On the Armenians, and why their centenary matters

These past few weeks, the very eminent Geoffrey Robertson QC has been home from London for a visit. I am a huge admirer of the man and have read all his books. The volume of his prodigious output is matched only by its fine legal argument and scope of analysis. As a very lowly employee in the same field, I have nothing but professional respect for his work.

The venue was City Recital Hall in Angel Place, central Sydney. Robertson had already spoken at the vigil held during the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Martin Place. And at the Sydney centenary commemorations for the genocide of Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks. Few people are better qualified for all three engagements.

The Angel Place gig was always designed to be more light-hearted, with more showmanship, a quality all good barristers must possess. And it was good, but it wasn’t ground-breaking.

Some of the anecdotes were overly dated: I remembered the punchlines from reading The Justice Game about fifteen years ago. The show also appeared to be an early or amateur foray into use of multi-media. There was at least one major unforced error as well as a few instances of poor judgement as to what to show on the screen, and for how long. The Abbott jokes were weak enough to go for the ears. That’s not so funny.

And much of the more substantive legal talk was pitched unnecessarily low. I’m not convinced that an audience who can pony up over $70 to hear witty bon mots from the Old Bailey really need the abomination that is the second verse of our national anthem pointed out for amusement. More to our shame, really.

But anyway. I caught up with the folks and we had a lovely meal and bumped into old friends from the old neighbourhood. I bought a copy of Robertson’s latest book and taught my dad how to check in and post a selfie. Only one friend – a woman whose father was whisked from Germany to the safety of Palestine in 1933, and who as an adult came on to Australia after he was conscripted into the horrors of 1948 – commented on the incongruity of my grinning mug and the title of the book I was holding up.

The book is called An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? A few pages in, I learnt that the subtitle was derived from a Hitler quote. The title in full signals the main argument Robertson sets out to persuade the reader. His argument is that holding the perpetrators of the genocide of Armenians to account is important. Had the world done so at the time, we may have been more alert to indicia of the Nazi Holocaust.

The argument, in brief, goes like this. Hitler specifically referenced the Armenians. Britain had committed to putting the perpetrators of that genocide on trial. Germany, an Ottoman ally, whisked the key architects away to safety in Germany. The British leadership condemned this ‘crime against humanity and civilisation’ and held the remaining Turkish leaders on Malta to await war crimes proceedings.

Inevitably, ‘jurisdictional issues’ caused delays to holding such trials. There was no universal jurisdiction at the time, nor international criminal law. Until 1948, customary international law was concerned with matters like law of the sea (duty to rescue, piracy), jus ad bellum (and post bellum and other ludicrous and unenforceable laws of war), and trade.

Leaving aside any concern for Maltese sovereignty (the island was just used by the bigger powers, like Guantanamo today) Wilson and Churchill and Acton and Ataturk decided to let geopolitical expedience trump justice. This came in the form of a prisoner swap, or what Robertson calls Turkish prisoners swapped for British hostages.

World leaders had moved on from the Armenians – the formation of the League of Nations, the Treaty of Versailles. Like Baltimore and his 1917 promise to European Jews of a goodly slice of Palestine, these men did not negotiate lasting peace or justice. History shows the results of their settlements and treaties and promises and expediency to be unquestionably catastrophic.

The second key strand in Robertson’s argument is that Raphael Lamkin specifically had the Armenians in mind when he coined the term, and drafted the elements of the crime, of genocide. Lamkin was the driving force and chief architect of the Genocide Convention (1949). This is backed by the fact that Hitler specifically and pointedly said “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (Obersaltzburg, 22 August 1939).

This evidence has multiple implications. Firstly, the word genocide had not yet been coined, but the annihilation of the Ottoman-Armenian population by the then-ruling party of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was contemporaneously accepted as fact.

The incoming Turkish nationalists under Atatürk brokered the prisoner swap deal with the British on the basis that the previous leadership would and should be held accountable for their crimes against the Armenians. The argument for shifting the legal process back to Turkey was to resolve jurisdictional problems of holding British-controlled trials of Ottoman war crimes in Malta. The negotiating parties apparently accepted that this would be consistent with the precedent of (alleged) German war criminals being tried in Germany (the Leipzig War Trials).

So the genocide of Ottoman Armenians by their own government was understood at the time to be a horrendous crime of international seriousness and magnitude. There was agreement that the CUP leaders should be charged. This shows acquiescence by Atatürk to the principle or legality of holding an incoming government responsible for actions taken by the previous government.

In the event, those released from Malta instead took up senior positions in the new Turkish nation state. Was this predictable? Did the British make diplomatic noises about a chap not keeping a chap’s promise to execute a chap’s idea of justice once back home? Those dastardly untrustworthy Easterners? Was that the narrative of the day?

Robertson makes a forensically detailed and brilliant case for recognising ‘the events of 1915’ as the apologists now euphemistically call the death marches and mass murders, as genocide. He does not mince words at the base betrayal and gross scale of violence and requisite intent to physically destroy a specific group ‘in whole or in part’ (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide 1948 Article II). He is very clear that his case is that of a barrister, and not a historian; and he is specific about the role of both. The historian is one of many sources for the facts and record, while the lawyer applies the law to the verifiable material facts.

I am neither historian nor barrister, and Robertson’s legal argument is, obviously, of the highest quality. There is no reason why an intersectional retrospective analysis of the predictable failings of the British would occur to him. But it certainly occurs to me.

The detail that leapt off the page as I started reading An Inconvenient Genocide was this: the British navy, alongside the French and Russians, headed into the Aegean in 1876 to ‘defeat the Ottoman fleet’ and ‘liberate’ Greece. This detail is provided without much context, because it is context: to the Treaty of Berlin 1878. The point of this Treaty was ostensibly to recognise the independence of Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro from the Ottoman Empire.

But we are talking about Europe, so it was not as simple as that. In 2015 in the West, we are daily bombarded with images and messages about tribal warfare and sectarian violence in other parts of the world. But Europe has long been an internecine blood bath of ethnic and religious hatreds.

In 1878, Britain, France, Germany-Prussia and Austro-Hungary were all at the table to ‘negotiate’ over the defeat of the Sultan in the Balkans. What business was it of the British? Why on earth was France there? Did any of them really think that humiliating and condescending to (and squabbling over the spoils of) an Imperial leader – a leader who was presiding over his empire as it crumbled away – would end well?

At the risk of sounding frivolous, world leaders are not immune to ‘kick the dog’ syndrome. This is the pattern whereby the boss humiliates the (man-provider) worker, who goes home and humiliates his wife or partner, who in turn takes out her pain and hurt on the children, who then kick the dog. The dog may bite back one day, but the point is the abuse of power. We think power is about struggles between players, but it is nearly always about those with greater power abusing it, to violate and otherwise (further) disempower the disempowered.

World leaders are generally men of giant ego and viscious tendencies who unleash the most horrific violence on the most flimsy of pretexts. They are the boss’s boss, the top of the chain in any kick-the-dog prototype. They have power over men, women and children, territory, huge arsenals of weapons. They intone gravely on peace and justice while commanding tsunamis of preventable deaths by murder and killing. This happens across the globe on various scales, depending on access to weaponry. It is not that the British are more savage or the Arabs more civilised or the Turks more religious or the Greeks more barbaric. Nor is it universal. Not all humans behave like this. But leaders of empire, none of whom are women or children, do.

Humiliating a man who is already humiliated is a terrible idea. It is moronic, idiotic, rash, dangerous. If a woman did such a stupid thing she would be seen as ‘asking for it’. On a global scale, up to and including genocide, it seems that these men are blind to the basic problem because they are the problem.

The rest is squabbling over account: the equivalent of an imperial sandpit, which is how many world ‘leaders’ behave: your murders are worse than my murders. The way you blow up women and children is more inhumane than the way I slit their throats or he orders them on death marches.

It would take a true leader to not be like this. True leadership was not on display when the so-called ‘Great’ Powers – they whose actions and decisions set the scene for two world wars and genocides – negotiated the Treaty of Berlin.

Here is what Article 61 said: “The Sublime Porte engages to carry out without further delay the ameliorations and reforms which are called for by local needs in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and the Kurds. It will give information periodically of the measures taken for this purpose to the Powers, who will watch over the execution of them.”

This just beggars belief. The Ottoman Empire was known as a caliphate. Its eastern European states were cutting themselves adrift, some into the arms of Russia, which was not a Muslim nation. The Christian European powers sat a humiliated Eastern leader down, and told him to sign a piece of paper agreeing that he was a loser at war and empire, and to be nicer to the Armenians and report to the Christian West on how he was going with that.

It is not difficult to imagine, or predict, how this kind of humiliation on the world stage would translate into stirring racial hatred at home. Empires are not headed by rational reasonable people who refuse to blame others for their own decisions and stupidities. Empires are run by bosses who indulge in kick-the-dog irrationality on a monumental scale. The larger the scale, the uglier the metaphorical kicking.

Large scale massacres of Ottoman Armenians were perpetrated in 1894 and 1896, with estimates of up to 200,000 killed (in a population of around 1 million). Recall that the Armenians were a Christian minority, persecuted on that basis. The killers were Ottoman military (conscripted, so basically Turkish men); Kurds who were also marginalised (but as co-religionists of the ruling class, less so than the Christian Armenians) and gangs of released prisoners (who Robertson stops just short of saying were released for the purpose of persecuting Armenians).

This is not to revisit past ethno-religious hatreds, not least because the same hatreds are evident today. It is a brief reminder of the depth of religious malignity that was all around – again, as inter- and infra-religious hatreds exist today.

Robertson rightly points out that the massacres of the 1890s were a sufficient harbinger to fear the 1915 genocide. He argues that the British and axis powers should have known, in 1918, from the war they had just ‘won’ and the fact that the Ottomans breached Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin, to hold the genocidaires of 1915 to account – or it would happen again.

This is the point of the subtitle of his book containing a sentiment derived from Hitler: because genocide was done again. These failures are depicted as multiple and complicit: failure of political will, of global leadership, of an international criminal law in its infancy that could and should have been moved forward but was not.

But this narrative contains an implicit faith in an international world order that I do not share. Punishment after the fact does not have a deterrent effect on sovereign leaders who are, by definition, power-seekers. There have been many more wars since Nuremberg. Some leaders have been held to account (from Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia) and some have not (Bush, Blair, Howard, Netanyahu).

History and international law show that for centuries, western-Christian Europe and the British have parked themselves at the global table as brokers of justice and peace and have demonstrably failed at both. Yes, so have many others. But add the USA, another imperial Christian-West power, and the fact that we in the West are force fed the dominant narrative that these powers combined are somehow “better” than some scary alternative. Better at what? Not peace, that much is clear.

This is the flaw in placing undeserved faith in Western global leadership. Does it matter? If the contemporary world order is anything to go by, if recognising the genocide of Armenians in 1915 matters, then yes, it does.

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