth is increasingly emerging as an intangible right under international law, and at a time when the UN has just recognized the Khmer Rouge genocide[1], it is high time that human rights NGOs include Turkey's recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians and Christian minorities in their advocacy portfolio if they wish to contribute even more effectively to the development of a peaceful, truly democratic and human rights-conscious Turkey.

Beyond the moral question, it is an imperative of efficiency. As a former director of the Freedom to Publish Program of the International Publishers Association (IPA), I can say that fighting for a publisher or writer to be able to publish a book on the 1915 genocide (one of the 5 great taboos of modern Turkey[2]) by calling for compliance with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (on freedom of expression) or the abolition of Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code (criminalizing insult to Turkishness) is necessary, but not enough and only highlights the problem. The NGO that calls for the release of a particular writer or the acquittal of a particular journalist is condemned, like Sisyphus, to painfully repeat, the same gesture, the same request, in vain, writer after writer, publisher after publisher, journalist after journalist. Before Article 301, there was Article 306. After article 301, there will be another article. If Article 301 it not used, then it is Law 5816, which aims at protecting Atatürk's memory from insult, which is used. If it is not this Law, then it is the huge anti-terrorist arsenal that is used to criminalize thought, lock up or drive out of the country opponents, free thinkers and those who have a taste for the truth.

In any case, we see how little regard the Turkish state has for the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, for example in the case of Demirtaş by refusing to release him despite the Court's injunction.

Overcoming the myth of Sisyphus

What should human rights NGOs do to overcome the myth of Sisyphus in the case of Turkey? They should go further, to the roots of the evil that has plagued this country for more than a century, locking it in a terrible cycle of violence and continuous human rights violations. After decades of silence on this issue, they must find the courage to ask Turkey to put in place a policy of memory founded on the scientific consensus and end its official policy of negationism, a real cancer for human rights. This non-recognition of the Armenian genocide is the matrix of the Turkish state's violence against all its minorities. It is at the heart of a system that crushes human rights. Asking for Turkey's recognition of the Armenian genocide also means, for example, helping the LGBT community in Turkey to have their rights finally respected. Because it is a real and powerful commitment to a Turkey that faces and accepts its past and respects differences, all differences. Otherwise, the insult "Armenian sperm" will continue to be used in Turkey, even when the last Armenian has disappeared from Turkish soil. Just as the LGBT community will continue to be despised. A Turkey at peace with its past and respectful of differences will also be a factor of appeasement in the region, a force for peace.

The reasons why human rights NGOs must address the issue of the Armenian genocide

States cannot be asked to understand this because they are to a large extent "cold monsters" that only see their interests. Organizations such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) have also amply demonstrated, through their extensive investigations, that some Western politicians or dignitaries are easily corruptible, such as the husband of former UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova (Kalin Mitrev) or Italian MP Luca Volonte[3].

But NGOs whose aim is to promote human rights are not corruptible and must understand the need to grasp this historical depth if they are to make a lasting, radical and effective difference in the field of human rights in Turkey. This is the first and most important reason for the need for their engagement on the issue of the Armenian genocide.

Contrary to the wishes of the Turkish authorities, NGOs must not leave this issue to historians alone. There has been a scientific consensus on this issue for a very long time. And it is still relevant today[4]. Indeed, the truth about the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, who spoke openly about the Armenian genocide, has still not emerged (Will it ever? According to the Turkish judiciary, his murder did not result from a conspiracy of an illegal network within the Turkish state). The case of the philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been languishing in prison without being charged for more than a year, also shows the topicality of the issue of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. Osman Kavala has always promoted the duty to remember in Turkey.

Secondly, international NGOs must also engage on this fundamental issue in order to support the courageous Turkish national NGOs that have been engaged for years now, despite the immensity of the danger, on the recognition of the genocide of Armenians, such as Dur De and the Human Rights Association (IHD), one of whose co-founders is an honorary member of Hyestart, publisher Ragıp Zarakolu.

Third, human rights NGOs are increasingly committed to stopping the cycle of violence in crisis areas in order to save lives and fight impunity. These struggles, led by incredible people and with the use of new technologies, are admirable and deserve to be supported by all means, including increased financial means. They represent the future of human rights work. In the case of Turkey and the Middle East, these struggles would be even more effective if the historical perspective, which is still alive, were finally taken into account in order to enrich the advocacy portfolio. Denouncing the situation of the Kurds in the Sur district (Diyarbakir) is necessary, but not sufficient. It is also necessary to denounce the cycle of state violence that has been repeated for at least 100 years and that is based on State-sponsored denial. The situation in Sur can only improve if a policy of memory is put in place and if the Armenian genocide is recognized.

Fourth, the right to the truth (about gross human rights violations) is increasingly emerging in international law as an intangible right linked to the State's duty to protect and guarantee human rights[5]. There is still a small Armenian community in Turkey with 50,000 members. The latter is entitled to expect the right to the truth from its State about what happened a 100 years ago and why and how it went from 2 million to 50,000 during this period.

Finally, the human rights and freedom of expression NGOs cannot be accomplices -- by omission -- to a policy of State-sponsored denial which is a deeply racist policy that still leads to murders, calls for murder or scenes where the Turkish army, entering a Kurdish village, "insult" the inhabitants by calling them "Armenian sperm" with a megaphone. They must commit themselves to the dismantling of this state negationism, which is a poison for democracy and human rights in Turkey.

It is worthwhile to focus here for a moment on the concept of state negationism in the Turkish case.

State negationism

In the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, the denial of the Armenian Genocide is defined as the "most flagrant example of a State's denial of its past[6]".

For Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch and former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), denying genocide is the eighth and final step in genocide[7]. "It is actually a continuation of the genocide, because it is a continuing attempt to destroy the victim group psychologically and culturally, to deny its members even the memory of the murders of their relatives". For more than 20 years already, the latter association has unanimously considered the massacre of Armenians in 1915 to be genocide. As early as the 1940s, the creator of the concept of genocide, Raphaël Lemkin, first spoke of the "Armenian genocide".

Yet, despite the international scientific consensus on the issue, the recognition of genocide is out of the question in Turkey. After the war, the denial of the extermination became, as Turkish historian Taner Akçam said, one of the founding myths of the modern Turkish Republic.

The Turkish Historical Society played a central role in the development of the Turkish official position. Created by Atatürk in the 1930s, "its aim is to consolidate Turkish identity through history, and will therefore be led to defend Turkish official theses at the cost of writing an "official", complacent history, not hesitating, for example, to challenge the Altaic origin of the Turkish peoples and the precedence of the Armenian presence in Western Armenia or Eastern Anatolia[8]".

In Turkish textbooks, the Armenian genocide and the "1915 events" were simply denied by omission before 2003. As early as 2003, a circular from the Turkish Ministry of National Education required textbooks to denounce the "unfounded claims of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians[9]". 2003 was, however, the year of the AKP's rise to power. This shows that state negationism is understood as a form of negationism that does not depend on a government. Whether it is the AKP (right), the CHP (Kemalist left), or of course the MHP (far right), the collusion of the main political parties is total on the subject.

The institutionalization of State-sponsored denial also covers the legislative field with, as we have seen, article 301 of the Penal Code (insult to the Turkish nation). Let us take a slight step backwards: Article 306 of the new Penal Code adopted on 27 September 2004 punished those who would harm the Turkish national interest with heavy fines and between 3 and 10 years' imprisonment. Only two examples of such a national interest being undermined were cited in Article 306: calling for the evacuation of northern Cyprus by Turkish troops, or saying that Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were victims of genocide during the World War I. In doing so, Turkey formalized its policy of denying the Armenian genocide in its penal code. Following various protests, Article 306 became Article 301, prohibiting the insult to "Turkishness" and then, after reform, to the Turkish nation. In October 2011, the European Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment in the case of Altug Taner Akçam v. Turkey. According to the Court, Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, as amended in 2008, continues to violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This article 301 has been used to prosecute personalities as diverse as Orhan Pamuk, Ragıp Zarakolu, Murat Belge, Perihan Mağden, Temel Demirer... Or the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He was murdered in 2007 after being convicted under Article 301. At his funeral, the huge crowd carried many signs, one of which clearly said: "Katil 301" (article 301 murderer). Although many Turkish and international organizations defending freedom of expression have repeatedly called for the repeal of this famous article, it is unfortunately still in force and continues to be used, for example in the context of the Turkish military intervention in Afrin in early 2018[10].

It is therefore not simply the repeal of Article 301 that must be called for, but what constitutes its ideological basis, State-sponsored denial.

Abroad, Turkish diplomacy is carrying out important lobbying work to oppose the recognition of the genocide. The Turkish government is deploying a budget and a network of considerable pressure to achieve its goals. To give an idea of the means at stake, in an area related to the genocide issue, Turkey is reported to have offered $15 million to Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to Donald Trump, for the capture of Gülen[11]. "We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective” Flynn wrote in a piece published on Election Day[12] .

In a lecture he gave in June 2011, Turkish historian Taner Akçam said that a confidential source in Istanbul had "informed him about the Turkish government's scheme to bribe scholars (in the United States) to deny the Armenian genocide[13]".

"In 1990, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton - specializing in the psychological effects of wars - received a letter from Nüzhet Kandemir, Turkish Ambassador to the United States, questioning his inclusion of references to the Armenian genocide in one of his books. The ambassador inadvertently included a draft letter, presented by Heath W. Lowry, advising the Ambassador on how to prevent mention of the Armenian genocide in scholarly work. Lowry was later appointed to the Atatürk Chair of Ottoman Studies at Princeton University, which had been endowed a $750,000 grant from the Republic of Turkey. The incident has been the subject of numerous reports as to ethics in scholarship[14] [15]".

In addition, "in order to institutionalize this campaign of denial and try to invest it with an aura of legitimacy, a "think tank" was established in Ankara in April 2001. Operating under the name of "Institute for Armenian Research" as a subsidiary of the Centre for Eurasian Studies, with a staff of nine, this new outfit is now proactively engaged in contesting all claims of genocide by organizing a series of conferences, lectures and interviews, and above all, through the medium of publications, including a quarterly review[16]". It is possible that this "think tank" has since merged into the Centre for Eurasian Studies[17], a "semi-official Turkish think tank whose mission is to keep alive this state religion called "ataturkology" (atatürkçülük) and to reject the Armenian genocide accordingly. This institution is headed by former ambassadors and other retired diplomats[18]".

Colin Tatz, Professor of Macquarie University (Australia), considers the nature of the Turkish denial industry to be "pernicious, outrageous and continued":

"Here is a modern state, totally dedicated, at home and abroad, to extraordinary actions to have every hint or mention of an Armenian genocide removed, contradicted, explained, countered, justified, mitigated, rationalized, trivialized and relativized[19] [20]".

In an open letter by the "Danish Department for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the denial and relativization of the Armenian genocide", historians Torben Jorgensen and Matthias Bjornlund wrote:

"When it comes to the historical reality of the Armenian genocide, there is no “Armenian” or “Turkish” side of the “question,” any more than there is a “Jewish” or a “German” side of the historical reality of the Holocaust: There is a scientific side, and an unscientific side acknowledgment or denial. In the case of the denial of the Armenian genocide, it is even founded on a massive effort of falsification, distortion, cleansing of archives, and direct threats initiated or supported by the Turkish state, making any “dialogue” with Turkish deniers highly problematic[21]“.

Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett write that "Armenian cultural remains in Turkey are frequently dismissed or referred to as monuments of the "Ottoman period", and that the continued denial of the State-sponsored genocide is related to these practices[22]". All you have to do is go to Ani, an ancient Armenian capital located on the Turkish side of the border, to be confronted with the incredible symbolic violence of this denial. None of the tourist signs on the site mention the word "Armenian". The use of euphemisms such as "rich merchants", "Bagratides" or "prince of the Middle Ages" being preferred. Of the 2500 Armenian churches of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, only a handful remain.

Finally, it should be recalled that in 1994, the Zarakolu's publishing house (Belge) was firebombed. The previous year, it had become the first publishing house in Turkey to publish a book on the Armenian genocide[23].

Next steps for human rights and freedom of expression NGOs in the fight against State-sponsored denial

NGOs whose mandate covers all human rights must include the establishment of a policy of memory founded on the scientific consensus, the recognition of the 1915 genocide, the end of the State-sponsored denial and the right to the truth for the Armenian community in Turkey in their advocacy portfolio for moral, effective and solidarity imperatives in a context where the right to the truth is emerging as an intangible right under international law.

In addition to advocacy on recognition, working groups could, for example, be set up within NGOs to define the outlines of a memory policy in the Armenian case in Turkey. One question could be whether truth and reconciliation commissions are an appropriate vehicle for a genocide that took place more than 100 years ago. Another fundamental question would be: what right to the truth does the Turkish Armenian community have from the Turkish state?

Anyone working in an NGO knows that the issue of the "mandate" is central and sometimes justifies a certain inaction in the name of "coherence of the mandate". In my opinion, it is appropriate here to draw a parallel with the legality of the State, which sometimes justifies the worst horrors. This raises the question of NGOs whose mandate is limited to freedom of expression.

The answer is more difficult because, clearly, it would mean for them to go beyond their mandate. In the name of efficiency, however, I would tend to say that they must also "take the plunge" in a way that will keep their members happy; in the name of scientific truth as well. International PEN, which has just held its 84th International Congress in Pune (India), celebrating the Gandhian values of truth and non-violence[24], should, in my opinion, lead the way for other organizations defending freedom of expression by resolutely and publicly committing itself against Turkish state denial, which is none other than state racism and an abuse of freedom of expression. And by committing itself to the right to the truth for the Armenian community in Turkey. The commitment of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Boev) against racism[25] in Germany is, in my opinion, a healthy example to follow.

The consequences experienced as a result of NGOs' lack of commitment to the recognition of the Armenian genocide are clear. The Armenians, like other peoples of Turkey, are still waiting for justice and for their history to be told in truth. Facing and accepting the truth about its past is the only way forward for a Turkey that is fully democratic and respectful of human rights.

[2] Defined in particular by Ragıp Duran: a. Sharia Law/Political Islam, b. the Army, c. Kemalism, d. The Kurdish Issue/Kurdish Separatism, and e. the Armenian Genocide.

[4] University of California, Los Angeles scholar Leo Kuper in a review on Ervin Staub's "The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence" research, wrote:[92]

The Armenian genocide is a contemporary current issue, given the persistent aggressive denial of the crime by the Turkish government-not withstanding its own judgment in courts martial after the first World War, that its leading ministers had deliberately planned and carried out the annihilation of Armenians, with the participation of many regional administrators.

[6] Imbleau, Martin (2005). "Denial". In Dinah Shelton. Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Macmillan Reference. p. 244

[16] America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915, by J. M. Winter, Paul Kennedy, Antoine Prost, Emmanuel Sivan, preface by V. Dadrian, 2003, Cambridge University Press, 332 p., ISBN 0-521-82958-5, p. 54

[20] With Intent to Destroy: Reflecting on Genocide, by Colin Martin Tatz, 2003, Verso, 222 p., ISBN 1-85984-550-9, p. 129

[22] Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology. Edited by Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 341 p., ISBN 0-521-48065-5, p. 170

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