It is time for Turkey to recognise the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide

It is now 98 years since 1.5m Armenians were systematically massacred. Recognising what happened is the only way to help us all move forward.

It has been 98 years since - following a premeditated plan with a methodic implementation - one million and a half Armenians were massacred in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian people were the victims of a genocide which would soon serve as a gruesome reference for those that followed.

Today in Turkey, the mere enunciation of this historical fact still provokes ferocious opposition, sometimes even physical threats. Genocide denial serves as an encouragement to racism and hate against Armenians and other non-Muslim minorities. Some want to pretend that acknowledging the reality of the Armenian Genocide is an attack on all Turkish people and on "Turkishness". It is not: it is a step towards justice. 

Several years ago, the genocide of Armenians began to be commemorated in Turkey itself. The participants are still few but their number grows every day despite an official discourse of genocide-denial. Today, those among us who have taken part in these commemorations in Turkey are calling for solidarity beyond borders.

This year on 24 April - the widely recognised starting date of the massacre - we ask citizens, civil society leaders, antiracist activists, intellectuals and artists, of Armenian and other diverse origins, in Turkey and across the world, to unite in calling for the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide to be recognised at last.  

Our shared initiative is one of solidarity, of justice, and of democracy.

It is an initiative of solidarity between all who fight for historical truth. Today the divide is not between Turks and Armenians, but between those who struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, whatever their origins are and wherever they live, and those who promote denial. In a word, it is not a question of blood, but of ideas; not a question of origins, but of a common goal.

It is an initiative of justice. In the words of writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, "Genocide kills twice, the second time by silence." Denial, then, is the perpetuation of genocide. Fighting against denial is trying to quell the trauma in Armenian communities from one generation to another. It is not an end to this part of history - because when it comes to genocide, there is unfortunately no true end - but it offers new generations the opportunity to look together towards the future.

Finally, it is an initiative for democracy. Echoing writer and Buchenwald survivor Jorge Semprun's frequent reminder, democracy requires vitality from civil society. Strengthening Turkish civil society by establishing bridges with the rest of the European civil society is strengthening democratic values, thus combating racism and promoting human rights, in Turkey as well as in the rest of Europe.

In solidarity, for justice and democracy, for the respect of the victims and their descendents, we will commemorate together the Armenian Genocide on 24 April, in Turkey.

Signed by:

Benjamin Abtan, President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement - EGAM

Cengiz Algan & Levent Sensever, Spokespeople for Durde! (Turkey)

Alexis Govciyan , European President & Nicolas Tavitian, Member of the Board of the Armenian General Benevolent Union - AGBU (Europe)

Meral Çildir, Member of the Board of Directors & Ayse Gunaysu, Member of the Commission against Racism and Discrimination of the Turkish Association for Human Rights - IHD (Turkey)

An Armenian Genocide commemoration ceremony in Yerevan in 2012. Photo: Getty

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.