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Experts

Armenian genocide

In February, almost the entire Dutch Lower House acknowledged that in 1915 in what is now Turkey, the Armenian population was a victim of genocide. The Dutch government disagrees. What are we to make of this recognition, and of the term ‘genocide’?
By Jurgen Tiekstra / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Nicolaas Kraf van Ermel

Historian and staff member of the Netherlands-Russia Centre

‘I’m convinced that my source materials indicate that there was a planned series of actions that aimed to remove a particular ethnic group from society. This, roughly, is the definition of genocide. I personally checked the Dutch archives to see what they have to say about what happened in eastern Anatolia back then. This doesn’t prove anything in and of itself, but if you add this to the sources from German, Turkish, and American archives, the conclusion that it was genocide is inevitable. But I don’t think this should be a political issue. I think politicians meddling with the past is a dangerous business.’

‘I also wonder if there is any use to politicians trying to determine the truth in these kinds of historical matters, since the truth can be interpreted in different ways. They tend to do this in Middle and Eastern Europe, sometimes even going so far as to lay the formal historical interpretation of some events down in law. I don’t think that encourages an open debate about the past. You can see the effects of this issue in Twente, in the east of our country, which is home to large Turkish and Armenian communities. The relationship between these populations is under pressure. Is that something we should want? Maybe we should leave the debate up to these communities themselves.’

‘The topic keeps returning because we’ve been having political issues with Turkey over the past few years. On top of that, the Armenian community has formed lobbying groups all over the world. The recognition of the genocide is very important to them, and I understand that. The proposal to recognise the event was made by the ChristenUnie. I suspect that many Dutch Armenians vote for them. That probably plays a role as well.’

Sipke de Hoop

University Lecturer of Contemporary History, Balkan expert

‘In light of our current relationship with Turkey it’s a bad idea to rub salt in the wound. But the Netherlands have a great tradition when it comes to human rights policies, and recognition of this victimhood and the crimes from the past is important for the victims. We’re always talking about how important truth, justice, and reconciliation are. Based on that tradition, I certainly understand the parliament’s actions, especially because of the lack of pro-Turkey sentiments in the Netherlands right now.

But I do wonder if there’s any use to these kinds of symbolic gestures. Ideally, an independent committee of historians from both countries should try to come to a mutual version of the background and facts, but that’s not a realistic expectation. The Dutch government’s stance to attend the memorial for Armenian victims but not acknowledge the genocide, seems like a wise stance to me. It’s clear that the government is having trouble with this issue. Turkey is an important NATO partner in the fight against Islamism and a partner in refugee relief. That doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be held responsible for violating human rights or destroying the democratic process, but the government’s reticence is understandable when you put it in a broader perspective.

There is another reason why I would argue for reticence. Our country and especially our parliament has a tendency to judge other countries. This preachy stance might not be so wise if we don’t take a hard look at ourselves first. As long as we can’t acknowledge the mistakes we made in our own colonial past, we should probably not be wagging our finger at other countries.’

Caroline Fournet

Professor of International Criminal Law

‘The Netherlands is not the only country that recognises the genocide. Some countries even have their recognition of the Armenian genocide laid down in law. But because of the tensions it can cause, governments generally try to avoid this kind of qualification. Ultimately, that means the recognition is purely symbolic, although I personally think it’s a good symbol.

France established a law in 2001 recognising the Armenian genocide. And in 2016, they attempted to criminalise its denial. They unfortunately failed, but they probably attempted it because denying the Holocaust is also illegal in France. The idea was to expand the law.

I think it’s dangerous when the international community, which says it respects human rights, overlooks something like this. If it was genocide, and it was, we should call it that. No one gets angry at me when I discuss the genocides in Rwanda or Srebrenica. Accepting the denial of the Armenian genocide as Turkey’s official position is a slippery slope. If we do that, what is stopping us from accepting other official positions on other crimes? And what would stop us or others from committing crimes like that again?

The way the recognition is taking place is fairly confrontational, though. We should try to have more peaceful discussions with Turkey, which isn’t easy. And I’m not saying we should punish or accuse modern Turkey, because this happened in 1915. Turkey is far from the only country that’s committed crimes like these. No state has a clean slate, historically speaking.’

Nederlands