Dr Charles Tannock, Vice-Chairman of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the European parliament and Conservative MEP for London - Address to the 90 th Anniversary Memorial Rally of the Armenian Genocide
It is a great honour and privilege to be invited here today to join the Armenian community of the United Kingdom in the solemn remembrance of the tragedy which affected your people 90 years ago this year. It is hard for me as a Briton to imagine the scale of the atrocities and suffering which devastated the Armenian people and their ancestral homelands under the massacres carried out by the Ottoman Turks and Kurds initially in 1895-7, then in 1909 and the last most systematic and devastating episode of 1915, which we remember today as the start of the violence began this very day, April 24th.
Many of you present today will have direct ancestors who either perished in the genocide or were the lucky ones who survived the deportation or fled to make up the bulk of today's thriving global Armenian Diaspora. It is particularly sad and ironic to recall that many Kurds from Turkey's southeastern provinces were willingly complicit in this genocide on the promise of being given Armenian land and property and a guaranteed place in heaven for killing infidels. Only many years later to find themselves face a long history of violence between their own separatist Kurdish forces and the Turkish army.
Historically the Armenians were always amongst the most progressive people of the East. Plenty of monuments that survive to date, in the form of beautifully carved churches in southeastern Turkey, are a testament of its glorious past and culture.
Sultan Abdulhamit II organized the earlier massacres of 1895-97 but it was not until the spring of 1915, under the cover of the First World War, that the nationalistic government of the so called Young Turks found the political will to execute a true genocide. On the 24th of April Armenian intellectuals were arrested and executed in public hangings in groups of fifty to a hundred persons. The ordinary people thus deprived of their leaders and lacking any weaponry were eliminated by organized massacres including large numbers being burned alive.
Approximately 500,000 Armenians were killed in the last seven months of 1915, and the majority of those remaining were 'deported' to desert areas in Syria and there either died of starvation or disease. It has been estimated that in total 1,500,000 people died as a direct result of these actions.
It is believed the Turkish success in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians inspired the Nazis with their Holocaust plans for the Jews under the cover of World War II.
It is to my great shame that until recently, I, like many of my fellow countrymen, knew little to nothing about Armenia or its glorious but also tragic history. As a child growing-up in Portugal I first heard the word Armenian in connection with the late Calouste Gulbenkian who was a household name as one of Portugal's most generous benefactors and philanthropists.
However after I was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999 I began to receive many email communications from your community demanding that Turkey face-up to its past and recognise its historic crime against the Armenian people. I was lobbied by the Turkish Ambassador who claimed the whole Armenian genocide story was a fabrication and based on exaggerated unfounded claims. I was informed that those deaths that had actually occurred were as a result of combat during the First World War against Armenians collaborating with invading Russian forces in Eastern Turkey, or as result of disease and hunger during the forced deportations to Ottoman Syria. He said that similar casualties had also affected large swathes of the local Turkish populations and that the genocide claims were designed to besmirch Turkish honour as well as impede their progress towards EU accession. What he failed to mention was the understandable Turkish fears that this might open-up the compensation question.
To my lasting shame I initially abstained on these declaratory Parliamentary resolutions given my early ignorance of the truth. Like many politicians there was also an understandable unwillingness politically on my part to upset Turkey without strong justification given its record as a strong and loyal NATO ally knocking at the door of EU membership.
However it was as a direct result of my interest in Cyprus and the ongoing Turkish occupation of the northern part of the island that I examined more closely modern Turkish history of the 20 th Century including its darker secrets. Thus I learnt that in spite of Turkey having been for almost half a century a member of the Council of Europe, ostensibly the Guardian of European human rights including freedom of speech and conscience, Turkey still punished under Article 305 of its Penal Code, as a crime against national honour, any criticism of the military occupation of northern Cyprus or mention that the Armenian genocide might actually be an historic truth. This article is now under review for repeal.
Matters are now mercifully improving in Turkey. The Turkish press and government, mindful of the requirements of EU membership, are finally opening up debate on the sensitive Armenian issue. Even Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has agreed to an impartial study by academic historians from both sides of the debate. Although predictably he reiterated that his personal belief was that the genocide never occurred.
Certainly in the European Parliament as well as pressing for recognition of the Armenian genocide by Turkey, we are also calling for an end to the trade embargo against the Republic of Armenia by Turkey and its close ally Azerbaijan and a reopening of frontiers, re-establishing diplomatic relations and a land for peace deal to settle the territorial dispute over Nagorno Karabakh whose Armenian identity must be safeguarded.
Thankfully matters are now progressing to ease mutual hostility between Turkey and Armenia.
Therefore today I call upon Turkey, as other countries like Germany have done in the past or more recently Serbia or Croatia, to face up to its terrible crimes of 1915 against your people and end Turkey's policy of denial. Only then can we really move forward and put the past behind.
For more information on the speaker see: www.charlestannock.com
Read his latest article on 'Turkey, Armenia, and the Burden of Memory' on: http://members.cox.net/nixatron/weblog/2005_04_01_archive.html