Who now remembers the Armenians? Adolf Hitler shrugged, when he was warned not to exterminate the Jews. He was referring to the Armenian genocide in 1915, which saw more than a million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire die. The tragedy proved a global wake-up call and incited international outrage. Yet the “instinct to prosecute could not be realised” because of the lack of international law. It was not until the 1948 Genocide Convention, followed by the Nuremburg trials, that a precedent for prosecution of crimes against humanity, and more specifically genocide, would be established.

Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were  targeted because of their status as a religious (Christian) and ethnic minority. Yet even today, Robertson continued, a number of states including the USA and Britain still refuse to use the “G” word, despite the case fitting the definition of the Genocide Convention beyond reasonable doubt. This hypocrisy, he argued, is due to geopolitics and inter-state relations trumping recognition of international law. Today neither Britain nor the USA wants to risk antagonising their NATO ally.

Robertson described how the Turkish government, approaching the centenary of the Armenian genocide, still claims that the policy of extermination was justified on the basis of military necessity at a time of war. It is bizarre, he suggested, that the Turkish government would continue to deny the genocide given that it was ordered by the rulers of the then Ottoman Empire, as opposed to the Turkish state. “Ataturk himself described it as a ‘shameful act’”.

Admitting genocide, of course, would raise questions of  reparations for the families of the victims. Also, how to balance free speech regulations and the fight against genocide denial? The wide range of regulations in Europe illustrates how little agreement there is on that issue. The discussion also looked closely at the definition and parameters of genocide, as well as the practical implications of using the ‘g word’. The character of genocide, with its origins in ideas of racial superiority or religious intolerance, makes it particularly dangerous, stressed Robertson. Yet the Genocide Convention does not include “politicide”, the deliberate destruction of a political movement or group, probably due to the influence of the Soviet Union at the time: so that Stalin’s purges would never fall within the criteria of what constitutes genocide. The discussion also touched on the religiously motivated killings of ISIS (Islamic State) in Iraq and Syria – which appear to show clear genocidal intent – yet which pose problem in terms of the law because ISIS is not a formal state. Despite all these questions, Robertson remained optimistic: international criminal law is still very young.

About Geoffrey Robertson QC

Geoffrey Robertson QC has had a distinguished career as a trial counsel, human rights advocate and United Nations judge. He is founder and co-head of Doughty Street Chambers. He held the office of Recorder (part-time judge) for many years and is a Master of the Middle Temple and a visiting professor in human rights. His books include Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (a textbook on the development of human rights law); The Tyrannicide Brief (the story of how Cromwell’s lawyers mounted the trial of Charles I); an acclaimed memoir, The Justice GameMullahs without MercyHuman Rights and Nuclear Weapons; and Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK. In 2011 he received the Award for Distinction in International Law and Affairs from the New York State Bar Association.

The Transitions Forum examines the challenges and opportunities of radical political and economic change.