Thursday, November 05, 2009

Denial of the first Holocaust

IT was Winston Churchill who used the word "Holocaust" to describe the killing of Armenians in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. But it was Adolf Hitler who reputedly reassured his generals, on the eve of the invasion of Poland, that they would get away with war crimes, with the remark "Who today remembers the Armenians?"

It seems the British Foreign Office has been more inclined to follow Hitler's cynical advice in this respect.

Back in July I noted in this blog that BAE Systems (ex-British Aerospace) was among big companies lobbying the US Congress against recognition of the Armenian genocide. Looking at the kind of contracts these companies might be bidding for, it seemed fairly obvious why they might want to butter up the Turkish military and government.

A report this week suggests there has been no need for lobbying in Britain, because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has engaged in what QC Geoffrey Robertson calls "genocide denial", under both Tory and Labour governments. Robertson, who was commissioned by Armenian groups in London to review the official files, said in his report that "Parliament has been routinely misinformed by ministers who have recited FCO briefs without questioning their accuracy".

The report says there is no doubt that "in 1915 the Ottoman government ordered the deportation of up to two million Armenians - hundreds of thousands died en route from starvation, disease and armed attack".

But despite agreement among scholars and most European parliaments that what happened was genocide, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has stuck to the line that there is "insufficiently unequivocal evidence".

More honestly, a 1999 briefing acknowledged that the British government "is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension", but explained: "The current line is the only feasible option", owing to "the importance of our relations(political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey." It said "Recognising the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK".

Whatever the reasons for modern Turkish governments to remain in denial over a crime almost a century ago, some Turks have been braver than the British Foreign Office in standing for truth. Nobel prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk was charged with "insulting Turkishness" for referring to the genocide, in 2005, though the trial was stopped. Several scholars and journalists have signed a petition referring to "the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915".

The Armenian issue could be used by those European Union governments which want to block Turkish entry. But right-wing elements in Turkey and among diaspora Turks are belligerently against anything which might weaken chauvinist attitudes today.

As for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, its respect for truth, and which Turks it chooses to support, business is business. Who today remembers the late Robin Cook and his idea that there should be an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy?

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