Only 33 countries worldwide (and the European Parliament) have formally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide despite the consensus among historians and other academics outside Turkey being that the actions of the Ottoman Empire (now the Republic of Turkey) were genocidal. The UN defined genocide in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Article II also includes a list of actions committed against a group that would be considered genocidal: “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately infliction on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Based on this, there should be no doubt that the massacres should be considered a genocide as approximately 1.5 Armenians were killed by the Ottomans between 1915 and 1917, many of them killed on the death marches or as a result of deportation. It has been over a century since the Armenian Genocide, so why is the UK government still so hesitant to acknowledge it as such?
The Republic of Turkey acknowledge that a significant number of Armenians were massacred, but they do not accept that a genocide occurred and have adopted a policy of genocide denial, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, claiming that there is no ‘stain or a shadow like genocide’ in Turkey’s past. In April this year Joe Biden became the first US president to formally acknowledge the Armenian genocide even though there had been warnings from the Turkish foreign minister that this would further damage the relationship between the two countries. The relationship between Turkey and the US is very different to the relationship between Turkey and the UK, and this may explain why one leader has been able to recognise the genocide for what it is while one of them has not yet acknowledged it. Turkey and the UK generally have a good trading relationship, with 6% of exports from Turkey going to the UK. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UK’s direct investment in Turkey in 2011 reached $917 million (c. £679 million) and there are 2,362 companies with UK capital operating in Turkey. This means that potentially ruining the relationship between the UK and Turkey could have a significant economic impact on the UK.
In the context of a post-Brexit United Kingdom where Turkey is a potentially very important ally economically, this gives Turkey significant power over the UK in terms of dictating whether the Armenian Genocide can be officially recognised. The UK government has struggled somewhat when it comes to trade agreements post-Brexit with most of the current agreements just rolled over agreements with countries that had trade agreements with the EU that now apply to the UK individually as well. However, Turkey is one of the few countries that has negotiated a trade deal with the UK that does not just have the same terms as their agreement with the EU. It is evident that the current UK government has placed a great deal of value on this deal, not least because Boris Johnson, who previously championed the Turkish attempts to join the EU, now believes that it would be best for Turkey to remain outside of the EU. Given that the EU negotiates trade deals for all member states, if Turkey were to join the EU it would render the new trade deal with the UK void and the UK would lose an important trading partner that, based on the actions of the government, it cannot afford to lose.
Earlier this year the Armenian Genocide (Recognition) Bill was introduced to parliament and, if successful, would require that the UK government formally acknowledge the massacres of Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 as a genocide. However, this is not the first time that a Bill like this has been introduced to parliament, there have been 17 previous attempts since 1995 to force the UK government to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, none of which were successful. If the UK government was not confident enough that they could acknowledge the massacres as a genocide without there being significant economic consequences while a part of the largest trading bloc in the world at the time, it is not likely that the new Bill will be successful now that the UK has left the security of that trading bloc.