House of Commons holds debate on Armenian Genocide

On Monday, March 23 the UK House of Commons held an adjournment debate on the Armenian Genocide centennial. The discussion was led by Labour MP Stephen Pound.

“The subject of this Adjournment debate is the commemoration of one of the most appalling, heinous acts that has ever been committed on this earth: the Armenian genocide of 23 and 24 April 1915,” Stephen Pound said during the debate.

The full text of the speech is provided below:

What I have to say tonight is not an attack on the Government of Turkey. I am not criticising the Government of Turkey. I realize that these debates frequently engender much heat and very little light in Ankara, but I am talking specifically of the actions of the Ottoman Empire and particularly the Young Turks, whom I will mention later, in 1915.

I make no apologies for raising this matter. Not only are we approaching the 100th anniversary of this appalling crime against humanity, in which 1.5 million people were killed in the most horrendous circumstances and an attempt was made to destroy an entire people—their culture, nationhood and very being and existence. This is also a time when two books have just been published. The first, “An Inconvenient Genocide” by Geoffrey Robertson, once and for all proves to those gainsayers who are still out there that the genocide was real and that it did happen: the dates, names and times are provided. The other excellent book is “The Fall of the Ottomans” by Eugene Rogan, which contains a chapter on the annihilation of the Armenians.

According to the MP, it is otiose even to ask the question, “Was there genocide?” “Yet the question has been asked many times. People have said there was no genocide in 1915, but to a certain extent that was not the only genocide. The Armenians—a people of incredible, intense culture and great sophistication—were assaulted between 1894 and 1896, when 200,000 people were killed. There was the Adana massacre of 1909, in which 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed. In particular, leading up to 1915, after the 1912 Balkan wars, refugees from the Caucasus and Rumelia—they were known as muhacirs—moved from the south Balkans and the Caucasus into Anatolia. That movement into the traditional Armenian land, coupled with the aftermath of the battle of Sarikamish—which took place on 24 December 1914, when the Russians defeated the Ottoman army—led to a completely different situation whereby the peaceful Armenian people suddenly found themselves between different warring factions: on the one hand the Ottoman empire, and on the other people moving into their land, so they were dispossessed. The then War Minister, Enver Pasha, demobilised all Armenians from the army—many of them fought in the Ottoman army—into labour battalions, and the infamous tehcir law, which is known as the deportation law, was passed by Talaat Pasha, the Interior Minister.”

At that particular time, the Young Turks had arrived—the Committee of Union and Progress as they were known—and the massacre commenced in Istanbul on the night of 23 April. It is impossible to imagine what it must have been like. Anatolia––western Armenia––was a peaceful country in which the Armenians had succeeded greatly. They had filled many posts, not just in the army, but in medicine and law. They were a peaceful and prosperous people. Just as the upper echelon of Poles at Katyn were massacred, similarly the upper echelon of Armenians were taken to slaughter.

Did it happen? There were so many eyewitnesses there at the time. American Ambassador Morgenthau gave a detailed account, and Father Grigoris Balakian, who survived and was in Istanbul when the entente fleets finally sailed in at the end of the war, gave an incredible amount of detail. Above all, one of the reasons why we in this House can discuss this matter and know about it is the single, definitive volume describing the horror of the genocide, namely the famous “Blue Book” by Lord Bryce and Arnold Toynbee.

One and a half million people were driven to die in the burning sands of the Syrian desert in a death march to two concentration camps, in which the men were killed first. The then InteriorMinister said, “Kill the men, the women and all the children up to the height of my knee.” If that is not genocide, I really do not know what is. In Trabzon—or Trebizond—14,000 were killed. Many of them were put into boats, which were dragged into the Black sea and sunk. People were injected with typhoid or morphine. Experiments took place on children in a way that presages what happened under the Nazis. Incidentally, what happened in Trebizond was witnessed by the Italian consul general, Gorrini, who started out being sceptical, but ended up as horrified as every other civilised person.

It happened: it is incontrovertible that it happened. It happened within the memory of some people still living. Their grandparents and their great-grandparents died: their bones are still there in the Syrian desert, and their homes are still there in Anatolia, no longer occupied, although their Christian churches have been destroyed. It is within living memory, so why are we not recognising it?

One of the joys of the Freedom of Information Act is that we can get hold of copies of confidential briefings from the south Caucasus team. Last time this issue was raised by Baroness Cox, that indefatigable friend of Armenia—she has visited Nagorno-Karabakh some 70 times, not always in a combat role, but frequently under fire—she had a debate on 29 March 2010, and I have been provided with the document, although it is partly redacted. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office position at the time was that “it is not appropriate for the UK Government to use the term genocide”.

However, the briefing states: “The British Government recognizes that terrible suffering was inflicted on Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire…and we must ensure that the victims of that suffering are not forgotten.”

I am torn between admiration of the honesty of the ministerial officials and slight horror, because the middle paragraphs are entitled “Bear Traps”—things to watch out for. It goes on to say what would happen to Anglo-Turkish relations if the British Government agreed to the term, and it talks about early-day motion 357 and various other debates.

The crux of the reason why the Government would not agree to recognition is that in one debate—I have had three debates on this subject—the then Foreign Office Minister Geoffrey Hoon said that we could not call it the Armenian “genocide” because Raphael Lemkin did not invent the word until 1944 or 1945. Let us think about that for a minute. When Cain killed Abel, there was no word for fratricide, but Abel was just as dead as if there had been such a word. Raphael Lemkin was present in Berlin at the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, one of the members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation who was part of the Nemesis group that assassinated 10 of the 18 perpetrators of the genocide indicted in the military tribunal in Istanbul at the end of the first world war, in what most people think was an attempt to minimise the impact of the treaty of Versailles. Raphael Lemkin, who is accepted as the originator of the word, said that it was his experience of that trial, listening to the evidence of the genocide of the Armenian people, that made him use it. The assassination of Talaat Pasha in Berlin in 1921 clearly precedes the use of the word “genocide”, but the same person—the man who coined the word—was actually at that trial and referred to it.

We are not entirely sure how many, but 20 or 22 national Parliaments have recognised the Armenian genocide, including the devolved Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and—I am delighted to say—Northern Ireland. No one who visits the Genocide museum in Yerevan and sees testimony from all around the world, photographs, cards, letters and books can remain unmoved. No one can deny for a moment that something horrible and terrible beyond human imagination took place in western Armenia at that time.

Genocide is a crime that is intended to destroy a people. Genocide denial is a crime that is intended to destroy a people’s memory. The Armenian people will not have their memory, their culture, their individuality, their strength or their national pride destroyed. Many people have tried; none have ever succeeded, nor ever will they. Think of the double agony of those people whose families were massacred, whose culture was destroyed, whose homelands have been taken over and who are now having that very act denied. That, for me, is the supreme double cruelty.

The British Government will be represented in Gallipoli on 24 April. By coincidence—I make no comment about that—that is the same day as the international recognition of the Armenian genocide. The Gallipoli landing is often prayed in aid by those who apologize for the Ottoman empire of the time. They say that the Gallipoli landing somehow stimulated the action of the Young Turks, who were terrified that some Armenian fifth column would arise and attack Turkey with the Russians. In reality, as we all know, the massacre that started the great genocide took place on the night before. To suggest that moving the commemoration of Gallipoli to the same day, 24 April, as the Turks have done, is anything other than a provocative act is pushing credulity.

Will the British Government be present? President Putin will be there. Francois Hollande will be there. I have heard that a distinguished colleague of mine, although he might not be from my side of the Chamber, will be there. I admire that, I respect that and I am proud of that. We will hear from him later. Can we not go the extra mile? Can we not finally give support and succour to the Armenian people whose relatives died? Can we not say to the Armenian community in this country—one of the most peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working, decent communities that we are proud to have in our country—that we, along with 22 other countries of the world, recognise the genocide that took place? Edinburgh has recognised it. Many councils have recognised it. Even my own little borough of Ealing has done so. We have a strong Armenian apricot tree growing in Ealing soil—British soil—in commemoration of that event. I would like to see a memorial garden in Ealing.

I would like to see wider recognition. Is that not fair when a people have suffered, as have the Armenian people? In many cases, they have suffered in silence. We do not see huge marches through the city or massive protests. The Armenian people are a dignified people. The people of Armenian descent in our country concentrate on hard work, on achievement and on preserving their dignity, but they also keep their culture. They have integrated, but they have not been assimilated. To be Armenian is to be a good citizen, but it is also to be different. That unique, special Armenian quality is worthy of a little recognition.

Can we not finally say it in this House—maybe not tonight, maybe not even before the election, but some time soon? For years it has been our policy to deny that the Armenian genocide took place, and yet we have the FCO briefing here that talks about the suffering of the Armenian people. Would it hurt so much? Are we not straining at the gnat here? Could we not go that last little bit and say, “Yes, it happened.”? Then, hopefully, the wave of global condemnation would wash up even across the battlements in Ankara and the Turkish Government would admit that their predecessors, the Ottoman Government back in 1915, did commit appalling crimes.

I was in this House, as were you, Mr Speaker, when the then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, apologised for the Irish famine of 1848. He apologised on behalf of this country for an appalling act that was horrendous in its brutality and in its impact on the Irish people. He felt justified in apologising for that. Some people said that he should not have done so. I think that he did so because this country was very much a part of that process. I think that Mr Blair did the right thing in apologising.

We have an opportunity tonight to do the right thing, and not just by our Armenian friends, our Armenian brothers and sisters, our Armenian community, our Armenian fellow citizens—those people who have earned

the right to our respect and friendship through their contribution to our society. We have an opportunity to do the right thing not just for the sake of Armenia and the Armenian people, but for the sake of humanity. Humanity really needs to recognise what happened in 1915. As long as it is denied, it can happen again. As long as we say, “It didn’t happen”, we echo the terrible words that everybody remembers from Hitler in 1939, when he justified the invasion of Poland by saying, “Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

I think that all decent people, all human beings, recognise and remember the annihilation of the Armenians, and I hope that we are all determined to recognise it and ensure that it never happens again. I say to my Armenian friends, fellow citizens and Armenian brothers and sisters: we thank you for all you have done for this country, and this is our small way of returning that thanks.

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