BRITAIN SIDESTEPS ARMENIAN GENOCIDE RECOGNITION A CENTURY AFTER KILLINGS

Foreign Office documents show a need to emphasise suffering in 1915
massacres but to continue policy of avoiding the G-word to avoid
angering Turkey

Banner depicting "Tools of Genocide" forming the shape of "1915",
in reference to the year of the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman
Turks, in Yerevan. Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/REUTERS

Ian Black

@ian_black

Thursday 23 April 2015 15.52 BST

Armenia and its tragic history has had an intensive blast of media
coverage in the run-up to the April 24 centenary of what is now widely
- though not universally - referred to as the genocide of 1915.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande will be in Yerevan
representing Russia and France, the two most important countries
to have risked Turkey's wrath and use the G-word with reference to
the mass deportations and killings in the final days of the Ottoman
Empire. The US, which also does not use it, is sending the Treasury
Secretary, Jack Lew. Britain will be represented by John Whittingdale,
the Conservative chairman of the all party committee on Armenia.

Analysis The Armenian genocide - the Guardian briefing

Turkey has never accepted the term genocide, even though historians
have demolished its denial of responsibility for up to 1.5 million
deaths

No disrespect intended to Whittingdale, to the UK ambassador to Armenia
or to the Bishop of London, who will also be there. But the level
of UK representation is far below that of the three other permanent
members of the UN security council. Another point of comparison
is that the Prince of Wales is leading the UK delegation to the
Gallipoli centenary commemoration on the same day. And the date for
that, Armenians believe, was chosen deliberately by the Turks - long
loyal Nato allies - to overshadow their own event at the Genocide
Memorial in Yerevan.

Britain's position on genocide recognition is not new. But documents
released under the freedom of information act - though heavily redacted
- shed light on an internal government debate 18 months ago about
whether its policy should change. The outcome of the discussion -
apparently between the embassy in Yerevan and the minister for Europe
in London - was to continue the policy while taking a "forward-leaning"
stance on participation in commemoration events.

"But we should ensure that this is not mis-read as lack of recognition
(in the wider sense) of the appalling events of 1915-16," the anonymous
official commented. "It would be right to participate more actively
in 2015 centenary events, as well as continue efforts to promote
reconciliation." The foreign office declined to say whether the
presence of Whittingdale and co. indeed represented more active
involvement.

Ironically, back in May 1915, when the horrors of Armenian suffering
in wartime eastern Anatolia were being extensively reported, Britain,
with its French and Russian allies, condemned what they called a
"crime against humanity" - then a novel phrase. The modern position,
however, is that it is not up to governments to decide what constitutes
genocide. "The UK recognises as genocide only those events that have
been found so by international courts (eg, Holocaust, Srebrenica,
Rwanda) and this needs to dictate our approach on recognition," the
document notes. That view has been robustly challenged by Geoffrey
Robertson, QC, whose arguments apparently galvanised the FCO into
this internal discussion.

Another option was considered in 2013: to follow Russia, France and
others and recognise the Armenian massacres as genocide - given the
May 1915 statement and the preamble to the 1948 UN convention on
genocide. That would "be received positively by both the Armenian
government and the UK diaspora," the document noted. It added:
"However, this would be a significant and far-reaching change in
HMG policy." Tantalisingly, the next sentence has been redacted. So
bizarrely, there is no mention of Turkey at all. Another FCO document
on the issue, which reports on the decision of the Swedish parliament
to adopt the G-word in 2010, refers to the "drastic effect" on
relations between Stockholm and Ankara, including the cancellation
of a visit by the then Turkish prime minister and now, president, Recep