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House of Commons Hansard
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1915 Armenian Genocide
23 March 2015
Volume 594

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)

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I am glad that Members have decided not to leave the Chamber. 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.

May I at the outset put one thing firmly on the record? What I have to say tonight is not an attack on the Government of Turkey. I am not criticising the Government of Turkey. I realise 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.

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.

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Obviously, this is an important issue for us as parliamentarians. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is past time that the Turkish Government not only admitted to the historical genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, but apologised for the most horrific atrocities they carried out at the time? We cannot ignore the fact that the Turkish Government have to apologise for that.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am reluctant to go entirely down that route. Obviously the Turkish Government should do so, but today I am talking about the commemoration in this House, particularly as we approach 24 April. I cannot disagree with him—I surprise myself at how seldom I disagree with him—but we should concentrate on the subject at issue.

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 Interior Minister 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 recognises 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 has 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 apologise 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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I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on obtaining this debate and putting with his customary eloquence the case for why it is important that we in this House remember what was one of the first great crimes of the 20th century. He has worked on behalf of his constituents from Armenia and the Armenian community generally for a long time, and it was a pleasure to be in Yerevan with him just over a year ago.

It is entirely right that we in this House mark the centenary of the Armenian genocide. We have commemorated other genocides here, such as those that took place in the Balkans and in Rwanda and, of course, the holocaust. As the hon. Gentleman said, the term “genocide” was originally coined by Raphael Lemkin who, when he came to describe what had happened to his own people—the Jewish people—initially had the experience of hearing about the massacre of the Armenians, which undoubtedly influenced him.

The hon. Gentleman made a strong case, and I concur that we should use the term “genocide” to describe what was clearly a deliberate attempt to kill an entire people. In a sense, whether we use that word or not there is no question but that the massacre of more than 1 million people—perhaps 1.5 million Armenians who were either massacred or starved to death—was a horrendous crime. Both he and I have visited the memorial to the genocide in Yerevan and the museum, and anybody who goes there can be left in no doubt of the true horror of what occurred. The evidence is overwhelming. Those who try to dismiss it cannot argue with the records, photographs and accounts of witnesses, both Armenian and international, not least those from this country whose testimony is perhaps among the most powerful. As a result, it is important that we remember what happened, and renew our determination to ensure that that kind of event never happens again.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is not about apportioning blame, certainly not to the present Turkish Government, and I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister of Turkey talked about the shared pain and offered his condolences a year ago. I hope that that provides an opportunity to try to build reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey, and to normalise relations and perhaps in due course to re-open the border between those two countries. I hope that can still be achieved.

I was very struck by a speech that I heard not long ago by the former Prime Minister of Armenia and Armenian ambassador to this country, Dr Armen Sarkissian. He said that of course we should remember what occurred and commemorate the loss of life, but that more importantly it is an opportunity to celebrate the survival of a great people and a great country. I am delighted that we have had the chance this evening to put that on record in this place, and in four weeks’ time I shall be honoured to pay my own tribute in Yerevan to those who died.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to the moving way in which both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) spoke about the tragedy that befell the Armenian people just over 100 years ago.

It was on 24 April 1915 that about 250 leading members of the Armenian community in Istanbul were arrested. This marked the beginning of a campaign of forced deportations directed against the Ottoman Armenian community. From 1915 to 1916 during the course of the deportations to the Syrian desert, it is estimated that well over 1 million Ottoman Armenians lost their lives as a result of massacres by soldiers or irregulars, forced marches, starvation and disease. A number of other minorities, such as the Assyrians, also suffered.

The British Government of that time robustly condemned the forced deportations, massacres and other crimes. We continue to endorse that view. British charities, as we look back, played a major part then in humanitarian relief operations. The deaths of more than 1 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire was an appalling civilian loss of life against the backdrop of the first world war, a conflict which itself broke new ground in developing international warfare on an industrial scale.

Today, the centenary of those terrible events has huge significance, as the hon. Member for Ealing North said, for the people of Armenia and for the worldwide Armenian diaspora. As an inseparable part of the tragedy of first world war, it is entirely appropriate that we in this country include this tragedy in our remembrance of the first world war to honour the dead, and to draw lessons from history and hope for a better future. The British Government’s commemorations this year have focused on how the first world war shaped society and touched lives and communities. The deportation and massacres of the Ottoman Armenians, and the role played by the UK and other allies in reporting the atrocities and helping the survivors, are an indivisible part of that story. The events and commemorative activities, which the Armenian community in the UK will organise on 24 April and over the course of this year, will help to illuminate further that period of history for British people, some of whom may be hearing about it for the first time.

The appalling nature of the events of 1915-16 were brought home vividly to me when I visited the Tsitsernakaberd memorial museum in Yerevan during my first ministerial visit to Armenia in 2012. When I went back to Armenia last year, I laid a wreath at the memorial to pay my respects to those who had died and those who had suffered. As has been said, in this centenary year my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, as chair of the British-Armenian all-party group, and our ambassador to Yerevan will be present at the Armenian Government’s commemorations on 24 April in the Armenian capital.

As discussed in today’s debate, for this country and the Commonwealth the dates of 24 and 25 April have great significance for an additional reason, as the days we remember the centenary of the allied landings at Gallipoli. On 24 April, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will attend a ceremony in Gallipoli to honour the memory of all those who died during the campaign, including soldiers from Britain, Ireland, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent, Canada and Sri Lanka, as well as the Ottoman soldiers who died defending the peninsula. Those sombre commemorations in both Gallipoli and Yerevan should be used to honour the memory of those who lost their lives, whether soldiers or civilians, and to reflect carefully on the painful lessons we have learnt from history and how to prevent such events from happening again.

The hon. Member for Ealing North asked me a direct question about the Government’s policy on the recognition of the events in Armenia as a genocide. I have to say to him that the Government’s policy, indeed the policy of successive Governments, has not changed since 1988 when this matter was reviewed. We take the view that genocide is not simply an expression of a political judgment. It is now a crime, and the British Government recognise as genocide only those events found to be so by international courts—for example, the holocaust and the massacres in Srebrenica and Rwanda. We do not exercise a political judgment in ascribing the term “genocide” to a set of events, whether in Armenia, the Holodomor in Ukraine or the massacres of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in 1998.

In honouring and reflecting upon the past, it is vital that we look to the future. The peoples and Governments of Turkey and Armenia need to find a way to face their joint history together and forge a new, more constructive relationship, and part of the role the UK seeks for itself is to support them in finding this path forward. I will not pretend that we from London can provide instant answers, but we are doing what we can practically to foster people-to-people exchanges and links between the two countries to break down stereotypes and barriers. For example, we have just completed a successful exchange of Turkish and Armenian Chevening alumni who visited each other’s countries for the first time.

Ultimately, the Governments of Armenia and Turkey must take the lead in forging and delivering that new relationship. For that reason, the UK Government strongly supported the imaginative diplomacy that led to the Turkish-Armenia protocols in 2009. The protocols envisaged opening the border and initiating diplomatic relations without any preconditions, and it is a matter of great regret that the ratification process for those protocols has not moved forward. I hope that both sides will continue to consider creative ways to re-set their relations and open up new channels for dialogue and co-operation.

This year, we will reflect with sadness on the nature and horrific scale of the deportations, massacres and other crimes in 1915-16 and on the importance of this centenary for Armenia and Armenians worldwide, but we will also renew our commitment this year to promote reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. A genuine step forward along that path to reconciliation would take us towards a more peaceful and secure future for everyone living in the region. I continue to hope that both Turkey and Armenia can find a way to look together towards a brighter future.

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I have immense respect for the right hon. Gentleman—he and I have met the President of Armenia, and I entirely respect his position—but immediately after the genocide, the British Navy took 50 of the worst suspects from the Young Turks to Malta to try them because it recognised that what had happened was against civilisation. There was not sufficient legislation at the time for the trial to take place so the British took them back—probably rightly so—but does he not agree that we need that recognition now so as to avoid such a situation in the future? I am not criticising Turkey. I am talking about the Ottoman empire.

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I hesitate to get into a legal dispute with the hon. Gentleman, but we take the view, as have successive British Governments, that international law, including the 1948 protocol on genocide, is not retroactive, and that is part of the explanation for our position. That is not to detract from the horror of what took place 100 years ago, or to suggest that we will draw back from our commitment to seek the reconciliation of the peoples of Turkey and Armenia and to strive as hard as we can to bring about that much desired outcome.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.