Avoiding the G-word

The EU has come up with a new term to describe the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915.


May 21, 2008
Source: The Guardian (London)

By David Cronin

This week the European parliament will seek to introduce a new euphemism for genocide into the lexicon of international relations. Diplomats who follow MEPs' advice will no longer have to run the risk of offending countries with a dishonourable history by uttering the 'g' word. They can, instead, refer to the most egregious crimes against humanity as "past events".

That is the phrase our fearless elected representatives use in a report they are about to formally endorse on Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. Although it advocates a "frank and open discussion" between Turkey and Armenia about "past events", the report is anything but frank and open about what those events could be.
In the absence of more explicit guidance, I can only assume the "events" in question were the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915. There is ample evidence to suggest that this was the 20th century's first holocaust and that it partly inspired the efforts to exterminate Europe's Jews that Hitler initiated two decades later. No less a personage than Winston Churchill described the "massacring of uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians, men, women and children together, whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust". Political bodies across the world have passed resolutions recognising that a genocide occurred, including the European parliament itself back in 1987 (a fact conveniently omitted from the new report).

The question of whether the terms "genocide" or "holocaust" can be applied to the plight of the Armenians is not a purely historical or academic one. It is painfully pertinent to modern-day Turkey.

Last year Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, a bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper, was murdered by extreme nationalists. He had been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which made it a criminal offence to utter anything that could be construed as denigrating Turkishness. Dink was under no illusions that he was charged because he was prepared to address the Armenian genocide.

In 2005, the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk told a Swiss newspaper that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were murdered" in Turkey during the previous century and that "hardly anyone mentions it, so I do".

For bravely trying to break a taboo, Pamuk also found himself facing charges, though these were later dropped on a technicality.

Pamuk and Dink are the most high-profile victims of article 301, a law that has also been evoked to muzzle academics, human rights activists, even students and singers. Foreigners have been affected, too. The Turkish translation of Robert Fisk's mighty tome The Great War for Civilisation - which contains a harrowing account of unearthing Armenian skeletons in the Syrian desert - hit the shelves with zero marketing, because its publishers were scared of the reaction it would otherwise receive.

Last month, the Turkish assembly agreed to modify the law, reportedly to placate the EU's most powerful institutions. Out went the crime of insulting Turkishness. In came the crime of insulting the Turkish nation.

Several analysts have concluded - rightly - that this amendment is cosmetic and ambiguous. Yet according to the European commission, it is "very much a welcome step forward". The socialist grouping in the European parliament, which includes Britain's Labour MEPs, has made a similar statement ahead of this week's debate.

It is ironic that MEPs are indicating they may settle for something less than a total repeal of article 301. One MEP, the Dutch Green Joost Lagendijk, has been investigated under its provisions for accusing the Turkish army of inflaming tensions in the largely Kurdish south-east of the country during 2005.

Don't get me wrong. I'm in favour of Turkey joining the EU, once it chalks up significant improvements on its human rights record. And I consider it repugnant how right-wing politicians in France, Germany and Austria have opposed Turkey's accession efforts so that they can pander to an anti-Muslim bias for selfish electoral reasons.

But assaults on elementary rights like free expression have to be opposed whenever and wherever they occur. When alterations to laws designed to stifle democratic dissent are quite patently piecemeal, they should be criticised, not applauded.

And is it too much to ask from our elected representatives that they call a spade a spade and a genocide a genocide?