On this day in 1915, the government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematized policy of genocide. On that April morning, 300 Armenian leaders and intellectuals were rounded up for deportation and execution, while 5,000 of Istanbul’s poorer Armenians were simply butchered in the streets. By the end of the conflict, 1.5 million Armenians would be killed, through policies of forced marches, executions, and the brutal conditions in concentration camps. Through government-sanctioned brutality and mass murder, 60% of the total Armenian population in Turkey was wiped out in the space of two years. Though the international community knew about the atrocities being committed, in the midst of World War I no aid came to the innocent. With the ending of the war, international trials were attempted—the Britain-led Malta Trials—but never concluded. Turkish courts martial led to the sentencing and execution of a handful of the leaders of the genocide, but these proceedings were swift, without due process, and ultimately let many offenders walk free.
We remember the Armenian genocide not only as an unimaginable singular tragedy, but as an act of unchecked violence which would lead to still greater loss of human life. On August 22nd, 1939, just prior to the invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler advised the officers of the German armed forces to brutalize Eastern Europeans without fear of retribution. As he argued, “Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?” “Who still speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler was wrong in this assumption; the members of the international community may not have spoken up against the atrocities committed in 1915, but they did not forget. When World War II came to an end, the Nuremberg Trials brought the weight of international justice down on the German perpetrators of the Holocaust, however imperfectly.
This April, we also remember the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, a reminder of the failures of the international community to protect the innocents of the world from their own governments. Though “never again” was the message behind the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, and despite the best efforts of the United States, survivors of the Holocaust, and the UN General Assembly, Cold War hostilities made the possibility of setting up a permanent court impossible. The need for such a court became strikingly apparent as the century progressed, with further atrocities committed in Cambodia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and the former Yugoslavia. The ad hoc tribunals established by the UN to try war criminals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia were effective at bringing criminals to justice; but as temporary courts, they were limited in scope, and did little to deter future crimes.
The ad hoc tribunals led to the creation of the International Criminal Court, the first permanent international court capable of trying individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Unlike its predecessors, the ICC can try heads of state for ordering atrocities, thus removing the assurance of impunity that the Hitlers and Pol Pots of the world had long hid behind. In ending impunity, the ICC seeks to bring justice to its victims and deter future horrors. Many Armenians, themselves survivors or descendants of survivors, have ignored the ICC and its history. Under the Rome Statute, the Court cannot try crimes which took place before its inception in 2001—and thus, some Armenians say, it is of no relevance to them. It cannot bring the comfort of justice to the families of those who lost loved ones ninety-nine years ago. As today’s admission by the Turkish government of inhumane actions committed during WWI has shown, determining guilt is an important part of the healing process. Though an important first step, it further reminds us of the emotional importance of giving a crime its proper name.
We must also remember that no action stands alone in history. Violence begets violence, and as we’ve traced here, a failure to bring perpetrators to justice has only lead to future crimes. It is the special responsibility of those closest to these historical tragedies to fight to break the cycle—their voices ring truest and loudest, and they best understand the need for justice felt by the victims of modern war crimes. Supporting the Court is one way of raising these voices.
The Court faces many obstacles. The United States, China, and Russia have all yet to ratify the Rome Statute, largely over fears that their own citizens may be tried. With the attitudes of these members, the Court has had to grapple with the UN Security Council, which has referred cases to the Court, but not followed up with enforcement or funding. In recent months, the Court has also had to contend with violent witness silencing in its case against President Kenyatta of Kenya, who argues that he should be granted immunity due to his status as head of state. These obstacles are broad, but they are not insurmountable—and the weight of the United States would go a long way towards solving them.
On this date, we mark the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Let us work together over the next twelve months to create a world in which impunity does not exist, and war criminals have no place to hide. Let us mark the 100th anniversary of this tragedy next April by turning toward a new century, and a world free at last from genocide.
Written by Victoria Steger