Why Scholars Say Armenian Genocide Was Genocide But Obama Won’t

4-24-15 Armenia
Demonstrators attend a torch-bearing march marking the centenary of the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 24, 2015. A simple flower-laying ceremony was attended by foreign leaders as Germany became the latest country to respond to calls for recognition that the events in 1915 were genocide. David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Anyone skimming the headlines during the weeks leading up to Friday’s 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide might think there’s a loud and factious debate about whether the term genocide applies. Germany was in discussions about using the word for the first time; Israel hasn’t used it, despite its founding in the aftermath of the Holocaust; and President Barack Obama avoided the term in his anniversary address, despite hope from lobbyists that the centennial might finally elicit it.

But in fact there is very little debate among scholars in genocide studies—and agreement among many authorities in history, international relations and philosophy—that the events being commemorated on April 24 constituted genocide.

“There is a near consensus that the Armenian genocide was a genocide, or that genocide is the right word” among those who study the phenomenon for a living, says David Simon, a professor of political science at Yale University and co-director of its Genocide Studies Program. “The deportations and massacres amounted to a crime we now know is genocide. In 1915 there was no such word.”

The word genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who studied linguistics and law in Lvov before immigrating to the United States to escape persecution by the Nazis. According to Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell, Lemkin was inspired to name the slaughter in part because of what happened to Armenians. After Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian survivor, assassinated Talaat Pasha, one of the main orchestrators of the violence, in Berlin in 1921, Lemkin expressed his disbelief to a professor. “It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men? This is most inconsistent,” he said.

He eventually named and described genocide—which he derived from the Greek root word geno-, which means race or tribe, and -cide, Latin for killing—in a chapter of his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin called it “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

His definition served as the basis for the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948 after intense lobbying by Lemkin himself. It went into effect in 1951 after 20 countries had ratified it, as the convention stipulated. (The U.S. didn’t sign legislation ratifying the convention until 1988. It was the 98th nation to do so.) The first three articles of the U.N. convention read:

Article I

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III

The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide.

In the case studies section of Yale’s Genocide Studies Program website, the page on Armenians—with the header “Armenian Genocide”—says: “There is more than enough evidence to suggest that the mass murder of the Armenians was a case of genocide, as that crime was subsequently defined in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. Surviving perpetrators of the Armenian genocide could certainly have been held to account in an international criminal court.”

Bert Patenaude, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a lecturer in history and international relations at the university, echoes that view. In an email to Newsweek, he wrote that “Armenia 100 years ago was a clear case of genocide, as the academic community agrees. It easily fits the legal definition of the Genocide Convention.”

So, too, does Armen T. Marsoobian, a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University who also teaches courses in comparative genocide. “If you talk to nine out of 10 historians, there’s no controversy,” he told Newsweek over the phone from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Marsoobian, a scholar of Armenian descent whose parents both survived the events of 1915, had just attended the official commemoration ceremony. “There shouldn’t be really a controversy or debate, except for geopolitical reasons and the fact that Turkey denies it,” he said.

Turkey, as Marsoobian suggests, vehemently denies that the events constituted genocide. Instead, the country and its leaders claim that the number of deaths have been inflated (historians estimate the death toll at up to 1.5 million Armenians), and that they were the result of civil war and unrest during which both Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims died. After Pope Francis described the event as genocide, Turkey called back its ambassador to the Vatican. It recalled another ambassador Wednesday after lawmakers in Austria did the same.

Unlike some world leaders, who describe the events accurately despite skirting the word genocide, the Turkish view “is extremely far from what is true,” says Paul Boghossian, a philosophy professor at New York University. He says he’s not necessarily “fixated on the word, [and the events] can be described with one word or 15.” The problem, he says, is in acknowledging the nature of the events.

According to Patenaude, the problem, even without using the term genocide, is “that the government would still have to single out for blame members of the Young Turk government, especially Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, who engineered the killing of the Armenians. This would be awkward, to put it mildly: There are streets and squares in Turkey named for Talaat.”

Boghossian says Turkey has “spent 100 years denying and miseducating their own people,” and would be “very hard for the government to turn on a dime.” In addition, he believes “that Turkey is worried that there will be claims in courts for reparations for return of property.... They’re worried about consequences downstream,” despite the fact that the U.N.’s legal convention came into effect decades after the events of 1915 and could not be applied retroactively.

At the same time, several Turkish scholars and members of the younger generation are very vocal about the need to recognize the events as genocide, says Rafiki Ubaldo, a board member and communication officer for the International Association of Genocide Scholars, citing Taner Akcam at Clark University in Massachusetts and Ugur Ungor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands as examples.

Fatma Muge Gocek, now a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, did not learn about the massacre of Armenian civilians as a student growing up in Turkey but began researching the topic after moving to the U.S. Her book Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence Against the Armenians 1789-2009 was published in November.

But such outspoken deviation from the official line does not come without its dangers. According to Boghossian, Turks who do so can be prosecuted under Turkish Penal Code 301, which makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness.” In the past, the code has been used against those who refer to the events of 1915 as “genocide.”

As for leaders outside of Turkey, there are other reasons to avoid the term that so riles the country, even if the violence itself is not downplayed. These reasons, as in the case of Obama’s avoidance of the term, are geopolitical: Turkey is seen as a key NATO ally. During the Cold War, Marsoobian notes, it was an important ally against the Soviet Union. Now Turkey is crucial in the fight against ISIS.

Obama famously promised as a presidential candidate in 2008 to use the g-word: “Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable,” he said at the time. “As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide.”

Yet he did not use the word in his remarks on Thursday, calling the events Meds Yeghern (an Armenian term roughly translated as “the Great Catastrophe”) instead and disappointing Armenian-Americans who have been lobbying for recognition of the genocide committed against their ancestors for years. But Obama did say on Thursday, “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed”—perhaps hinting that he still stands behind what he said in 2008 and that the decision was pragmatic.

For Armenian descendants, “it’s an open wound when their suffering hasn’t been acknowledged,” says Marsoobian. “One needs that kind of acknowledgement [for] one’s mental health” and psychology. But “coming to terms is as much for [Turkey’s] own good as it is for the good and health of Armenians and humanity in general,” he adds. “That kind of coming to terms with one’s history is, I think, important for a democratic way of life.”

“If a U.S. official or Congress would just say this is genocide, deal with controversy and get past it,” we could “go back to trying to understand what happened and understand why it was so horrendous,” says Yale’s Simon, who sometimes thinks the linguistic debate detracts from a deeper understanding of the events.