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A genocide denied

Newly uncovered Foreign Office memos show how New Labour has played politics with the massacre of th

There are few genocides more clearly established than that suffered by the Armenians in 1915-16, when half the race was extinguished in massacres and deportations directed by the Young Turk government. Today you can be prosecuted in France and other European countries for denying the slaughter. But the world's most influential genocide denier - other than Turkey itself - is the British government, which has
repeatedly asserted that there is insufficient evidence that what it terms a "tragedy" amounted to genocide. Now, thanks to the Freedom of
Information Act, we learn that (in the words of Foreign Office memos) commercial and political relations with Turkey have required abandoning "the ethical dimension".

For the past ten years, various Foreign Office ministers, from Geoff Hoon to Mark Malloch Brown, have told parliament that "neither this government nor previous governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorised as genocide, as defined by the 1948 convention". This would have come as a shock to the architects of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide (for whom the Armenian genocide was second only to the Holocaust), as well as to the wartime British government, which accused the Turks of proceeding "systematically to exterminate a whole race out of their domain". (Winston Churchill described it as "an administrative holocaust . . . there is no reasonable doubt that this crime was executed for political reasons".)

What does the Foreign Office know that eluded our government at the time as well as the drafters of the Genocide Convention, not to mention the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the US House committee on foreign affairs and at least nine other European governments? The Freedom of Information Act has now unravelled this mystery.

The Armenian Centre in London obtained hundreds of pages of hitherto secret memorandums, bearing the astonishing admission that there was no "evidence" that had ever been looked at and there had never been a "judgment" at all. Parliament had been misinformed: as the Foreign Office now admits, "there is no collection of documents, publications and reports by historians, held on the relevant files, or any evidence that a series of documents were submitted to ministers for consideration". In any case, ministers repeatedly asserted that, "in the absence of unequivocal evidence to show that the Ottoman administration took a specific decision to eliminate the Armenians under their control at the time, British governments have not recognised the events of 1915-16 as genocide".

That was the answer given by the government during the House of Lords debate on the subject in 1999. The thinking behind the genocide denial is revealed in an internal memorandum to ministers (Joyce Quin and Baroness Symons) before the debate: "HMG is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension, but given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey . . . the current line is the only feasible option."

An inconvenient truth

Nobody noticed that this "current line" was a legal nonsense. To prove genocide, you do not need unequivocal evidence of a specific government decision to eliminate a race - neither the Nazis nor the Hutu government in Rwanda ever voted to do so or recorded any such decision. Genocidal intentions are inferred from what governments do and from what they knew at the time they did it; and it was obvious to everyone in Armenia (including diplomats and missionaries from Germany, then allied to Turkey, and to neutral US ambassadors) that the deportations had turned into death marches, and the massacres were influenced by race hatred fanned by the government's "Turkification" campaign. The internal documents show that the Foreign Office has never had the slightest interest in the law of genocide: its stance throughout is that the UK cannot recognise this particular genocide, not because it had not taken place, but because realpolitik makes it inconvenient.

There is no suggestion in these documents that expert legal advice was ever sought before ministers were wrongly briefed on the law of genocide. The definition of the crime includes "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" - a precise description of the Ottoman government's orders to deport two million Armenians to the Syrian Desert, in the course of which hundreds of thousands were murdered or died of starvation. Courts in The Hague have actively developed the law relating to genocide in recent years, but the Foreign Office memos make no reference to this - its only concern is that ministers should say nothing which might discomfort a Turkish government that it describes as "neuralgic" about its accountability.

The documents show how Foreign Office officials have discouraged ministers from attending memorial services for Armenian victims and from including any reference to this genocide at Holocaust Memorial Day. They advised Margaret Beckett, Geoff Hoon and Kim Howells to absent themselves from the Armenian genocide memorial day in 2007. It is no business of the Foreign Office to discourage ministers from attending memorial services for victims of crimes against humanity.Notable in these hitherto secret documents is how government ministers parrot their Foreign Office briefs in parliament word for word and never challenge the advice provided by diplomats. None of them has ever pointed out, for example, that the "not sufficiently unequivocal" test is oxymoronic - evidence is either equivocal or it is not. It cannot be a little bit unequivocal.

The other routine excuse for denying the genocide has been that "it is for historians, not governments, to interpret the past". This "line" was described in 1999 as "long-standing". But genocide is a matter for legal judgment, not a matter for historians, and there is no dispute about the Armenian genocide among legal scholars. Yet Foreign Office ministers insist that the "interpretation of events is still the subject of genuine debate among historians". This "line" was stoutly maintained until last year, when it was placed on the Downing Street website in response to an e-petition and provoked angry replies from the public. The minister, by now Jim Murphy, was displeased, and became the first to demand to know just what evidence the Foreign Office had looked at.

The Eastern Department had looked at no evidence at all. In great haste, it came up with three historians - Bernard Lewis (who had been prosecuted in France for denying the genocide, but then told Le Monde that he did not dispute that hundreds of thousands of Armenians had died), Justin McCarthy (a Kentucky professor whose pro-Turkish work was sent to Keith Vaz, then a minister at the Foreign Office, by the Turkish ambassador) and Heath Lowry, who, although he does not put his own name to denials of the genocide, provoked dispute at Princeton after it accepted funds from the Turkish government to endow his "Atatürk Chair" and he was then exposed as having helped draft a letter in which the Turkish ambassador denounced a scholar for writing about the genocide. It is astonishing, given the number of British historians, from Arnold Toynbee onwards, who have no doubts on the subject, that the Foreign Office should grasp at the straw of three controversial Americans.

Will we remember?

The head of the department later told Murphy that it had stopped "deploying this line" because "we found that references to historians tended to raise further questions". Malloch Brown proceeded to read out the old mantra that "neither this government nor previous governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal" on his behalf, even though no government had actually "judged" or received any evidence at all.Parliament has been routinely misinformed by ministers who have recited Foreign Office briefs without questioning their accuracy. The government's only policy has been to evade giving any truthful answer about the Armenian genocide, because it has abandoned "the ethical dimension" in the interests of relations with a Turkish government that it acknowledges to be unbalanced in its attitude to this issue.

In August 1939, Adolf Hitler exhorted his generals to show no mercy to the Polish people they were preparing to blitzkrieg because, "After all, who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?" If the ethics-free zone in the Foreign Office has its way, nobody in the UK will remember them either.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC is the author of "Crimes Against Humanity: the Struggle for Global Justice" (Penguin, £14.99)
His full opinion on the Armenian genocide and the Foreign Office documents can be obtained for free from j.flint@doughtystreet.co.uk

His email is g.robertson@doughtystreet.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain