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La reconnaissance du génocide arménien par l’Union européenne : état des lieux et enjeux

La reconnaissance du génocide arménien par l’Union européenne : état des lieux et enjeux

The recognition of the Armenian genocide by the European Union: The state of play 

© Chaojoker. The Eternal Flame at Tsitsernakaberd on April 24th, 2011, the 96th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (2011).

Thirty-three years ago, on 18 June 1987, the European Parliament recognized the Armenian genocide. By this, it referred to the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey, between 1915 and 1923. However, 100 years later, this massacre is one of the most disputed genocides, particularly as Turkey continues to deny the facts.

Turkey only acknowledges a civil war accompanied by famine, killing between 300,000 and 500,000 Armenians, and as many Turks. Estimates of the number of deaths vary between 800 000 – a number put forward by official Ottoman statistics – and 1.2 million – the figure most often used by Western historians. As for the Armenian state, it estimates the death toll at 1.5 million. Within the European Union itself, the term « genocide » is not recognized by all its member states. Moreover, its recognition is sometimes very recent. In February 2018 Dutch MEPs recognized the term « genocide ». But this decision was not followed by the government. The aim of this article is to come back to the issues surrounding the recognition of this genocide within the European Union. 

The course of events

It should be noted that the massacres of Armenians predated 1915. As explained in the 1998 report of the French National Assembly on the Armenian genocide: « Armenians, like other non-Muslims, are considered second-class citizens who are subject to legal prohibitions and tax obligations arising from their infidel status ». Indeed, Armenians are Christians in a predominantly Muslim empire. Thus, between 1894 and 1896, 200,000 Armenians were killed as a result of peasant revolts. About one million were stripped of their property and several thousand were forced to convert. Churches were destroyed and turned into mosques. But things speeded up in 1908 when the Young Turkish Party came to power. According to Philippe Videlier, a historian at the CNRS and author of Nuit turque, « It was a modernist regime, but very quickly their nationalism led them down a racial and racist path ». Wishing to reinforce the distinctly Turkish and Muslim character of the Empire, the regime multiplied exactions against the Armenians and launched boycotts against the businesses run by them. During the first World War, the Ottoman Empire found itself opposed to its neighboring country, Russia, which was home to a large Armenian minority. According to Philippe Videlier, the authorities « pretended that the Armenians were not safe elements, but separatists who were going to ally themselves with Russia against the Ottoman Empire » to justify deportations and abuses against them. But for the author, the real reasons for this violence « are the same as for all genocides. There was a desire for ethnic cleansing to restore Turkish purity. This analysis seems to be confirmed by the German ambassador, who wrote on June 1, 1915: « It is obvious that the deportation of Armenians was not motivated by military considerations alone ». The American ambassador and realist theorist Henry Morgenthau also reports in his memoirs the words of the Minister of the Interior of the Ottoman Empire Talaat Pasha: « We do not want to see any more Armenians in Anatolia; they can live in the desert, but nowhere else.”

« It was a modernist regime, but very quickly their nationalism led them down a racial and racist path. »

Philippe Videlier, La Nuit turque (2007)

Thus, on April 24, 1915, the Préfet de Police of Constantinople ordered the arrest of the city’s Armenian elite. In only a few days 600 intellectuals were killed. The exactions then spread to the whole territory. Armenians and other Christians were displaced to camps in Syria. The marches took place in unbearable conditions: the sun, the lack of food, water, and the constant threat usually resulted in death. One survivor said: « We walk aimlessly, six hours a day, without food or water. One road, walk and walk again, until you end your life, an indescribable suffering ». The Turkish authorities then decide to eliminate those who survived. This telegram was received by the Turkish authorities in Aleppo prefecture: « The government has decided to destroy all Armenians residing in Turkey. Their existence must be ended, no matter how criminal the measures to be taken. Neither age nor sex should be taken into account. There is no room for scruples of conscience here”. The persecution did not stop until 1918 after a change of regime. 

Amnesty for crimes committed during the war was decreed by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, the last treaty resulting from the first World War. This seems to be of paramount importance for the new Republic of Turkey since the regime then in place was largely composed of the civil servants already present under the Young Turks regime. This means that the important posts are occupied by those materially responsible for the genocide. According to Michel Marian, a lecturer at Sciences Po, these origins of the state would still be one of the reasons for Turkey’s negationism today – the aim is not to question its foundations. However, progress has been made since in 2014 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presented Turkey’s condolences to the descendants of the « Armenians killed in 1915 ». 

 Below: Armenians at the Marash army barracks awaiting execution. Above: the Ottoman governor, Haydar Pasha, and soldiers, April 1915. Photograph: Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.

The EU recognition of the genocide

The European Parliament recognized the Armenian genocide on 18 June 1987 in its resolution « on a political solution to the Armenian question ». In this resolution, it considered that « the refusal by the present Turkish Government to acknowledge the genocide against the Armenian people committed by the Young Turk government, its reluctance to apply the principles of international law to its differences of opinion with Greece, the maintenance of Turkish occupation forces in Cyprus and the denial of the existence of the Kurdish question, together with the lack of true parliamentary democracy and the failure to respect individual and collective freedoms, in particular freedom of religion, in that country are insurmountable obstacles to consideration of the possibility of Turkey’s accession to the Community ». With this resolution, Parliament therefore explicitly recognized that the massacre of Armenians should be qualified as « genocide ». It also states that this recognition is a condition for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. This resolution is all the more important as it comes at a time when the European Parliament’s powers have been strengthened since the 1980s. However, the Parliament is not an international court but a political body. 

Since then, several other resolutions have emerged. The resolution of 12 November 2000 on « Turkey’s progress towards accession », for example, recalls that Turkey is called upon to publicly acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Why is an acknowledgment of the genocide by Turkey important in the eyes of the European Parliament? Probably because Turkey’s denial of the genocide is a form of rejection of the values to which the European Union is committed. Henri Saby, an MEP between 1984 and 1994, said that « the collective memory of humanity […] belongs to everyone ». But it is also a question of moving towards reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia – all the more so as of today Armenia, as a country in the European neighborhood, has privileged relations with the European Union.  

In linking Turkey’s accession to the EU with its recognition of the Armenian genocide, the European Parliament’s resolution is of particular importance. However, in its recommendation of 6 October 2004 for the opening of negotiations, the European Commission does not make its opinion conditional on Turkey’s recognition of the genocide. The same applies to the European Council in its positive decision on 17 December. Both institutions considered that the issue was not covered by the Copenhagen criteria – the latter making no mention of a historic step. Moreover, the EU executive refuses to talk about « genocide » because, as mentioned before, the term is not used by all EU member states. Parliament’s resolution is therefore above all a symbolic step. The question of Turkey’s accession to the European Union has given rise to and continues to give rise to many debates, mainly linked to the country’s geographical position, the weight of the Muslim religion in the country, and Turkey’s position on the Cyprus question. With the hardening of the regime in recent years, the prospect of EU membership has receded. The Commission now considers that the negotiations are « at a standstill ». Thus, Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian genocide is not a necessary precondition for EU membership but rather an additional argument for its opponents. 

An issue in the midst of debates

For example, on 15 February 2015, three days after Pope Francis designated the Armenian massacre as the first genocide of the 20th century and in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the genocide, Parliament welcomed the statements by President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who in 2014 had offered their condolences and acknowledged the atrocities against Ottoman Armenians. MEPs called on Turkey « to continue its efforts to come to terms with its past – including through the opening of archives – to recognize the Armenian genocide and thus lay the foundations for genuine reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples ». However, relations between Armenia and Turkey do not seem to be on the point of normalizing. Indeed, even before the vote in Parliament, Erdoğanhad stressed that the opinion of the European Parliament would have no influence on his policy: « Whatever decision they [parliamentarians] might take, it will come in by one ear and out by the other ». 

An example of the consequences of this denial is Ankara’s refusal in October 2016 to participate in the European Union’s cultural program. This refusal is a gesture of protest against the Dresden Symphony Orchestra’s « Aghet » project dedicated to the Armenian genocide. By bringing together musicians and composers of Turkish, German, and Armenian nationality, this project aimed to achieve a form of reconciliation. But Turkey demanded that the European Commission withdraw its 200,000 euro grant. The Commission refused, but asked the orchestra not to use the term « genocide » and removed all references to the project from its websites « until other formulations can be found ». The subject is therefore still topical within the European Union itself. 

The ongoing reluctance of EU states

According to Jacques Sémelin, a historian specializing in genocide and director of research at the CNRS, the accelerating factor for the recognition of the genocide by a country is « the presence of an Armenian community that will put pressure on it. On the other hand, the economic consequences and the diplomatic interests that states may have with Turkey will slow down the taking of such a decision ». Thus, when Germany recognized the genocide in 2016, Turkey’s President telephoned Chancellor Angela Merkel to denounce a « trap » that could « deteriorate all our relations with Germany. Similarly, when France declared April 24 in 2019 as the « national day of commemoration of the Armenian genocide, » Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu said: « France’s attitude, which is far from friendly, will inevitably have a negative impact on its relations with Turkey”. As a reminder, the bill recognizing the Armenian genocide was voted in France unanimously by those present and against the government’s position on May 29, 1998. However, this recognition was only official on 18 January 2001, after 3 years of parliamentary battle between the two chambers. Today the existence of this genocide is no longer contested in France. As a French citizen, the existence of the Armenian genocide seems to me to be indisputable. Indeed, the history of this genocide is taught to students during their schooling and appears explicitly in the school curriculum. In particular, it is part of the middle school diploma program, which is obtained by students at the age of 14 and 15. 

To sum up, the question of recognition of the Armenian genocide goes beyond the question of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. According to the « REPAIR-Armenian-Turkish Platform » we would be more in « a three-dimensional scheme: Turkey – EU – Armenians (from Armenia and the EU) ». Indeed, within the EU many citizens of Armenian origin are pressing for the recognition of the genocide to become a condition for Turkey’s accession. Armenia is not opposed to this accession and does not issue any conditions for the opening of diplomatic relations with Turkey. It should also be noted that Armenia has concluded association agreements with the EU within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. On the other hand, as many authors note, the democratic opening and the lifting of certain taboos in Turkey coincided with the opening of EU candidacy negotiations. While progress has been made within civil society, this is not the case within the state structure. But the EU is seen as an effective means of putting pressure on the authorities. Moreover, tensions between the EU and Turkey affect Turkey’s relations with its environment. For example, certain groups critical of the Turkish state, such as the Kurds, may have sympathy for the recognition of genocide as a condition for Turkey’s accession to the EU. All these factors are intertwined and evolve in line with political developments.  

Claire Gaillard, M2 « European Affairs » at Sciences Po Toulouse.

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