Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Will Turkey let history deny its future?

South China Morning Post - April 22nd 2005

All wars end, eventually. But memories of atrocity never seem to fade, as the government-fanned anti-Japan riots now taking place in China remind us. The 90th anniversary of the Armenian massacres of 1915, ordered by the Ottoman Empire, is another wound that will not heal, but one that must be treated if Turkey's progress towards European Union membership is to proceed smoothly.

It is believed that the Armenian genocide inspired the Nazis in their plans for the extermination of Jews.

Historically, the ancient Christian Armenians were among the most progressive people in the east, but in the 19th century Armenia was divided between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Sultan Abdulhamit II organised the massacres of 1895-97, but it was not until the spring of 1915, under the cover of the first world war that the Young Turks' nationalistic government found the political will to execute a true genocide.

Initially, Armenian intellectuals were arrested and executed in public hangings in groups of 50 to 100. Ordinary Armenians were thus deprived of their leaders, and soon after were massacred, with many burned alive.

Approximately 500,000 were killed in the last seven months of 1915, with the majority of the survivors deported to desert areas in Syria, where they died from either starvation or disease. It is estimated that 1.5 million people perished.

Recently, the Armenian Diaspora has been calling on Turkey to face up to its past and recognise its historic crime. Turkey's official line remains that the allegation is based on unfounded or exaggerated claims, and that the deaths that occurred resulted from combat against Armenians collaborating with invading Russian forces during the first world war, or as a result of disease and hunger during the forced deportations.

The European Parliament is pressing for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide. It is also calling for an end to the trade embargo by Turkey and its close ally Azerbaijan against the Republic of Armenia, a reopening of frontiers, and a land-for-peace deal to resolve the territorial dispute over Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan and safeguard its Armenian identity.

Armenia, an independent country since 1991, remains dependent on continued Russian protection, as was the case in 1920 when it joined the Soviet Union rather than suffer further Turkish invasion. This is not healthy for the development of Armenia's democracy and weak economy.

There is only one way forward for Turkey, Armenia and the region. The future will begin only when Turkey - like Germany - repudiates its policy of denial and faces up to its terrible crimes of 1915. Only then can the past truly be past.

Charles Tannock is vice-chairman of the European Parliament's human rights committee