Akcam: Lemkin and the Question of Armenian and Kurdish Reforms

The following article is adapted from a keynote address delivered by Clark University Professor Taner Akçam, Endowed Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies, at the 2015 International Hrant Dink Award ceremony in Istanbul on Sept. 15.

Akcam addressing the 2015 International Hrant Dink Award ceremony in Istanbul on Sept. 15
Akcam addressing the 2015 International Hrant Dink Award ceremony in Istanbul on Sept. 15

Lemkin, the Problem of Facing History, and the Question of Armenian and Kurdish Reforms

Genocide is a crime against humanity, as defined in the United Nation’s (U.N.) 1948 Convention on Genocide. One of the most hotly debated topics in Turkey today is the question of whether or not to refer to the events of 1915 and beyond as a genocide. Those who concern themselves with the subject extensively are well aware that the appearance of the concept of genocide actually came about in connection with the annihilation of the Ottoman-Armenian population during World War I.

This is acknowledged by no less than the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term. But it is not only genocide; apart from this, the appearance of two other concepts in international law—namely, (a) laws of humanity and (b) crimes against humanity—both originally stem from these events. The term “laws of humanity” first appeared as an international legal principle in 1899 as the “Martens Clause” in the Preamble to the Hague Convention, and appeared again in slightly modified form eight years later in the 1907 Hague Convention.

Fyordor Fyodorovich “Frederic” Martens was a Russian jurist. The principal reason that the concept in question was placed on the agenda in the first place was the Ottoman massacres directed at its Christian populations. The second concept mentioned, that of “crimes against humanity,” first came into use as a category of international crimes on May 24, 1915, in a joint statement by Great Britain, France, and Russia on the massacre of the Armenians. Later on, during the Nuremburg Trials, it would be one of the three principal crimes with which the Nazi leadership was charged.


Lemkin and the Armenian Genocide

Just as in the case of these two legal terms, the creation of the crime category of “genocide” is directly related to Turkish history. In his autobiography titled, Totally Unofficial, Lemkin states that he was very moved by reading the newspaper reports of former Young Turk leader Talat Pasha’s assassination on a Berlin street at the hands of the Armenian Soghomon Tehlirian in March 1921; he writes that the subsequent trial of Tehlirian “…became, in actuality, a trial of the Turkish perpetrators. The sinister panorama of destruction of the Armenians was painted by the many witnesses the Armenians brought to the court. Through this trial the world finally obtained a real picture of the tragic events in Turkey. The same world that was conveniently silent when the Armenians were murdered and had intended to hide the fact by releasing the Turkish war criminals was now compelled to listen to the awful truth.”

Raphael Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin

Lemkin continued: “The court in Berlin acquitted Tehlirian. It decided that he had acted under ‘psychological compulsion.’ Tehlirian, who upheld the moral order of mankind, was classified as insane, incapable of discerning the moral nature of his act. He had acted as the self-appointed legal officer for the conscience of mankind. But can a man appoint himself to mete out justice? Will not passion sway such a form of justice and make a travesty of it? At that moment, my worries about the murder of the innocent became more meaningful to me. I didn’t know all the answers but I felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world.”

Having been so moved by the trial, Lemkin abandoned his study of literature and began reading law with the aim of producing a law that would allow for the prosecution and punishment of mass murder. In his memoirs, he recounts arguing the Talat Pasha/Tehlirian trial with his law professor. He asked why the Armenians did not have Talat arrested for the massacres. The professor said there was no law (or court) under which he could be arrested. “Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens,” he said. “He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.” “But,” Lemkin then objected, “people are not chickens,” adding that the sovereign rights of a given state “implies conducting an independent foreign and internal policy, building of schools, construction of roads, in brief, all types of activity directed toward the welfare of people.” It “cannot be conceived as [having] the right to kill millions of innocent people.”

Lemkin was forced to conclude: “It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men? This is most inconsistent.”

Lemkin would thus spend the rest of his life attempting to do away with this anomaly, by creating a legal category for crimes that he termed genocide! In his later writings and talks he would often repeat the decisive role the Armenian Genocide played in the creation of this concept.

The reason the information that I am conveying here is not very well known among us is our failure to face our own history. And I can safely say that it is for this reason that our state continues to view its own citizens as chickens.


Facing History

What does it mean to face one’s history? And why must we do so?

I can think of four principal reasons. The first is a quite mundane and humane argument. It is necessary to come to terms with history in order to restore human dignity to those peoples who have been annihilated in the past. All of the human communities who have fallen victim to large-scale massacres were first the subjects of widespread propaganda efforts aimed at denying their humanity—efforts that excluded them from the ranks of humanity and referred to them as “microbes,” “vermin,” or “tumors” and “cancers” on the body of the nation/humanity/etc. It is necessary to face up to the past so as to restore the humanity and dignity of these persons.

Second, massacres and annihilations of populations destroy the sense of justice and conscience of the perpetrating group. For the reestablishment of a sense of justice among that population, it is essential that it undergo an accounting of its history and make amends for the damage incurred by the victims of injustice. If we truly wish to create a society based on equality, justice, and respect for human rights, we must first face up to the injustices of the past. Without this, there is no possibility of creating a just, equitable future.

Third, if the communities who have clashed in the past have any hope of living together peacefully in the future, they must resolve their differences through dialogue, and this includes an open and honest discussion of the past. If they remain unknowledgeable about and unwilling to confront their past, they will continue in their same insecurities, doubts, and hostilities toward one another, thereby ensuring that the groundwork is prepared for more clashes in the future.

Fourth, if we deny our own and others’ historical experience, we face the very real prospect of committing the same crimes again. This is, in fact, the principal reason for Turkey’s continuing foreign policy failure in the Middle East. No matter how they paint it, for the other peoples of the Middle East Turkish policy is always viewed with great mistrust, and as a continuation of the policies of past Ottoman-Turkish leaders, who are widely seen as perpetrators of great crimes and injustices in the region—crimes that the current leaders still refuse to acknowledge. For the peoples of the region, Turkey remains an object of fear and mistrust.

In short, try all you may to run from your past, but it will still catch up to you in the end. Like a restless specter, it will follow you and continue to haunt you.


The Questions of Armenian and Kurdish Reforms

Today in Turkey there is a far more practical reason for us to confront our history. The fact is, if we had made an accounting of our history, if we had held a multi-sided conversation about the Armenian Question and drawn the necessary conclusions, we would not be experiencing the Kurdish problem today in such tragic dimensions. These days, we are all anxiously asking ourselves the reasons why the peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has broken down, and who is principally to blame for its failure. The most unimportant of these questions is the one over “who started it?” If we knew our history, we would see the similarities between the current problem of Kurdish reforms and the earlier process of Armenian reforms. The problem that was then known as the “Armenian Question” was essentially one of reforms, and it is indeed referred to in the official documentation as the “Question of Armenian Reform.”

The challenge then was how to make the Christian Armenian population equal to the Muslim population on both the social and legal planes, thereby incorporating them into the Ottoman administrative system. Had we fully studied and grasped this history, we would now know that whenever steps were taken forward in the direction of reform and the Armenian population came closer to full participation in the political-administrative structure, they were invariably accompanied by harsh reactions, often in the form of massacres. There was a direct relationship between the attempts to enact reforms in the six eastern provinces in which the Armenians were most populous and the massacres directed against them.

I would like to highlight here a number of high points in this process. In October 1895, Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II announced a reform program for the Armenian provinces. According to this plan, the Armenians would be considered of equal legal and social status as the Muslim population, and would take part in the local government in proportion with their percentage of the population. The Armenian population in the capital rejoiced that their longed-for reforms would finally be put into place, and were shocked and shaken by the reports of massacres coming from the eastern provinces. In the end, the reforms were never enacted, and the hopes that they would be were ultimately buried with the more than 100,000 Armenian victims of these calamitous events.

The Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which brought hopes of greater equality and brotherhood among all Ottomans, again raised Armenian hopes for reform. Our historians are quite ignorant in this regard: One of the first subjects taken up by the restored Ottoman Chamber of Deputies after the 1908 Revolution was the question of reform in the six eastern provinces. As a result of their discussions, a commission was to be sent to the “Armenian,” provinces and those officials found to be abusing or oppressing the Armenians would be removed from their positions; additionally, law bills were to be prepared regarding the best ways to include the Armenians in the local government. But instead of the long-awaited reforms, what the Armenians experienced was a series of massacres in Adana that resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 persons. Contrary to what is generally believed, however, the massacre was not a one-off affair that was limited geographically to the Adana region; several other regions also experienced massacres of Armenians or their last-minute prevention. Their cause? The Armenians were seen by the Muslim population as representatives and advocates for the new constitution and reform efforts.

The massacres of 1915-18 were no different. Genocide was simply the response of the Ottoman leadership to the Armenian Reform Agreement signed in February 1914. According to this agreement, two special provinces were to be set up in the regions where most of the Armenians lived, and there they would take part in the local administration in proportion to their share of the population. In this way, the Armenians’ joy and anticipation in the spring of 1914 would, within a year, be transformed into horror over the deportations and mass killings.

Contrary to what has often been assumed, however, the causative relationship between World War I and the Armenian Genocide is actually very indirect. The deportation was planned and carried out with the intention of permanently ridding the state of the vexing question of Armenian reforms. In the minds of the Unionist leadership, as long as the reform problem persisted, it gave the European Powers the pretext for interfering in the empire’s internal affairs—and behind this allegedly humanitarian and “enlightened” intervention loomed the ever-present threat of partition.

By the way, this is not merely my interpretation. Rather, it is the well-documented view of, among others, Ottoman Interior Minister Talat Pasha.

In a lengthy letter to the grand vizier, written on May 26, 1915, the minister explains that the principal aim of the deportation was to solve the Armenian reform problem. In his view, the Armenian Reform Agreement of February 1914 posed the threat that “a portion of the Ottoman provinces would now come under foreign influence” and it was exactly for this reason that, “just when deliberations on the way how this [constant] anguish could be conclusively brought to an end and completely eliminated,” war broke out and certain temporary measures were taken regarding the Armenians. Talat goes on to say that the aforementioned temporary measures, taken for military purposes, had to be organized according to appropriate rules and principles.

In short, the genocide was the conclusive answer to the question of Armenian reform efforts that had plagued the Ottoman leadership since 1878.

And now we find ourselves debating the question of Kurdish reforms. History will judge Turkey on the question of whether or not the Kurds are ever able to participate in the country’s political system on an equal and equitable basis. The essence of the Kurdish reform question is the promise of their attaining equal status as their Turkish fellow-citizens in social, political, and cultural matters. Such equality of all citizens is guaranteed by the Turkish Constitution; furthermore, the implementation of the principle of local and self-governance throughout Turkey is a fundamental principle of the European Union—an entity Turkey still aspires to join.

Naturally, these principles cannot be contingent upon negotiations with any organization, or be suspended or delayed with the excuse of an ongoing armed struggle with an organization. Even though the PKK may never specifically state it as such, we can easily discern the ultimate goal of its policy; its desire to solve the problem is to establish a Kurdish state, and we can criticize this as both wrong and extremely dangerous. But the error of others cannot stand as an excuse for our own wrongheadedness and faults.

I do not wish to be the bearer of bad news, but I would remind you that certain ideas that are currently being expressed in a newspaper that is very close to the AKP government gives us some hint as to the current dimensions of the problem and to the possible directions that developments may take. The newspaper claimed that Turkey was being besieged both from within and without, and the (political) authority that had organized this front was “the same that had splintered Ottoman political authority during the First World War.” The paper went on to state that Turkey was now face-to-face with a grave peril, and “this threat…was carrying out [its own] scenario,” a drama that “was identical to the threat of collapse directed at the Ottomans during World War I; there is in fact no difference whatsoever between the two.”

Finally, after stating that the country “is experiencing a [level of] treachery as deep as that during the First World War,” the paper demands that the necessary steps be taken against this betrayal and calls for “a sort of national struggle, a cleansing…directed against the internal actors who are present in this opposition front.”

Do you recall those denying the Armenian Genocide having said, “There was no Armenian Genocide, only the defense of the homeland”? If the nation or the homeland is facing a great peril, then what could be more natural than trying to eliminate it? You should be aware that all large-scale massacres have occurred under the pretext of “self-defense,” wherein the purpose of the exercise is to eliminate perceived threats to the very existence of the state or nation.

I am not claiming here that matters necessarily have to develop in this direction. Rather, I simply wish to draw attention to the persistence of this mindset.

Nevertheless, the burden of history rests heavily upon our shoulders, following us around like a bad dream that we cannot seem to shake. We deny it, we claim that we didn’t know or don’t remember, but it haunts us still…

The process of nation-state formation that arose from the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the last century turned these lands into blood-soaked desolation. Those who would take pride in their present nation-states that were established from these ruins have conveniently forgotten that the new political borders were drawn with the blood of millions of individuals. Sadly, we are now undergoing a similar process. The Middle East is again swimming in an ocean of blood, one that does not appear likely to recede in the near future, for those individuals who stand by the nation-states that were formed in the 1920’s still see them as a solution; meanwhile, there are others who demand the establishment of their own different or smaller nation-states on the belief that perhaps their own desperation, perhaps the amenable conditions of the region and the support of some world powers, will make this possible. These hopes may end in disappointment, or they may ultimately be fulfilled, but the price will be paid in hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of human lives…

But there is an easier way. Kurd, Turk, Arab, Armenian, Syriac Christian, Circassian, Alevi, and Sunni: All can succeed in living together. I have been studying the subjects of massacres and genocides for 30 years now, and yet, after all this time, I am still unable to fully fathom the reasons that human beings consistently opt not for the easier path, but for the path of armed struggle, murder, and drawing borders in blood.

During a 2005 talk in Diyarbakir, Hrant Dink spoke to his largely Kurdish audience and exhorted them to study and research closely, to draw lessons from “the things that happened to us.” There were those who were angered at his words, and he was subjected to harsh criticism. But Hrant was utterly correct. The message he was trying to convey is that, in this geography—that is, the Middle East—political “solutions” based on ethno-religious identities have led to absolute calamities for the people living there—and threaten to do so in the future, as well. For this reason, it was Hrant Dink’s greatest dream that Turkey experience real democratization, that it be rebuilt on solid democratic foundations.

Hrant was murdered because of his dream—or, more correctly, he was murdered for being an Armenian who possessed such a dream. His dream ended in death because of his Armenian identity in Turkey, and his death puts on full display the central tragedy and predicament in which we on these lands find ourselves.

Either we uphold Hrant Dink’s legacy as a civil rights leader and realize his dream on this land in the same manner as Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to do for the people of America, or we face the only other option—ever more bloodshed!

Taner Akcam

Taner Akcam

Taner Akcam is the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University.


  1. “The court in Berlin acquitted Tehlirian. It decided that he had acted under ‘psychological compulsion.’ Tehlirian, who upheld the moral order of mankind, was classified as insane, incapable of discerning the moral nature of his act. He had acted as the self-appointed legal officer for the conscience of mankind.

    See how easy it is to legitimize plain murder. Mass murder is just a few steps away. There was no need for all these fancy words.

    • {“I personally can not wait when all the politicians can “recognize’ the Armenian version of realty and swear on a stack of their favorite holy books. Then we all get to see that facts remain as facts and history can not be re-written and then the ones who are feeding on this industry may engage in more productve activities.}” (Murat @AW)

      Armenian “version” of reality ?
      See how easy it is to legitimize denial of Genocide ?
      Mass murder and another genocide is just a few steps away.

      And executing a mass-murderer is no crime.
      And killing foreign troops and their leaders who have invaded your land and who are murdering defenseless civilians is no crime either.
      Reminder: your original homeland is far, far, far away from Asia Minor: 1000s of miles due East.
      Turks in Asia Minor and Armenian Highlands are living on the lands of others, after murdering the indigenous populations.

      Every Armenian had the God given right to execute Turks who organized and carried out the Armenian Genocide.

    • There is a lot in this world that is hard to believe. It can be weird and counterintuitive. Embrace it :)

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