In his classic dystopia, 1984, George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
Orwell’s totalitarian vision may not have come true, but his words have a timeless, universal relevance. We in the present have the power to define and preserve the past—in memory, in speech, and especially, in writing. Our past becomes the precedent for understanding and resolving the future.
Perhaps this is why the international community is still struggling to end that most horrific of mass atrocities: genocide. We failed to properly define it in the past. Case in point: the first genocide of the 20th century.
From 1915 to 1923, more than 1.5 million Armenians were killed and half a million survivors exiled by the Turkish government of the Ottoman Empire. April 24th marks the 94th anniversary of this tragedy that became a template for subsequent genocides. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the chilling words of Adolf Hitler, who, on ordering the invasion of Poland in 1939, dismissed objections by saying: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
There is a substantial body of evidence documenting the Armenian Genocide. A 2003 independent legal analysis by the International Center for Transitional Justice concluded that the “events, viewed collectively, can thus be said to include all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined in the [UN Genocide] Convention.”
The very term “genocide,” coined by Jewish scholar Raphael Lemkin in 1944, came from his study of the Armenian Genocide. Genocide is an international crime under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention and, as of this century, can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The U.S. ratified and has time and again affirmed its commitment to the principles of the Genocide Convention. Implicit in this commitment is the resolve to acknowledge genocide whenever and wherever it occurs.
The Turkish government continues to contend that the Armenian Genocide is an “allegation,” in the face of widely documented evidence. Denial is dangerous. Many of the brutal tactics and shameless denials used by the Ottoman Empire against defenseless Armenians are being used today by the Sudanese government.
Physicians for Human Rights was the first organization to define the mass killing and forced displacement of Sudanese citizens in Darfur as genocide, citing article II(c) of the Genocide Convention. We similarly responded to the atrocities in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, providing evidence for genocide prosecutions and calling for intervention to save lives. Our work with survivors from these killing fields has taught us that recognition of the atrocities that they suffered is imperative for the future.
As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, we take seriously our responsibility to remain a leading voice in recognizing genocide and working to end it. In 2007, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity produced a letter signed by 53 Nobel laureates supporting the Genocide Scholars’ conclusion that the 1915 killings of Armenians constituted genocide. We stand with our fellow laureates—but Nobel laureates alone cannot end genocide.
For years, resolutions have circulated in Congress calling on the president to recognize formally the Armenian Genocide; although they have attracted numerous supporters, none have passed. The current resolution (H.Res.252), introduced in March, already has 93 co-sponsors, including key members from both parties. It is time for Congress to speak clearly and pass this resolution.
With or without the encouragement of Congress, President Barack Obama should use the occasion of the April 24th anniversary to accurately characterize the events of 1915 as genocide. When he was a presidential candidate, then-Senator Obama said, “The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.”
California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed April 19–26, 2009 as “Days of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.”
It is time to recognize the facts, reckon with our history, and formally recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Frank Donaghue is the CEO of Physicians for Human Rights, a health and human rights organization that shared the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1997.