Armenia and its tragic history has had an intensive blast of media coverage in the run-up to the April 24 centenary of what is now widely – though not universally – referred to as the genocide of 1915. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande will be in Yerevan representing Russia and France, the two most important countries to have risked Turkey’s wrath and use the G-word with reference to the mass deportations and killings in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The US, which also does not use it, is sending the Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew. Britain will be represented by John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the all party committee on Armenia.
No disrespect intended to Whittingdale, to the UK ambassador to Armenia or to the Bishop of London, who will also be there. But the level of UK representation is far below that of the three other permanent members of the UN security council. Another point of comparison is that the Prince of Wales is leading the UK delegation to the Gallipoli centenary commemoration on the same day. And the date for that, Armenians believe, was chosen deliberately by the Turks – long loyal Nato allies – to overshadow their own event at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan.
Britain’s position on genocide recognition is not new. But documents released under the freedom of information act – though heavily redacted – shed light on an internal government debate 18 months ago about whether its policy should change. The outcome of the discussion – apparently between the embassy in Yerevan and the minister for Europe in London – was to continue the policy while taking a “forward-leaning” stance on participation in commemoration events. “But we should ensure that this is not mis-read as lack of recognition (in the wider sense) of the appalling events of 1915-16,” the anonymous official commented. “It would be right to participate more actively in 2015 centenary events, as well as continue efforts to promote reconciliation.” The foreign office insists that the presence of Whittingdale and co. does indeed represent more active involvement.
Ironically, back in May 1915, when the horrors of Armenian suffering in eastern Anatolia were being extensively reported, Britain, with its French and Russian allies, condemned what they called a “crime against humanity” – then a novel phrase. The modern position, however, is that it is not up to governments to decide what constitutes genocide. “The UK recognises as genocide only those events that have been found so by international courts (eg, Holocaust, Srebrenica, Rwanda) and this needs to dictate our approach on recognition,” the document notes. That view has been robustly challenged by Geoffrey Robertson, QC, whose arguments apparently galvanised the FCO into this internal discussion.
Another option was considered in 2013: to follow Russia, France and others and formally recognise the Armenian massacres as genocide – given the May 1915 statement and the preamble to the 1948 UN convention on genocide. That would “be received positively by both the Armenian government and the UK diaspora,” the document noted. It added: “However, this would be a significant and far-reaching change in HMG policy.” Tantalisingly, the next sentence has been redacted. So bizarrely, there is no mention of Turkey at all. Another FCO document on the issue, which reports on the decision of the Swedish parliament to adopt the G-word in 2010, refers to the “drastic effect” on relations between Stockholm and Ankara, including the cancellation of a visit by the then Turkish prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Britain presumably fears similar retaliation by Turkey if it recognised the Armenian genocide. But freedom of information does not extend to having that obvious and embarrassing objection spelled out.