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  • Writer's pictureInternational Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

Collective and State Violence in Turkey: A Case Study of Impunity for Past Crimes

April 27, 2021: On April 17, 2021, the Zoryan Institute hosted a virtual panel discussion, How Impunity for Past Crimes of Genocide Magnifies Violence Internationally: A Case Study of Turkey. This panel invited the audience to question the impact of impunity on future violence, human rights abuses, and the crime of genocide.

We encourage you to watch the full panel discussion below:

This panel featured 5 of the 16 authors of the Zoryan Institute’s latest publication, Collective and State Violence in Turkey: The Construction of a National Identity from Empire to Nation-State.

Throughout history, there have been numerous instances that exemplify how Turkey has benefitted from impunity. Victim groups of various ethnicities in the country continue to suffer and are denied their right to justice. In the book, Collective and State Violence in Turkey, a number of authors explore how impunity for past instances of violence against Armenians fueled future crimes against many other ethnic or religious minorities in the country. This was evident in the case of the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, which were then followed by the Adana massacres of 1909. These massacres then led to the 20th century’s first genocide, a term coined by Rafael Lemkin, which is defined as the intent to destroy in whole or in part, different national, ethnic, racial or religious groups. Approximately 1.5 of 2.5 million Armenian citizens of Ottoman Turkey were killed in this first genocide, and the remaining were deported from their ancestral homelands between 1915-1923.

Turkey’s example of acting with impunity for crimes of genocide may have also inspired Nazi officials, suggesting the proliferating trend of impunity across state borders. In the conclusion of Hitler’s 1939 Obersalzberg Speech, he famously stated: Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier? [In English: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?“].

More than one hundred years later, the Turkish government continues to deny the Armenian Genocide. Emboldened by impunity for these crimes, it continues to inflict harm towards its minorities, and even extends to those located in neighbouring nation-states, without consequences. Recent examples of this include Turkey’s involvement in the Artsakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the imprisonment of the HDP Kurdish Party members in Turkey, and the attack on its Kurdish minority in South-Eastern Turkey, and beyond its borders in Syria and Iraq.

Ottoman Turkey committed the crime of genocide, not only against its own citizens of Armenian descent but also against other non-Turkic groups. In the Institute’s panel discussion, Caroline Schneider, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Newcastle, explored another example of Turkey’s impunity for past crimes fueling present-day violence. She highlighted Turkey’s longstanding impunity in relation to the crimes committed against the Yazidis, a persecuted minority group in Ottoman Turkey and its former territories (i.e. Syria and Iraq). She noted that,

“I think today, the Turkish government’s attitude towards the Yazidis reflects the idea of the late Ottoman Empire. The Yazidis are not respected as a group and that is a pattern that is recurring and is reinforced by the Turkish leadership… I do believe that Turkey also needs to come to terms with the atrocities against Yazidi in its history, but also what happened more recently [attacks on Afrin]. Just as other groups living in the region, the Yazidi deserve to have a place in the Middle East. Their homeland lies there.”

Turkey does not stand alone in its culture of violence against its indigenous minorities. Observations of the impact of impunity can be explored further through the comparative analysis of the case of Guatemala. Prof. Victoria Sanford, a faculty member of Zoryan Institute’s Genocide and Human Rights University Program explains that,

“Understanding the state’s role enables us to interrogate the official explanations of the killing of women that, in turn, leads us back to the historic role of the state using terror as a primary recourse of power guaranteed by impunity from the genocide of the 1980s to social cleansing and feminicide today.”

The examples of Turkey and Guatemala suggest that the consequences of impunity are not limited to a single case or period of time. Rather, impunity begets impunity, ultimately contributing to a larger and long-standing trend of violence that fails to bring about justice for victim groups.

Dr. Payam Akhavan, International Lawyer and Professor at McGill University, suggests that reversing a culture of impunity is possible. In his article Beyond Impunity: Can International Criminal Justice Prevent Future Atrocities?, Dr. Akhavan states,

“The long-term consequences of such a culture of impunity cannot be underestimated. The failure to uphold elementary international norms has created a political climate in which extermination, deportation, and wanton destruction lie within the range of options available to rulers-not only as conscious decisions, but as a subliminal conception of viable conduct. Impunity erodes the inhibitions and restraints against such behavior, permitting an amoral account of raison d'etat. Reversing this entrenched culture of impunity is a gradual and incremental process.”

On Saturday, April 24th, on the 106th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, President Joe Biden of the United States, took an important step towards helping to reverse this entrenched culture of impunity, of which Turkey is so accustomed to, with his recognition of the Armenian genocide. The Zoryan Institute applauds this decision of the United States, which we anticipate will help prevent future atrocities and pursue healing and reconciliation between perpetrator and victim groups across the globe.

With this in mind, the Zoryan Institute hopes that other nations and the international community hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes and uphold the global political commitment of the “Responsibility to Protect”: to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Violence cannot be tolerated and must be punished. As Prof. James Waller states:

“…recognition goes beyond simply the importance of historical and conceptual accuracy, but also points to a future of truth-based prevention in which all would-be perpetrators recognize that denial of genocide will not stand as a protective buffer for their atrocities.”

The recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the world community, but especially Turkey, can be one large leap towards breaking the cycle of violence fueled by impunity.

With the hope that reversing a culture of impunity is possible, the Zoryan Institute remains committed to raising awareness of these crimes through educational programs, public panels, discussions, including research of original archives and publications.

This volume provides a wide range of case studies and historiographical reflections on the alarming recurrence of such violence in Turkish history, as atrocities against varied ethnic-religious groups from the nineteenth century to today have propelled the nation’s very sense of itself.

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