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State Identity, Continuity, and Responsibility: The Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey and the Armenian Genocide

Published on November 12, 2012        Author: 

Vahagn Avedian is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, Lund University and Chief Editor of Armenica.org. This post summarises his article which was published in (2012) 23 EJIL 797-820.

The Republic of Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide has evolved, abandoning the simple denial of the ever growing facts. The sophistication includes revisionism, reinterpretation of the UN Genocide Convention, but also pleading the discontinuity between the Ottoman Empire and present-day Turkey. This last argument is quite interesting due to its paradoxical nature: if there is a discontinuity, how come Turkey, unlike Germany, is ardently defending its otherwise flawed predecessor? West Germany chose to reinstate its international prestige by condemning the wrongdoings of Nazi Germany and compensating the victims. While condemning the crimes, East Germany refused to accept responsibility to compensate, referring to the discontinuity between the two states. Turkey has chosen to ardently refute it all together. This article aims to elucidate this aspect of the Turkish denial as a deliberate means to evade the issue of compensation. Furthermore, by failing to stop the WWI era massacres and confiscations (which aimed to create a ‘Turkey for Turks’), but more importantly, by continuing the same internationally wrongful acts committed against the Armenian population and other minorities, Turkey made itself responsible for not only its own actions, but also for those of its predecessor, the Young Turk Government. In my article, I show this by applying the norms of existing international law in regard to state identity, continuity, and responsibility on the historical data at hand.

Before we continue, it must be emphasized that I do not limit my analysis to the definition in the UN Genocide Convention and its legal restraints. Instead, I examine the issues from the perspective of internationally wrongful acts more generally.

Turkey as the Continuation of the Ottoman Empire

A first logical step would be to establish the identity of the two Turkish states and possible continuity. Dividing the determining factors into ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ categories, K. G. Bühler asserts that it is not merely ‘objective’ factors such as substantial part of territory, population, and armed forces, that bear upon state identity and continuity, but ‘subjective’ factors, such as the successor’s claim to continuity and its self-conception, also do matter [State Succession and Membership in International Organizations: Legal Treaties versus Political Pragmatism (2001), at 14]. Recent changes in Europe, especially the dissolution of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia confirm this vision of state identity and continuity. Turkey’s case is quite similar to that of Russia which regarded as the continuation of the Soviet Union. In fact, there are two arbitral rulings: the Ottoman Debt Arbitration and Roselius & Co v. Karsten and the Turkish Republic, which regard Turkey as the continuation of the Ottoman Empire. Read the rest of this entry…