Today
Sun 1 August 2021

Peter Oborne covered Armenia’s recent conflict with Azerbaijan. He exposes the dangers of refusing to acknowledge the genocide of a century ago

The day after the Azerbaijan war ended last November, I paid my respects at the genocide memorial on the Tsitsernakaberd hill high above the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

The spot commemorates the deaths of more than a million Armenians at the hands of Turkey during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th Century.  Historians estimate that half of the population of Armenia died in camps, in systematic massacres, and forced deportation.

This was all documented at the time. The United States did not join the First World War until 1917, so its diplomats were free to send details back to Washington during the height of the killing, as did missionaries and reporters.

The Turkish Hrant Dink Foundation showed that Armenians were the most targeted group in hate speech in Turkish media in 2019 – much of it related to the Genocide.

But barely 30 countries have recognised that the Armenian Genocide took place, Britain and the United States not among them. Nor the nearby states of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Israel. 

Like many neighbouring powers, they appear to feel they can’t upset the Turks, who refuse to accept the truth. It is understandable perhaps, but unforgivable – that way genocide denial is sanctioned.

By refusing to acknowledge the past, we make it more likely it will repeat itself. 


Hate Speech and the War with Azerbaijan

It is no coincidence that Armenians are once more threatened with genocide. Though ignored by foreign correspondents who covered the recent war, hate speech was an obtrusive feature of the conflict.

Local social media was rampant with favourable references to the massacres of Armenians. Here is one example (on page 54) from the recently published report by Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman: “Your mom, sister, daughter and wife on their knees. In 1915 we didn’t f*ck you good enough you should get more.” Here is another (on page 48): “It is necessary to kill both the mother and the child of an Armenian.”

Of course, in times of war, hate speech on social media is perhaps not so surprising. There are cases of Armenians using similar language, though as far as I can tell on nowhere near the same scale. But what is shocking about Azerbaijan is the way in which hate speech is not only sanctioned by the authorities, but how it starts at the top.

Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, explained the situation long before the war: “Armenia as a country is of no value.” In his victory speech, Aliyev – who denies the Genocide – labelled Armenians “savages”.

The media manager of the Azerbaijani premiership football club Qarabag posted this

“We must kill Armenians. No matter whether a woman, a child, an old man. We must kill everyone we can and whoever happens. We should not feel sorry; we should not feel pity. If we do not kill (them), our children will be killed.”

While EUFA has banned the offender for life, and the post has been deleted, this sentiment is common and well documented.


A Murderous Past Still Alive

The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill in Yerevan. Photo: Peter Langer/Zuma Press/PA Images

Matters are not much better in Turkey itself, which supported Azerbaijan during the war and where hatred of Armenians is endemic. 

“I don’t dare to turn on the television at home – but the hate speech is out there and the portrayal of Armenians as an enemy disturbs me extremely,” Silva Ozyerli, an Armenian living in Istanbul, told Agence France Press during the conflict.

The Turkish Hrant Dink Foundation showed that Armenians were the most targeted group in hate speech in Turkish media in 2019 – much of it related to the Genocide. 

Hrant Dink is named after the celebrated and astonishingly brave Turkish/Armenian campaigner who was assassinated in 2007. Photographs later emerged of the assassin flanked by smiling Turkish police and gendarmerie, posing with the killer side by side in front of the Turkish flag.

Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, uses dismissive and derogatory language about Armenians, including the toxic phrase “leftovers of the sword”. (kılıç artığı in Turkish). As Armenian Member of the Turkish Parliament, Garo Paylan, noted: “‘Leftover of the sword’ was invented to refer to orphans like my grandmother who survived the Armenian Genocide. Every time we hear that phrase, it makes our wounds bleed.”

To put it another way: the murderous past is still alive – and flourishing.

Take Ramil Safarov, an officer of the Azerbaijani Army, who was convicted in 2004 of murdering the Armenian Army Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan. Safarov, then 26 years old, broke into Margaryan’s dormitory room at night and attacked him with an axe while he was asleep, almost hacking his head from his body with 16 blows. He admitted to the murder, with his defence claiming that Margaryan had insulted his country’s flag – a claim which were repeated widely in the Azerbaijani media despite the court uncovering no evidence for it. He said he was sorry that he had not had the opportunity to kill any Armenians earlier.

Eight years later – shortly after a visit by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Baku – Safarov was extradited to Azerbaijan, where President Aliyev pardoned him, promoted him to the rank of major, gave him eight years of back pay and a new apartment. 

Famous Azeri singer and former parliamentarian Zeynab Khanlarova, said: “Safarov is not just a hero of Azerbaijan, he is an international hero! A monument should be set up to him. Not every man could do this. There are two heroes − Mr Ilham Aliyev and Ramil Safarov. I would have done exactly as Ramil did. He did the right thing to take the life of an Armenian.


Why Denialism Matters

The term ‘genocide’ was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 just as Hitler’s Holocaust was getting into full swing. 

The concept described how extreme nationalism directed against racial or religious minorities could lead to their attempted annihilation and was enshrined in the Genocide Convention of 1948.

Lemkin, who was Jewish, developed his ideas of genocide with the Armenian case in mind. So too, did Hitler. In August 1939, speaking at his villa in Obersalzburg of his plans to massacre the Poles, Hitler remarked: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

A good question. 

At the end of World War Two, Turkey immediately became a core ally of the West and part of the NATO alliance. It threatens to deny its airbases to countries which use the “G word”. Well-funded scholars have denied it ever happened and have blamed it on the Armenians themselves. (President Joe Biden has promised to recognise the Genocide. Other Presidents have done the same, but been dissuaded once in office).  

According to the celebrated QC Geoffrey Robertson, who has written a forensic study of the Armenian tragedy, this denialism (with which Britain and the United States collaborate) “amounts morally to the last act of the 1915 Genocide”.

According to Genocide Watch: “The Azerbaijani Government promotes hate speech and officially honours violence against Armenians.”

Without an acknowledgement that the Armenian Genocide took place, there is always the fear it can happen again. And that is why the genocidal language and hatred inside Azerbaijan, and indeed in Turkey, is so horrifying.

It is time the world acknowledged the truth of what Turkey inflicted on Armenia a century ago.

Additional research by Martha Harrison

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