26 March 2009

2786) What Can Be Done about Historical Atrocities? : The Armenian Case

Bertil Duner
Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, Sweden

ABSTRACT
The global human rights regime is not equipped to deal with historical atrocities.. .
When engaged politicians want to take matters in their own hands it is clear that this alternative is problematical. In the case of Armenia, the campaign for the recognition of the Armenian massacres in 1915 has addressed the questions involved in a simplistic way, both with respect to juridical points of departure such as definition of the crime and the status of the accused party, and with respect to the assessment of evidence. If proclamations which bear any similarity to juridical assessments are to be made at all the best alternative would be the creation of an international expert body representing both the history and the legal professions. Establishing the guidelines for this body to work, however, seems a daunting task. Can a generally accepted retrospective time limit be established? To what extent should court-like functions be performed for events which, at the time they happened, were not covered by international criminal law?

In 1914 Ottoman Turkey was drawn into the war between the European alliances and was soon engaged in a battle on four fronts. Russian troops marched in from the north, and Turkey maintained that the intervention was supported by Armenians and that an internal revolt was imminent. As the Ottoman army retreated a massive deportation of Armenians in the war zone started, degenerating into massacres. The number of dead is not known, but estimates generally varying between about half a million and two million, and much lower figures as well, have been presented 1

The allied powers pressured the Turkish authorities to arrest a considerable number of Turkish leaders but the consequences were modest, for many reasons, including the difficulty of obtaining evidence.2 Interestingly, in the final peace document, the Treaty of Lausanne, amnesty was given for all offences committed during the war and after.3 The Armenian massacres were strongly condemned in Western Europe at the time. In recent times condemnations have become a burning question again, and great efforts have been made in several countries to achieve some kind of official recognition of the massacres as genocide. . .


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