The importance of words in (Turkish) politics

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”


In the art of diplomacy the importance of words cannot be underestimated. It is, in fact, a linguistic gymnastics. Many words are being spoken, but the meaning which stands behind them is impalpable. With the reduced role of force, words are the most powerful tool in shaping politics, especially in foreign affairs. The centennial commemoration of the so-called ‘genocide’ of the Armenian people shows how one word can considerably matter in building and spoiling relations among countries.


‘Genocide’ according to international law

The word ‘genocide’ is defined in international law in the article II of  Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


The etymology of this word is the combination of the Greek word “γένος” (race, people) and the Latin verb “caedo” (to kill). The term was invented by Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959), a Polish-Jewish jurist, almost 30 years after the Turkish ‘Armenian genocide’ had started.

“Killing members of the group” is a main and the most visible part of genocide, but not the only one, that defines this word. In Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) he explained that the word ‘genocide’ implies a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of a group’s life, involving aspects that are cultural, political, social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, economic, biological, physiological, religious and moral. Such actions involve issues of health, food and nourishment, of family life and children care and of birth as well as death. They also involve considerations of the honor and dignity of the peoples and the future of humanity as a world community.


Plaque of Rafal Lemkin, Warsaw, Poland by Wuj Mat
In Lemkin’s attempts to create an accurate definition of massive killing, he had to gain and classify knowledge about many atrocities over the centuries, linking the word ‘genocide’ with a concept of colonization. Ottoman crimes during the 1915-1923 period  had an explicit influence on the young lawyer. In 1933, Lemkin sent a paper to a League of Nations conference in Madrid on the unification of penal law, with the idea to introduce the crimes of barbarity and vandalism as new offences against the law of the nations. Unfortunately, his attempts didn’t receive plaudits from the international environment. It’s hard to estimate how inspiring was the lack of sanctions after the Armenian Holocaust to Adolf Hitler’s plans of  exterminating members of the Polish and Jewish (to name but a few) races. In the Obersalzberg speech on August 22, 1939, the Führer asked rhetorically: “Who speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?”, which was clearly an encouragement for taking similar actions after the outbreak of the war. Lemkin was personally affected by the tragedy of the World War II, since even if he was able to escape to Sweden in 1939, as many as 40 members of his family were killed by Nazis.

Holocaust and other heinous crimes committed during the WW II had a decisive influence on the shaping of the definition of ‘genocide’ adopted in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.


Turkish struggle with the past


Young Turksfirstcongress
First congress of the Ottoman opposition (Young-Turks) in Paris
References to the World War II are crucial to understanding why Ankara and part of the Turkish society have been trying so desperately to avoid the word ‘genocide’ in determining the events from 1915 to 1923. The consequent use of this term would put the  massacre of the Armenians in the same line with the crimes of the Nazis. Research led by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent think-tank based in Istanbul, showed that  less than 10% of Turks say their government should recognize the mass killings of Armenians as ‘genocide’.

Despite the evident proofs of the organized manner in which the killings were carried out in order to eliminate the Armenians (i.e. a network of concentration camps) and the opinions shared by the vast majority of genocide scholars and historians, Turkish government adamantly denies that a genocide was in fact committed. Ankara constantly repeats that the country shares the pain of Armenians over the events but at the same time contends that many of the dead were killed in clashes during the Great War, namely a tragic consequence of a distressing conflict. Turkey also argues that Armenians were not specifically targeted because of their ethnic background. In the opinion shared by many Turkish politicians and historians, it’s commonly underlined that hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides and ethnic Turks were also victims of the conflict.

The reasons why Ankara avoids so desperately to use the g-word in official statements can be considered at several levels.

The immaturity of part of the Turkish society and being blinded by specific propaganda of historical success may be one of them. In contrary to Germans, Turks are not able to recognize their crimes and face their past. According to the poll’s upshot cited above, the vast part of those interviewed agree with the position of their government. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been widely criticized for being a ‘king of populism’, as the voters’ support has been evidently far more important than his image as a serious and stable player in the arena of international politics.

Before the official celebrations on 24th of April, Erdoğan has lashed out at country leaders who have recognized the killings of the Armenians by the Young Turks as a ‘genocide’,  admonishing that “they should first, one-by-one, clean the stains on their own histories”.

A ride in the popemobile
Pope Francis during his visit to Naples, Italy by Raffaele Esposito [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Diplomatic spat with Turkey was induced by Pope Francis, who became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to publicly declare what happened as “the first genocide of the past century”.

In a separate statement, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs assumed a stance towards “unfounded accusations” expressed by German President Joachim Gauck, who had qualified the 1915 killings as a genocide and acknowledged that Germany bore partial blame for the bloodletting. He was accused of  “attempts aimed at smearing (Turkish) identity”. It was added that “Turkish people will not forget or forgive German President Gauck’s statements”.

The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin was also condemned for referring to genocide during commemorations of the 1915 mass killings of the Armenians during World War I. Consequently, Turkish diplomacy announced that “such political statements, which represent a clear violation of the law, are considered null and void”. Once again, another foreign country was scolded for looking at the proverbial speck  in somebody’s else eye: “Considering the mass killings, exiles […] that Russia has carried out in the Caucasus, Central Asia and in eastern Europe over the past century […], we think it should be the one that knows best what a genocide is and what its legal dimensions are”.

U.S. President Barack Obama was on the other hand accused of  turning “a blind eye to genocide for political expediency” by the Armenian National Committee of America. Obama didn’t use the word ‘genocide’ in his speech, which was received as an attempt to  keep strategic relations with Ankara as smooth as possible. Washington is aware of Turkey’s crucial role as a strong  NATO ally in its Middle Eastern policy. Obama said that “the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths. Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished”. Clearly, the word “genocide” was not mentioned. Obama’s ‘indulgence policy’ is not considered as a profitable one, and dismay toward the speech was also expressed by Turkish representatives.

Furthermore, Turkey is afraid of possible legal repercussions which would appear with recognizing the mass killings of the Armenians as a ‘genocide’. Ankara could become liable to reparations, which are estimated  in trillions of dollars.


Postulates for a brighter future

With the arousing threat from many terrorist groups, including the IS, it is important to form a stable alliance against them. Turkey is undoubtedly one of the most significant players in the Middle East. However, there is a question if Turkey should have aspirations for something more.

On April 15, 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution in which Turkey was morally required to recognize the “Armenian genocide”. Ankara has reacted in a very predictable way by standing that “through the resolution it passed, the European Parliament has repeated the mistake it made in the past”. Although the above resolution won’t have any tangible political effects, the issue of the Armenian massacre affects Turkey in a far-reaching way. In 2012, former President of the European Parliament Martin Shultz announced that Turkey’s integration into Europe was preconditioned by the recognition of the Armenian genocide. It may determine a huge complication for Turkey to get into the EU structures.


EPP Congress 3586 (8097364712)
President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyanby European People’s Party [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
“The modern authorities did not commit the genocide, but when they try to justify it, they take responsibility for it” said in an interview Serzh Sargsyan, President of Armenia. It is true that the word ‘genocide’ is considered as a venom in Armenian-Turkish relations and that restoring relations between those two countries should be the most important task for future generations. Nevertheless, the lack of that word in public statements is an exculpation of the atrocities committed by past generations. It is very hard to build a future without a clear settlement with the past and, sooner or later, Ankara will have to admit that. Unfortunately, the battle of words is about to be continued and there are no signs of the improvement in the immediate prospect.