Why It's in Turkey's Interest to Acknowledge the Armenian Genocide

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures during a brief press conference at the Cotroceni presidential palace in Bucha
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures during a brief press conference at the Cotroceni presidential palace in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Two members of a banned leftist group and a prosecutor they held hostage inside a courthouse in Istanbul died Tuesday after a shootout between the hostage takers and police, officials said. Erdogan is on an official visit to Romania. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Today, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which marks not only the crime itself and its 1.5 million victims but also a century of denial by the Turkish state. Denial is the final fortress of those who commit genocide and other atrocities. It not only damages the victims and their communities, but also promises a future based on lies, sowing the seeds of more conflict and repression.


A closer look at Turkey's refusal to reckon with the truth about the genocide invites an important question: Could the acknowledgment of the genocide be in Turkey's interest in the long run?

Scholars point to a "template of denial" that perpetrators use to maintain the status quo: do not acknowledge that the genocide took place; transform it into other kinds of events; portray the victims as perpetrators; insist more victims were from the perpetrator's group; downplay the number of victims; destroy official documents; pressure other states not to recognize the genocide; argue that the crime does not fit the legal definition of genocide in international conventions; and relativize the crime in whatever way possible.

We have seen the Turkish government take page after page from this playbook.

There is, however, a different path for Turkey to follow, one traveled by other countries with as heavy or heavier burdens of history: ending the politics of denial and embracing acknowledgement. There are many experiences to draw on, and they all point to the importance of acknowledging genocide and other serious crimes and the state's failure to protect its citizens.

The first step would be for President Erdoğan to apologize to the Armenian community for the genocide. A tepid statement like the one he recently issued, using euphemisms like "the events of 1915" and trivializing the Armenian's suffering by equating it to that of "every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire" at that time, constitutes a form of denial in itself.

Such an act would benefit not only Armenians, but also the people of Turkey. It would send a message to the many minorities within Turkey's borders and to all of its citizens that the state takes their rights and the rule of law seriously. We would be remiss not to take account of Turkey's poor human rights record and its history of substandard treatment of minorities within its borders. Turkey today bears the dubious distinction of having the highest number of judgments for violations of human rights rendered against it by the European Court of Human Rights. Putting perpetrators of genocide in the Turkish pantheon of national heroes has its price.

If Turkey and President Erdoğan were serious about reversing the culture of denial, there is more it could do. A crucial measure would be to establish a truthful and accurate historical record of what happened to the Armenians through an official, independent commission composed of a mixture of national and international experts. Good examples of such commissions can be found in El Salvador and Guatemala's recent history.

Reparations for the Armenian community in Turkey would also have to be provided. After all, the plunder of Armenian property enriched the modern Turkish state. Projects could be undertaken to support Armenian communities inside and outside of Turkey to address their material needs and, at least symbolically, their losses. Monuments and memorials can also serve an important purpose in recognizing victims and showing a promise by the state to never let such atrocities happen again.

Perhaps most important, Turkey can demonstrate a serious commitment to reforming laws and institutions that are meant to protect the human rights of all of its citizens. In doing so, the state would find ways to improve its weak record on issues before the Strasbourg courts and beyond.

More broadly, Turkey has an important role to play internationally and regionally, and the recognition of the genocide would in the long term make the country appear more trustworthy to all. Its ongoing denial is not only morally unsustainable but also undermines the government's position as an honest partner and a legitimate regional power. Breaking from the current policy of denial would show the maturity of the Turkish democracy and could help to increase regional stability. Moreover, acknowledgement would substantially increase Turkey's ability to mediate and support initiatives in contexts where impunity reigns, from Israel and Palestine to Syria to Sudan and many other places.

In apologizing, President Erdoğan need not go on his knees like German Chancellor Willy Brandt did in front of a monument dedicated to victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, for he is his own person. But in his own way he needs to apologize on behalf of the Turkish state, to say "never again."

In doing so he would personify a new Turkey, one determined to heed the warning sounded by Israel Charny: "We must fight denial because the denial of genocide . . . make[s] possible the emergence of new forms of genocidal violence to peoples in the future."