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Transcript of House of Lords Debate on the Armenian Genocide, 14 July 2005

(read the transcript of the resulting letter to Lord Triesman from CRAG here)

House of Lords - Thursday, 14 July 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Armenian Massacres of 1915

11.7 am Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider their position with regard to the recognition of the Armenian massacres of 1915 as genocide.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the long-standing position of Her Majesty's Government is well known. The British Government acknowledge the strength of feeling about this terrible episode of history and recognise the massacres of 1915–16 as a tragedy. However, neither this Government nor previous British governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorised as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN convention on genocide.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that every unrecognised genocide encourages other potential genocides, as shown by Hitler's infamous statement before invading Poland: "Who today speaks of the Armenians?"?

The testimony of respected contemporary witnesses shows that the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey would certainly fit the contemporary definition of genocide. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that their refusal to acknowledge this does not give implicit encouragement to other perpetrators of would-be genocides or, indeed, inhibit Turkey from recognising this, which is a precondition for healing and reconciliation?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I say unequivocally that what took place was by any standards an atrocity of the first order. The judgment required under the United Nations convention is that it can be demonstrated that a state had intent. That is the element that the lawyers have concluded is not shown in this case. That is why the difference is made. However, that does not alter the fact that every nation responsible for atrocities on such a scale needs to face them, think about them and consider what can be done or said to help to heal some of the wound that was caused, even if some time ago.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the issue is not so much what the Turkish Government did as their present attitude to the atrocities? Given that it is now a criminal offence in Turkey to refer to the genocide, that an academic seminar supported by three Turkish universities was banned by the Government and that academics are in prison for discussing it, is my noble friend a little troubled that admitting Turkey to the European Union—not after but while the Government demonstrate this contempt for human rights—may debase the ethical implications of EU membership?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, it is true that the issue has not been set as a precondition for negotiations with Turkey over accession to the European Union, which, as I said to your Lordships yesterday, will start on 3 October. On the other hand, there is no doubt that progress needs to be made and that it must be substantive. The United Kingdom Government have attempted to move this process on. In March 2005, at an EU Ministerial Troika with Turkey, my right honourable friend Denis MacShane suggested to Turkey that there should be an independent international commission to review the events of 1915.

Subsequently, the Turkish Prime Minister wrote to the Armenian President and offered to collaborate in such a review. I submit to the House that the review might well reach the conclusion that there was genocide because that is not ruled out. I am not prejudging what the review might do. But unfortunately the proposal was not accepted by the Armenians unless the border issue and recognition were resolved first. It is quite hard to see how progress can be made easily.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the Minister will recall the official British government inquiry into these atrocities under Lord Bryce in 1915, which established beyond doubt that huge and systematic massacres had taken place. Speaking for myself and for many others, although there is sympathy with modern Turkey's position and its desire to move into effective membership of the European Union, might it not be useful for the British Government to tell our Turkish friends—to nudge them, as it were—that a more open approach on this matter than the one rightly described by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, might help Turkey's general position and prospects of membership of the European Union?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I sympathise wholly with what my noble and learned friend Lord Archer and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, have just said. That is precisely why my right honourable friend Denis MacShane urged that on the Turkish Government. Given how static this position has been for so long, we took some comfort that they were prepared to accept a completely independent international commission to review the events. That itself is the beginning of significant change. It is not the change itself but the beginning of the change. We should continue to encourage that process.

Lord McCluskey: My Lords, I speak as one who supports Turkey's application to join the European Union. However, do Her Majesty's Government recognise that the conduct of modern Turkey dismays many who support the application to join and creates real obstacles to its success? I refer: first, to its refusal to acknowledge the fact of the massacre of more than a million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire; secondly, to its enactment of the provision to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, referred—Article 305 of the Turkish penal code making journalists and others liable to criminal prosecution for using the word "genocide" in Turkey; and, thirdly, to the continuation of the blockade that has been referred to.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, there is no reference in the penal code itself to that. There is an explanatory note to Article 305, which has the impact described. However, I am told that it is not legally binding. I also make it clear that the European Commission expects the language to be taken into account in interpreting Article 305 because it would not be acceptable to the European Union to interpret it in such a damaging way.

Good relations with neighbouring states require that there should be open and flexible discussion of borders. That requires discussion not just with Armenia, but also with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. That is, again, slightly complex, but we are encouraging that border discussion.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 1999 when I sent Joyce Quin, the then Minister for Europe, a list of 400 bibliographical references on the genocide, she said that the Foreign Office did not have time to study them? In view of the fact that, since then, the Bryce Blue Book has been reprinted with all the references and that archives from Germany and Turkey have been put into the public domain, does the noble Lord not think that the Foreign Office should at least thoroughly re-examine the evidence?

Lord Triesman: Yes, my Lords, for I am one of life's perpetual students. I do not mean to be at all frivolous about the subject of genocide, for there is no subject more telling in our recent modern history. I will most certainly study that.

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