The duty of genocide denial falls to the historian

Genocide is a legal term, and so it is not up to historians to decide whether an event constitutes genocide. Even so, Turkey's sensitive national feelings and the injustices of the past would not allow a commission of historians to function as intended.

A significant event occurred last week. The “Alevi” video shared by Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu on his Twitter account made waves across the country.

It is outside the scope of this writing to interpret that video, but I think Ali Topuz, in his latest piece, provides an astute analysis of what Kilicdaroglu achieved with his post: “Kilicdaroglu’s latest ‘Alevi’ video is a three-layered action. It is a form of personal disclosure, then a critical threshold in the Alevi struggle for equality, and finally an invitation to a future in which one’s faith is not cause for discrimination.

Kilicdaroglu’s video attracted a swarm of comments, some tantamount to hate speech, with TRT World writer Tallha Abdulrazaq’s mention of Sultan Selim I the Resolute drawing the most attention.

In his post, Abdulrazaq remarked, “May the mere memory of Sultan Selim keep your cult from power.”

There was an avalanche of responses to Abdulrazaq’s tweet. People who are well-known, important, or respected in their fields called on users to report the post to Twitter as hate speech. I was pleased to see such a strong reaction to hate speech.

However, I recall that some among the many offended by Abdulrazaq’s words do not display the same sensitivity when it comes to April 24, which marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Certainly, we have all seen the people who, on that date, comment on posts condemning the genocide with photographs of Talaat and Enver Pashas, the primary perpetrators of the crime, as well as posts extolling the virtues of the genocide perpetrators.

One cannot help but wonder why those who acknowledge that the Ottoman Sultans had genocidal policies fall silent when the Committee of Union and Progress is in question…

More than 30 countries across the world categorize the forced migration and massacres which soon morphed into an extermination movement in 1915 as a genocide against Armenians.

Save for a small, exceptional group in Turkey that recognizes the genocide, everyone else resorts to parroting the same “most rational” proposal whenever this topic makes the rounds: “Let us leave history to the historians, our archives are open, no one can accuse Turks of being genocide perpetrators.”

This statement is echoed by representatives of the state, the government, and even the opposition.

This proposal, pirated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from Sukru Eledag, an MP of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who had appropriated it from Armenia’s first President Ter-Petrosyan, has been proven to be null and void, and they know this too. How so? Let me expound.

The “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and came into effect in 1951. The Genocide Convention set forth a legal definition of genocide based on the lawyer Rafael Lemkin’s study of the massacres perpetrated against the Armenians. Today, the convention, which was inspired by the Armenian massacres and has been accepted by 137 countries, gives all countries the right to prevent and punish genocide in times of war and peace.

As such, genocide is a legal term, and it is not up to historians to decide whether or not a country categorizes a historical event as genocide. However, legislators and decision-makers may of course rely on the documents, research, and subsequent interpretations produced by historians to make a decision on the application of the term.

The "Armenian Genocide literature" written by historians and legal scholars in different countries around the world is much broader, more comprehensive, and of higher quality in terms of sources used than the "genocide denial" literature produced solely through Turkey's own efforts and money. Therefore, instead of insisting that historians come together and discuss this issue, it would be more sensible to calmly examine the work of impartial historians first.

Unfortunately, in Turkey, what is called "Ottoman and Turkish History studies" on this subject is nothing more than a national defense strategy. This stance, which has nothing to do with the purposes of scholarship, seeks to fashion theories that will justify Turkey’s policies by relying on the discourse of "external powers - external calculations - the conditions of the period" rather than elucidating the events. As everyone is well aware, these attempts have had little success.

Even so, let us assume that a commission of historians to decide on the application of the term “genocide” is established as per this proposal.

Will the appointments of these historians be made by the state?

Will the state not interfere with the commission?

Will the commission’s findings be accepted, even if the decision contradicts current policies?

Will legal barriers to investigating the matter be lifted?

And should a Turkish historian say, "Yes, this was a genocide," is there any guarantee that they will not be prosecuted for insulting Turkishness (a crime as per Turkish Penal Code, Article 301)?

Turkey's sensitive national feelings, coupled with the fact that the government and opposition will perceive the issue not as a historical matter, but rather as a call to mobilize, and considering the injustices of recent years, it would be beyond belief to expect this commission to function as intended.

In 2000, in his piece, “The Armenian Matter,” Emin Colasan criticized the appeal to "leave history to the historians" made by then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, asking, "What if those historians say, 'Yes, you committed genocide'? What would we say then?"

Colasan was not wrong. In 2001, the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) was established with the approval of the Turkish government and the participation of figures such as Gunduz Aktan, Ozdem Sanberk, and Ilker Turkmen, and in 2003, a report was published by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) upon on an application to investigate the 1915 events.

When the report concluded that the events of 1915 constituted genocide, not only was the report rejected, but its publication also spelled the end of TARC. In short, it was made crystal clear 15 years ago that this proposed mechanism would not work.

Every time I hear the phrase "let's leave it to the historians," I am reminded of the "Ceviz Kabugu" (“Nutshell”) program hosted by Hulki Cevizoglu which discussed the acceptance of the "so-called" Armenian Genocide law by the French Parliament in 2000.

When Professor Taner Akcam, who joined the program by phone from the US, said, "Turkey should apologize," tensions heightened. Semra Ozal, the wife of the prominent politician Turgut Ozal, called the program and, after expressing how sad and angry she was, said, "I think what they said has greatly offended citizens like me who are filled with genuine national feelings. How can such a thing be suggested? I do not accept this at all, and I will never forgive the traitor to the nation who suggested it."

The farce of leaving history to historians was actually most strongly demonstrated by the problems arising from the “Conference on Ottoman Armenians during the Collapse of the Empire.” The conference, which was scheduled to be held in May 2005 at Bogazici University, was not allowed to proceed.

Following Justice Minister Cemil Cicek's accusation that the conference participants were "stabbing the nation in the back," the conference was postponed.

After making some changes, it was finally allowed to take place at Bilgi University with the support of Sabanci University, but the event was complicated by tensions, fear, uninvited guests, Yusuf Halacoglu's disruptions, the tomatoes and eggs hurled by the far-right Great Unity Party (BBP) and the Workers' Party's, and notorious nationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz's incessant accusations.

In 2007, Armenia organized a session titled "Armenia-Turkey Relations: Fundamental Issues and the Future," and invited both Turkish officials and researchers. However, Turkey declined the invitation and stated that there was little to discuss.

In 2015, a conference entitled "Armenian Genocide: Concepts and Comparative Perspectives," which had been in the works for a long time, was not allowed to be held at Bilgi University due to the administration's disapproval. This put both Turkish and foreign scholars who were experts on the topic in a difficult position.

One can extend the list indefinitely with the meetings, workshops, and conferences of various sizes that have been prevented from being held over the past 15 years. We might say, "If you want historians to speak, then let them speak." As usual, this would fall on deaf ears.

It is worth noting that neither is the situation in line with what has been reflected in the Turkish media over the past 20 years; Armenia's archives are open, and there are Turkish academics and researchers working on these archives. Assistant Professor Candan Badem's article titled "The Armenian National Archive is Open to Turkish Researchers" is telling in dispelling these rumors.

The Boston-based Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) archive (also known as the Dashnak archives) that Halacoglu once made an object of his obsession, saying, "Let's give them $20,000 and open it!" is not a government archive but a private party archive. Furthermore, the party previously issued a statement announcing that the archive could be opened to those who would like access.

According to historians and researchers, on the other hand, the archives in Turkey are not as "open" as claimed.

The Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives, considered the most important resource, was not available to researchers for quite some time due to "technical reasons." Those working in the archive were almost interrogated, and a few foreign researchers were even barred from entering Turkey after working on these archives.

In her 2010 article titled "Leave the Dashnak archives be, look into the Ottoman archives," Ayşe Hur provided a meticulous account of the documents that needed to be consulted when investigating 1915, as well as the difficulties in accessing these documents. Hur's article provides a valuable summary of the issue.

In recent years, there have been significant changes in the Prime Ministry Archive, and it is true that working conditions have improved. However, this archive lacks content. Documents related to correspondence between the center and the periphery have just about vanished. In short, the deportation orders cannot be reliably accessed.Top of Form

The General Staff Archive is already closed, and there has been much talk about the possibility that the Prime Ministerial Archive may have been subjected to purging since the very beginning. That aside, it is also known that there are numerous documents marked with the phrase "to be burned after reading" or which were destroyed by the addressee.

The disappearance of these documents is not just an accusation directed at Turkish institutions by foreign historians. In 2015, Murat Bardakci accused Yusuf Halacoglu, a former chairman of the Turkish Historical Society and a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) MP, of hiding the deportation registers. Those who remember that Halacoglu quoted not from Bardakci’s book “The Remaining Documents of Talaat Pasha” but instead from a book published by the General Staff will understand what I mean.

In 2014, Professor Ayhan Aktar, who said "It is meaningless to say that archives are completely open," drew attention to the situation of the General Staff archive: "The Foreign Ministry archives are entirely closed. The archive of the General Staff, known as ATASE, is theoretically open. However, it is impossible to work in ATASE. It is not possible to see the original documents here. There is a pre-audit. They only show what they want. This is not how archives should be managed," he said.

In 2006, a letter signed by Brigadier General Elmas was sent from the National Security Council regarding the project to "To translate into Turkish and transfer the Ottoman land registry archives to the state archives in a digital format." The letter stated, "Keep [the documents] in the Land Registry and Cadastre Information System and only make them available for limited use. The information in these documents could be exploited in matters such as unfounded genocide claims and claims of ownership of Ottoman Foundations." This statement once again proved how "transparent and fearless" the state is with regard to documents.

Professor Baskin Oran had interpreted the National Security Council's opposition to this project on the basis that the documents could be used for "ethnic and political exploitation," as the “state's reluctance to air its dirty laundry regarding the transfer of capital from non-Muslims to Muslims.”

Minority law expert attorney Fethiye Cetin noted that allowing the archive to be open would have “revealed in many places that much property belonged to Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians in the past, that they had been settled there before 1915 and were landowners, and this situation which will paint a different picture than the state's official thesis and weaken their arguments."

In short, the problem is not just about accessing documents but also about using the documents that are currently available honestly and for the purposes of scholarship.

The agenda is busy, and there are less than three weeks left until the elections that will determine Turkey's fate. Yet, at this point, the most "rational proposal" still remains to "leave history to the historians"...

This cannot be considered a proposal. At best, it is a fallacy and a denial...

I thought I should remind you…

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.

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