Addressing the Armenian Genocide is an essential step towards democratization and pluralism in Turkey. With political change on the country’s agenda, a transitional justice lens offers policymakers and civil society a framework for facing history and moving forward.
Every year between 2010 and 2019, the April 24 Commemoration Platform organized public events in Istanbul to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. During the pandemic, the events took place online. In 2022, and again this year, the commemorations were banned outright by the Istanbul governor’s office.
Responding to the ban, the Platform stated: “Confronting 1915 is a compulsory step that must be taken today to build democracy, equality, and fraternal coexistence on solid foundations. Without this confrontation, no democratic move can be permanent, and no social relationship can be egalitarian.”
Their words are more relevant than ever. 108 years after the Armenian genocide, denialism remains state policy. No official steps have been taken to deal with the legacy of the genocide or come to terms with the Turkish state’s history of collective violence. As critical parliamentary and presidential elections approach, transition has become a topic of discussion for Turkey’s opposition. If there are opportunities for political change, the Armenian issue is a key topic to be addressed from a transitional justice perspective. The current normalisation process between Turkey and Armenia could be used as a starting point to take necessary steps. Below, I describe briefly what a process of dealing with the past in Turkey could look like in this context. It is worthy of noting that any process would only be meaningful if aligned with the demands and expectations of the Armenian community itself. Therefore, the details of how each mechanism could operate should be determined through a careful consultation process.
The Armenian Genocide and its denial have been integral components of nation-building in Turkey and essential features of the Turkish state. Systematic genocide denial is a key pillar of the state’s apparatus of hegemony, official ideology, social structure, and cultural and economic policies. Providing an official and public recognition of the genocide, therefore, would have a transformative effect. Any meaningful engagement with the past requires the end of decades-long denial and the recognition of what happened. Recognition could take many forms: official statements, official apologies, public commemorative practices, truth-recovery mechanisms, and reforms in policy, legislation, and education. Recognition is the first step for meaningful engagement with the legacy of the genocide and an important precursor to other policies.
Efforts to memorialize the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide are essential for acknowledging the violence and its ongoing impacts. Demands for commemorative events are an outcome of the need to confront the past. Recent bans on commemorations represent the denial of these demands. Indeed, when public commemorations were first held in Istanbul in the 2010s, there was an expectation that things would change. First, a few hundred people organized commemoration meetings in Taksim Square. The events became larger and larger as years passed. By 2013 and 2014–concurrent with the Turkish-Kurdish peace process–these gatherings reached mass proportions. On the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015, thousands of people gathered in Taksim to commemorate the victims. The April 24 Commemoration Platform stated that they apologize for the Genocide and were now waiting for a state apology. They also said that the 100th anniversary is an opportunity for dealing with the past. There were high expectations and significant curiosity surrounding the possibility of an official response.
In April 2014, then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan released a statement extending condolences for the Armenians who lost their lives in 1915. This statement, 99 years after the genocide took place, marked the first time that a head of state in Turkey expressed any such sentiment. Erdogan’s remarks did not formally recognize the genocide. Rather, they framed what happened as a part of World War I. He treated Armenians as one of the many ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire who suffered at the beginning of the 20th century and said that Armenians’ suffering, like that of all the other citizens of the Empire, should be understood and shared.
This statement had major shortcomings: it refused to call the mass killings of Armenians a genocide and did not admit responsibility or apologize on behalf of the state. However, it was a major step in the context of the history of the Turkish Republic. Despite the critiques, the condolence message was seen as an important conciliatory act that could pave the way for a more comprehensive dealing with the past process, especially considered together with the annual public commemorations.
Recovering the Truth
Multiple civil society actors have called for the establishment of a truth commission to investigate various episodes and atrocities of the history of the Turkish Republic. During the 2013-2015 peace process, the prospect of a truth commission in Turkey was widely discussed. In this context, there were also debates around how such a commission could address the treatment of Armenians in Turkey. In one workshop organized by The Human Rights Association in 2013, it was noted that the Armenian Genocide should be the first matter that any potential truth commission in Turkey would need to address. Although these conversations primarily took place within a small group of politically engaged activists who were committed to the peace process and transitional justice, they were still important. They demonstrate the need and demand for a truth recovery mechanism for the Armenian Genocide.
There are many recent examples of truth commissions that address atrocities that took place generations ago and may no longer have living survivors or perpetrators. Some countries with colonial histories have established commissions to address the colonial past and the current impact of that past on the new generations. For example, the Yoorrook Justice Commission was founded in 2020 as a truth-telling mechanism for historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria, Australia. The commission is tasked with establishing an official record of the colonial past’s impact, developing a shared understanding of the impact of colonialism within society, and making recommendations for policy, practice, and legislation.
A sincere official apology could provide a transformative basis for healing and constitute a good step towards recognition. Transitional justice literature provides an overview of how an official apology could satisfy the needs of victims and survivors. Ernesto Verdeja identifies some criteria for a satisfactory official apology divided into three categories: framing, content, and future commitments. The first category relates to how, where, and by whom the apology is extended. This ensures that the recognition given to the victims is also displayed to a wider audience, indicating to the entire population that the government acknowledges its wrongdoing and is dedicated to establishing a new and improved connection with its people. The second criterion is that the apology should provide a full account of what exactly happened and entail a detailed analysis of how and why the genocide occurred. Verdeja claims that the apology should also include some reflection about the social and moral outcomes of the act and explicitly indicate the state’s responsibility. Verdeja’s final criterion for a satisfactory apology has to do with sharing clear commitments for the future. By commitment, he primarily means material reparation as well as symbolic recognition. Lundy and Rolston add that for an apology to be considered complete and satisfactory by a majority of the victims, it has to be part of a larger package that includes an official commitment to policy changes and legal and other measures to eliminate impunity and guarantees for accountability.
Guarantees of Non-Recurrence: Equal Citizenship
Providing guarantees of non-recurrence is an essential component of transitional justice. This can be achieved through institutional reform and constitutional changes. Equal citizenship has been a critical issue since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. In a way, the story of the Republic is also the story of the destruction of the citizenship rights of the country’s Christian populations. To rebuild the Republic in an egalitarian manner, this mentality embedded in the administrative structure must be confronted.
The achievement of equal citizenship for Armenians and other Christian communities would represent the end of official denialism. The constitutional debates that began before the 2013-2015 peace process and continued through it had opened paths to achieve this. One of the most concrete demands expressed by Armenians was the demand for equal citizenship. The Constitution guarantees equality for all citizens on paper, yet in reality, certain groups are labelled by the state as internal enemies. It also fails to recognize that non-Turkish ethnicities exist in Turkey.
The upcoming elections and the ongoing Turkey-Armenia normalization processes should be treated as significant opportunities to address the legacy of the Armenian Genocide. Concrete steps towards recognition, acknowledgement, reparation, and equal citizenship should be taken. 100 years after the establishment of the Republic, it is the joint responsibility of civil society and policymakers to make progress on this foundational matter of justice. Relevant political actors should:
- Ensure that any discussion around dealing with the past, reconciliation, or making amends (helalleşme) includes the Armenian genocide.
- Consult with Armenian civil society to understand the Armenian community’s expectations regarding how to honor the victims’ memory and restore survivors’ dignity most effectively.
- Officially recognize the planned policy that paved the way for the genocide to start in 1915.
- Allow public commemorations to take place without any restrictions.
- Collaborate with civil society actors working on memorialization to design public monuments to commemorate the victims and survivors of the genocide.
- Run wide-scale consultations with different actors of the Armenian community in Turkey to address justice and recognition.
- Develop a truth-recovery mechanism that establishes an official record of the Armenian Genocide and the state’s policy of denialism. This mechanism should address ongoing lived experiences and continued consequences of genocide and genocide denialism alongside historical violence. It could take inspiration from recently established commissions investigating the impact of colonialism on colonized peoples and wider society
- Design educational materials to challenge denialist narratives and include the Armenian Genocide as part of history education.
- Include teachings around dealing with the past into the national curriculum to raise awareness in broader society on the importance of public acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide.
- Develop forward-looking mechanisms to provide guarantees of non-recurrence, including peace education, institutional reform, and reparations.
- Investigate how equal citizenship can be strengthened constitutionally and implemented in practice.
Note: This piece draws on the author’s research project supported by the Cambridge Interfaith Programme and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The broader project looks into the implications of the 2013-2015 Turkish-Kurdish peace process for dealing with the past in the context of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. As part of the research, the author conducted 10 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with Armenian civil society actors, political activists, and journalists between December 2022 and January 2023.
Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images