Transitioning from a Forgotten Genocide: The Armenian Genocide 100 Years Later

By Victoria Hines

On October 15, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Switzerland violated a Turkish politician’s right to freedom of speech by convicting him for denying the Armenian genocide. The Perincek v. Switzerland case was brought to the ECHR following a 2007 Swiss court decision that fined Perincek for his public statements calling the Armenian Genocide an “international lie.” Amal Clooney, who represented Armenia as a third party in the case, proclaimed this decision was actually a victory for Armenia because the Court found that the lower court’s characterization of the genocide as doubtful, was inappropriate. Moreover, seven of the Court’s judges proclaimed that the genocide is a clearly established historical fact.

Regardless as to whether Armenians and the international community would agree with Amal Clooney’s perception of the trial’s outcome, the ECHR’s decision highlights the unsettling fact that the Armenian people continue to struggle one-hundred years later to heal from the 1915 genocide where approximately 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

The Armenian genocide poses a unique problem for the international community since the mass atrocity took place prior to key developments in human rights law. The term “genocide did not become a crime until 1948 when the UN approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. An even more recent development has been the use of transitional justice, to help societies address a legacy of large-scale past abuse.   Transitional justice involves a series of tools and mechanisms, including criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, gender justice, security system reform, and memorialization efforts. For example, South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995 that allowed over 22,000 victims and witnesses to testify and made recommendations for reparations.

Unlike South Africa and other more recent cases of societies transitioning from gross human rights violations, Armenia is limited in its options. Criminal prosecutions are no longer a possibility since the Ottoman Turkish leaders responsible for the massacres have passed away. Yet, the fact that Armenia has more limited options to address its peoples’ collective suffering is exactly why transitional justice should be pursued by the international community.  Transitional justice discredits the notion that justice requires criminal prosecutions. Rather, it recognizes that other tools are viable alternatives for attaining justice for victims.

In fact, the Armenian Diaspora has been lobbying their host governments for decades in order to achieve official genocide recognition for the 1915 massacres. Memorials, museums, and commemoration ceremonies have all been utilized to raise awareness of the genocide and provide a venue for Armenians to collectively heal. Meanwhile, Turkey’s foreign ministry admits Armenians were killed, but denies that the deaths amounted to genocide and counteractively lobbies governments from passing resolutions recognizing the massacres as such. So, although the Turkish Prime Minister is touting the recent ECHR’s decision as a success for Turkey, at least transitional justice experts would agree that Amal Clooney’s victory proclamations for Armenia are also valid. After all, the seven ECHR justices’ characterization of the 1915 massacres as genocide in its opinion is another step towards Armenia’s ultimate goal of international recognition of the genocide.