The truth about the Armenian genocide

April 23, 2004
Source: National Post (Canada)

Wednesday's parliamentary resolution recognizing the Turkish slaughter of Armenians during the First World War as a genocide and a crime against humanity may seem obscure to many Canadians. But in Turkey, the issue is extraordinarily sensitive. Most non-Turkish historians agree that Turks killed up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, in some cases burning them alive in churches or forcing them into the wilderness, where they died of starvation and exposure. The Turkish government, however, claims the real number of deaths was just 300,000, and that even these fatalities arose not from genocide but from Turkish "self-defence" against Armenians allied with Russia. Though widely debunked, this national myth is precious to the Turks, which explains why Ankara went ballistic yesterday, accusing Canadian legislators of being "narrow-minded" and sowing "hatred."

Paul Martin knew this was coming. In 2000, when the U.S. Congress considered a similar resolution, Ankara threatened to cut America's access to its Turkish military bases. Prior to the vote, Mr. Martin had his Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, twist arms in an effort to defeat the motion. But to his credit, the Prime Minister ultimately refused to declare this a whipped vote -- despite the fact there are a number of Canadian companies with business interests in Turkey, including Bombardier, which has a $335-million contract with Ankara's public transportation system. Ignoring realpolitik, many Liberals voted their conscience, and the motion passed by a 153 to 68 margin.

All of this leaves us conflicted. On one hand, the MPs who voted for Wednesday's motion are certainly on the right side of history -- and there was something gratifying about seeing them buck their party bosses to speak up for the truth. On the other hand, Parliament's job is to make laws -- not to decide issues best left to historians and filmmakers.

This is not to say that governments should never take a position on historical events. In Germany, it is illegal to deny the existence of the Holocaust, a law arguably justified by the singularly evil crimes of the Nazis. And in other Western nations, governments have properly recognized the campaigns of slaughter their forebears inflicted on aboriginals. But these are exceptional instances. Our worry is that, with the passage of Wednesday's resolution, we will now witness a parade of aggrieved ethnic groups coming before Parliament, each seeking recognition of its own historical tragedy. Recall that millions of Ukrainians were starved by Stalin in the 1930s. Half-a-million Rwandan Tutsis were killed at the hands of Hutus in 1994. In 1948, Hindus and Muslims killed one another by the truckload in South Asia. Is our Parliament to serve as history's scorekeeper, duly tallying all of these massacres and the hundreds more like them?

As for the Turkish government, we would urge that it stop insisting on a blinkered view of history. Even within the Turkish community itself, a small group of scholars has emerged in recent years to challenge the official line. Ankara should pay them heed. Though it is not our Parliament's job to point it out, Turkey's refusal to recognize the 1915 Armenian massacre is a stain on the country's international reputation.