The Armenian Genocide

Par Harry Dikranian le 26 avril 2015

Last Friday marked the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Those two words, “Armenian Genocide,” are usually not capitalized, except in the minds and hearts of its survivors. Very few are alive today. But for their descendants around the world, the Armenian Genocide is a rallying cry for more than remembrance.

What happened on April 24, 1915? Ottoman Turkish soldiers carried out a centrally planned executive order to gather the Armenian minority’s elite. Over 250 political, professional, religious and business leaders were brutally marched into exile to the Syrian desert or simply killed.

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With the leadership of this ancestral minority people gone, Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman army, including my grandfather’s older brother and their father, were stripped of their weapons, ranks and titles and sent to work camps, where they were never heard from again.  

Nearly 1.5 million men, women and children met the fate of their leadership through indiscriminate murder, under the guise of deportation purportedly meant to move them from the eastern fronts and to protect them from the advancing Russian army.

In most cases, for Armenians living in central or western Turkey, there was no rationale whatsoever for deportations, except that they were Armenians and Christians. They were the minority group, who merely posed an existential threat in the racist minds of the ruling Turkish Muslim majority.

As is still too often the case, the reaction by world powers was timid. Many countries simply did not want to interfere in the internal affairs of a foreign government.

Foreign service offices of many world powers—the French, the British, the Americans and even the Germans—sent powerful telegrams back home, urging their governments to react. United States ambassador at the time, Henry Morgenthau was most vocal against the atrocities.

Samantha Power, today’s United States ambassador to the United Nations and Harvard professor, in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning study, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” concluded on Morgenthau:

Sensing Turkish sensitivity to the outside world’s opinion, Morgenthau pleaded with his superiors to throw protocol and neutrality aside and to issue a direct government-to-government appeal ‘on behalf of humanity’ to stop the killings. He also urged the United States to convince the German kaiser to stop the Turks’‘annihilation of a Christian race.’ And he called on Washington to press the Turks to allow humanitarian aid deliveries to those Armenians already deported and in danger of starving to death in the desert.”

The impotence of non-interference, or so-called neutrality, gave rise to the first private and massive international humanitarian effort, known as the Near East Relief movement. Over $117 million dollars were raised (today’s equivalent of about $2  billion) to aid Armenians in the aftermath of the genocide. According to the Near East Relief Foundation, the money helped save 132,000 orphans.

Canadians old enough to remember well know the common admonition for children to finish their plates: “Think of the starving Armenians who would like to have the food you are wasting.”  

A few years after 1915, the Armenian Relief Association of Canada was formed with the goal of rescuing orphaned boys between the ages of eight and 12 and setting them up on a farm in Georgetown, Ont. There, the young refugees would be cared for, educated and trained as farm helpers. By 1924, 110 orphans had been placed in Canadian homes. “The rescue of these Armenian orphans came to be known as ’Canada’s Noble Experiment,’” writes Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in her book Aram’s Choice, about the Georgetown Boys. “It was Canada’s first international humanitarian effort.”

Raphaël Lemkin, a prominent Jewish lawyer and activist, created the word “genocide” for what was then known as the crime without a name. During an interview with CBS, news commentator Quincy Howe asked him how he came to be interested in the crime of genocide. Lemkin answered: “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

International reaction to the many genocides perpetrated later in the 20th century was just as disappointing and impotent. We don’t need to go very far as we think of the profound depression that engulfed Roméo Dallaire, Canadian war hero, former senator and force commander for the United Nations, in the aftermath of the horrific genocide against Tutsis, in Rwanda.

The battle cry of “Never Again” following the Holocaust has more accurately and tragically become “Again and Again.”

Many things have changed in the last 100 years. Armenia became an independent country in 1991, and diasporan Armenians have prospered around the world. One thing that still remains is Turkey’s relentless denial of well-established historical realities and all-too-ready lambasting of anyone who dares use the word “genocide.” Recalling their ambassadors, as they have done from France, Canada or as they more recently did from the Vatican.

Despite their constant denials of atrocities, it is now commonly known that would-be western Jihadists make their way to Syria from Turkey. Turkey has also been quietly supporting all movements that threaten its rising Kurdish minorities, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Kurds in Turkey continue to suffer under the yoke of discriminatory practices, with little right of assembly or association, and are subject to wholesale detention, arrest and murder.  

In March 2014, mortar shells and terrorists entered the historic Syrian Armenian town of Kessab from Turkey and uprooted the local Christian Armenian population. This is a second displacement of Armenians, since those who were living in Kessab were all descendants of the Armenian Genocide. And this happened now, in the 21st century.

It is almost trite to say that a much more vigorous response is needed to prevent atrocity than to simply not forget. World opinion must also continue to unbendingly shine brightly on the tragedies of history. It is simply inhumane to appease oppressor states for short-term interests.

This is why I have been so proud of Canada’s consistent stance in  repeatedly recognizing the Armenian Genocide, since 2004. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has maintained a principled approach, just as  Pope Francis and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently

Ronald Reagan, in his presidential proclamation on April 22, 1981, stated: “Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians,which followed it—and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples—the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.”

For the sake of humanity, in this new century, I refuse to believe that the only lesson of history will be appeasement.

This is also why, on May 3, 2015, I will be participating in an international worldwide “March for Justice, for Humanity and for the Prevention of Genocides.” The Montreal division, with  an expected 10,000 participants, will leave at 2:30 p.m. from Westmount Park and end at the Quartier des spectacles.

Can we continue ignoring the call for more than remembrance?  We can ill afford to remain silent, even as we remember, now 100 years later.

Harry Dikranian is Vice Chairman of the Armenian Bar Association and  a Montreal commercial, civil and human rights lawyer, practising at Sternthal Katznelson Montigny in Montreal. He has successfully challenged the application of illegal provincial laws in Quebec and Turkey.

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