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The Armenians Remember

Armenian Genocide Orphans in Arnavutkoy. K. Polis : Published by M. Hovakimean, 1920.

Armenian Genocide Orphans in Arnavutkoy. K. Polis : Published by M. Hovakimean, 1920.

A new United Nations report documents Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) actions against the Yezidis as genocide, while the Armenians prepare to commemorate the centennial of their own.

“It is reasonable to conclude that some of these incidents, considering the overall information, may constitute genocide. Other incidents may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.” UN Report, sec. II.A.1.16.

ISIS (sometimes referred to as ISIL, or now IS) took over much of Iraq’s Anbar Province in early 2014 and Mosul, Tikrit and Ninewa Plains in summer 2014. Among the thousands killed and enslaved and the two million or so internally displaced persons (IDPs) from ISIS’s advance, the religious-minority Yezidis and Christians have been particularly impacted.

The March 2015 report from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights was based on surveys of victims, witnesses, NGOs, and other sources, examining the period from June 2014 to February 2015.  The report noted that ISIS brutality – rape, torture, forced conversions, massacres, conscription of children, and other atrocities – was committed with “the intentional and systematic targeting of members of ethnic and religious communities.”

All this takes place while the Armenians around the world prepare to commemorate the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Ottoman oppression of varying degrees went back centuries, including the “bloody Sultan” Abdul Hamid II’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the 1890s.  The overthrow of Hamid in 1909 was at first welcomed by Armenians and other minorities, but the incoming Young Turks proved worse. After attacking Armenian members of the military weeks earlier, the Young Turks on April 24, 1915, arrested, exiled, and slaughtered hundreds of the Armenian intelligentsia.  Over the next few years, more than a million Armenians were killed.

International recognition of all this took time. Some contemporary dispatches from American, British, and other diplomats documented the horrors with language like “cold-blooded and barbarous…fiendish, diabolical,” and “a premeditative crime…[a] deliberate policy to destroy and wipe out of existence” the ethnic/religious minority. Article 142 of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres noted the deportations and “massacres perpetrated in Turkey during the war.”

But official recognition of the Armenian Genocide came more slowly. It was rare for an American president to discuss it until the 1990s and 2000s. In the 70 years after World War I, only three national parliaments noted it, while nearly 20, including the Vatican and the European Parliament, have done so since 2000.  In March 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution seeking Turkey’s “full acknowledgment of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.”

In the United States, the 1915 anniversary will be commemorated with ceremonies at the Washington National Cathedral and the National Shine at The Catholic University of America.  These will both be led by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.  Some of Washington’s most prominent scholars, clerics, business people, politicians, and media will attend.

These commemorations are appropriate and important for their historical importance.  But they also speak loudly to the events in the Middle East today. The recent impact of ISIS has been widely televised, with Yezidis fleeing to the mountains and Assyrian churches under attack. But the number of Christians and other religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries has fallen dramatically in recent decades.  Groups like In Defense of Christians, World Vision, Caritas International, and others use a range of methods to raise awareness and provide direct services. But the question of being heard remains.

Elie Wiesel – author, Nobel Peace laureate, and Holocaust survivor – gave a speech at the 1993 opening of the Holocaust museum in Washington.  He turned to the new President and First Lady – the Clintons – and addressed the war in Bosnia.  “Mr. President,” Wiesel said, “I can not not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall.  I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”

Diplomats, politicians, military experts and public opinion struggle with what that “something, anything” is today. Compelling, competing interests in the region – and competing crises around the world – make the decision-making difficult and uncertain. U.S. and allied military actions have largely halted IS advances in Iraq, but a long term solution remains elusive. But at least today we do not pretend that we do not know.



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks