Why Parliament’s Armenian resolution really mattered
By ALAN WHITEHORN
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Apr. 27, 2004
The April 24 genocide remembrance day is one of the three most important
days in the contemporary Armenian calendar, along with Christmas and
Easter. This year the commemoration is particularly poignant with the
passage in the House of Commons this past week of Bill M-380 recognizing
the Armenian genocide of 1915.
It is somewhat intimidating to try to summarize the Armenian genocide in
the grim counting of the dead. In the absence of a vast sea of
tombstones, our shared memory must be the collective marker denoting
My own family is part of the Armenian diaspora. My father, an
Anglo-Canadian, met my mother, an Armenian, in Egypt half a century ago,
and they came to Canada as immigrants. We share many new experiences in
our adopted home, but we also remember our ancestral roots.
My grandmother was an orphan of the genocide who never knew her real
name or age and spent many years in refugee camps. As her grandchild, I
have often thought about how we try to understand such enormous
suffering, and such vast indifference by too many.
Our reactions to genocide inevitably shift over time. Initially,
enormous shock, trauma and deep anger are the primary responses. Later,
a search for personal and international recognition and justice comes to
the fore. Still later, there emerges an attempt to understand both the
particular and the more universal aspects of genocide.
It is sometimes helpful to think in terms of key persons when trying to
understand the grand epic accounts of history. In this case, I think of
three men that symbolize three different responses to genocide. Each
person was cited in Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A
Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
The first is Soghomon Tehlirian, a young Armenian. By age 19, he was the
sole survivor in his family. His mother, father, brothers and sisters
were all killed. He himself had been shot in the arm, wounded in the leg
by a sword and beaten unconscious, awaking to discover that the entire
caravan of thousands of Armenians from his home town had been
He fled the killing fields and journeyed through the Near East and the
Balkans to Western Europe. The year 1921 found him in Berlin, still
distraught and suffering from epileptic seizures. One day, he recognized
an exiled Ottoman official, Talat Pasha, a former minister of the
interior in the Ottoman Empire and one of the key figures in the
triumvirate that, he believed, planned the genocide.
Mr. Tehlirian shot and killed Talat Pasha on a street in Berlin on March
15, 1921, and was immediately arrested. A sensational trial took place
in June of that year. Could surviving mass murder (the term “genocide”
had yet to be born) drive a person to commit an act of violence? Was he
guilty of murder – or was he exercising personal clan justice for the
death of his entire family? Is the murder of a tyrant ever justified? Or
were his acts those of a terrorist? The jury found him not guilty.
Raphael Lemkin, an aspiring law student in Poland, read about the trial;
it prompted him to wonder: How could we have a law for the murder of one
person, but not for the murder of one million persons? Conceptually,
there was no word for such a crime – thus, there was no way for
applying, let alone enforcing, collective law and justice. Mr. Lemkin
wrestled through the 1930s with the need for a legal term to convey the
magnitude of such a crime.
Then came the Nazi invasion of Poland. Mr. Lemkin, as a Jew, was at
grave risk. He fled Nazi-occupied Europe, found his way to sanctuary in
the United States, and wrote a monumental book exhaustively documenting
the Nazi record – and making the world aware of the term “genocide.”
Mr. Lemkin would become an adviser to the Allies at the Nuremberg
Tribunal, which attempted to introduce justice after the fact. More
importantly, he would become a one-man crusade to oversee the passage in
the United Nations on Dec. 9, 1948, of the Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The very next day, the UN
Charter of Human Rights, drafted by Canadian John Humphrey, was passed.
Together these two documents provided the underpinnings for a charter of
rights for all humanity.
However, it was not sufficient to introduce a new term for an
unthinkable crime, nor was it enough to pass a pioneering convention in
international law. Clearly, something would have to enforce
international law and ensure justice for the world community.
This leads us to Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian general who left the
comfortable confines of Canada to serve overseas. In 1994, he was
working for the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. As some of that
country’s political leaders urged the Hutu majority to annihilate the
Tutsi ethnic minority, General Dallaire pleaded for more troops and
greater authority to intervene militarily. His pleas were ignored by
Western governments, the UN headquarters, most of the Western media and,
tragically, even by survivors of earlier genocides. The result was
800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.
Too many of us in the world had succumbed to the “sin of indifference.”
We had not learned sufficiently well the lessons of the First World
War’s Armenian genocide, nor the Second World War’s Holocaust.
This is why last week’s parliamentary recognition of Armenia’s genocide
matters so much. We all must resist the sin of indifference.
Alan Whitehorn is a professor of political science at the Royal Military
College, cross-appointed at Queen’s University.