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Recognition of Armenian Genocide

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require Her Majesty’s Government formally to recognise the Armenian genocide of 1915-23; and for connected purposes.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia. Many people might not be able to identify Armenia on a map or have any knowledge of atrocities that happened over a century ago, but that is no reason for us not to consider, to remember and to seek to remediate a particularly dark chapter in human history, which has been acknowledged by His Holiness Pope Francis as the first genocide of the 20th century.

The Armenian genocide was the systematic and systemic mass murder of between 1 million and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman empire, primarily in the years of the first world war between 1915 and 1916 and extending as far as 1923, though large-scale massacres at the hands of the Ottomans go back to the 1890s and 1909. Following the Ottoman invasion of Russian and Persian territory during world war one, and to deter Armenian independence, Ottoman paramilitaries massacred local Armenians and plans were formulated for mass deportation.

In 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested and deported hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders from Constantinople. Subsequently, on the orders of Talaat Pasha, an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million Armenian women, children and elderly or infirm people were sent on death marches leading to the Syrian desert in 1915 and 1916. Driven forward by paramilitary escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to robbery, rape and massacres. In the Syrian desert, the survivors were dispersed into concentration camps.

In 1916, another wave of massacres was ordered, leaving about 200,000 deportees alive by the end of 1916. Around 100,000 to 200,000 Armenian women and children were forcibly converted to Islam and integrated into Muslim households. Massacres and ethnic cleansing of Armenian survivors were carried out by the Turkish nationalist movement during the Turkish war of independence after the first world war. The Armenian genocide resulted in the destruction of more than two millennia of Armenian civilization in eastern Anatolia.

We knew about these atrocities at the time. The British Government commissioned a parliamentary blue book in 1916 to document the Armenian genocide. It was compiled by Viscount Bryce and the historian, Arnold Toynbee. I read the Hansard of the debates in the Lords at the time, and in particular the speeches of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, a great champion of the Armenian people. He spoke of

“appalling stories of wholesale massacre, of expulsion of great populations from their homes under conditions which could only be described as in most cases slowly dragged-out massacre…on a scale so vast as is scarcely credible in our own time or, indeed, in any time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 1919; Vol. 38, c. 280.]

He recounted details of women and girls thrown off barges on the River Tigris to drown, children burned alive in concentration camps and hundreds of thousands of men uprooted and forced on long marches to be murdered if they did not expire on route. He concluded:

“After all the distractions which the war has brought into the mind of men all over the world in contemplating contemporary history, is it conceivable that we are going to allow these facts to be forgotten; or, if we do not allow them to be forgotten, that we are going to allow conditions to arise again during which their repetition can be possible? That seems to me to be a question which ought to be, and must be, asked at once.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 1919; Vol. 38, c. 285.]

Hear, hear to that, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is why the issue is still so important today.

Part of the problem is that the term “genocide” was not in use then and therefore not applied to massacres such as this back in 1916, and it did not have the international resonance that it does today. The word “genocide” was first coined by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. It was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946 by the UN General Assembly and codified as an independent crime in the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which came into effect in 1951. From that flow all the subsequent international cases on genocide tried in the international court, which includes retrospectively—that is an important point—the Jewish holocaust.

The convention and subsequent UN resolutions recognise that genocide has taken place at all times in human history and that there were prosecutions for the crime even before the term was invented. To date, the convention has been ratified by 149 states, including the UK in 1970, strengthening our country’s global prestige for standing up for human rights and justice.

We know about the Jewish holocaust as a genocide and, since 2001, we have commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day, applied to all holocausts. We acknowledge and mourn the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus died. The Srebrenica massacre of 1995 has been recognised as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal, and there are others. However, the UK has yet to recognise the Armenian genocide, despite strong condemnation of it at the time from the British Government as “a crime against humanity”. Churchill referred to the infamous massacre and deportation of Armenians thus:

“The clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act, on a scale so great, could well be.”

Despite no fewer than 31 countries officially recognising the Armenian genocide, including European partners such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France, which notably recently passed into law the offence of denying that the Armenian killings were genocide, for some reason the UK has failed to follow suit. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration in the US recognised the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide as well. It is therefore surely time for the UK to do the right thing and follow suit.

Let me uniquely quote Hitler, who, ahead of his invasion of Poland in 1939, famously said

“who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

That is the point: we cannot legitimately call out and stand up to genocides that are still going on in the 21st century by side-lining and neglecting the genocides of the 20th century. The refusal to recognise the Armenian genocide risks conveying a dangerous message of impunity that a crime unpunished is a crime encouraged or downplayed. A memorandum from the Foreign Office back in 1999 let the cat out of the bag. It said:

“Given the importance of our relationship (political, strategic, commercial) with Turkey…recognising the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK”.

That is not good enough. Glossing over the uncomfortable inconveniences of history is not the basis for strong and constructive relationships with supposed allies in the present day.

Earlier this year, the House rightly voted unanimously to recognise the Chinese genocide of the Uyghur people going in Xinjiang. Every aspect of what happened to the Armenian people deserves the same title and regard. Just as the Uyghur atrocities continue, the recent invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan, which has forced 90,000 Armenians to flee their homes due to the threat of ethnic cleansing, serves as a warning that Armenians remain vulnerable today. Disgracefully, the Azerbaijanis issued a set of official postage stamps depicting exterminators in hazmat suits cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of Armenians. What more chilling evidence do we need that some countries need to be reminded about the horrors of genocide?

My Bill would require the UK Government formally to recognise the genocide of the Armenians in the period from 1915 to 1923; establish an annual commemoration to victims of the Armenian genocide, which may be part of a wider commemoration of genocides; and ensure that the facts of the Armenian genocide and its relevance are acknowledged in the curriculum, just as we do with other historical genocides. Such an undertaking would help to right an historical injustice; help to advance genocide studies globally; raise public awareness on crimes against humanity; and send out a strong message and assurance to the Armenian community in the United Kingdom that we share and recognise their pain and will stand with them against the revisiting of such crimes in future.

The Bill is strongly supported by hon. Members from at least five parties across the House—I am glad to see some of them in their places—including the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist party and the Scottish National party. It has the backing of the Armenian National Committee. I am particularly grateful to Annette Moskofian, its chair, for all her help and support both for the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia and in preparing the Bill. I also thank the ambassador. I am glad to see and be able to acknowledge the presence of both of them in the Public Gallery.

The Bill is important. The Armenian genocide is not an historical anachronism but an important contemporary issue where, inexplicably, we have failed to read the room internationally. We urgently need to put that right now. Many of us were disappointed with the relatively tame condemnation last year of Azerbaijan’s invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ongoing atrocities committed against Armenian prisoners and Armenians still trying to live in homelands that their ancestors have inhabited for centuries. With the Bill, we have the opportunity to do our bit to help right an appalling historical injustice and, as a leading advocate of human rights on the international stage, send out a clear message that we recognise genocide—wherever and whenever it has been committed—as the worst crime against humanity and that we will call it out, defend the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Tim Loughton, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, John Spellar, Chris Law, Christine Jardine, James Gray, Jim Shannon, Andrew Rosindell, Dr Rupa Huq, Wera Hobhouse, Alan Brown and Chris Stephens present the Bill.

Tim Loughton accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March 2022, and to be printed (Bill 190).

Order. Before we move on, following the earlier points of order about the Committee on Standards, information has now come to me that a motion has been tabled for Monday that will do exactly what Mr Bryant, the Chair of the Committee, said: endorse the Committee’s proposals and rescind the proposals for reform. I do believe it is important that the House gets to know these things as quickly as possible so that it can make all sorts of preparations. It is a shame that that was not made clear earlier.