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The Legislation Behind the
Armenian Genocide

by Hannah Martinez | Fall 2019

For decades, a divide stood between Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Towards the start of World War I, the Ottomans carried out a quiet genocide of its Armenians, a war crime that was camouflaged not only by the atrocities of World War I but also by insidious legislation that covered up the crimes. Hiding under claims of necessary deportations and false promises, here is how the Ottoman Empire slaughtered tens of thousands of innocents.

1. Freedman, Jeri. The Armenian Genocide. Rosen Pub. Group, 2009.

2. Sarinay, Yusuf. "The Relocations (Tehcir) of Armenians and the Trials of 1915–16." Middle East Critique 20, no. 3 (2011): 299-315. doi:10.1080/19436149.2011.619768.

5. Sarinay, Yusuf. "The Relocations (Tehcir) of Armenians and the Trials of 1915–16." Middle East Critique 20, no. 3 (2011): 299-315. doi:10.1080/19436149.2011.619768.

6. Ibid.

9. Kurt, Ümit. "The Plunder of Wealth through Abandoned Properties Laws in the Armenian Genocide." Genocide Studies International 10, no. 1 (2016): 37-51. doi:10.3138/gsi.10.1.04.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

For decades, a divide stood between Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Towards the start of World War I, the Ottomans carried out a quiet genocide of its Armenians, a war crime that was camouflaged not only by the atrocities of World War I but also by insidious legislation that covered up the crimes. Hiding under claims of necessary deportations and false promises, here is how the Ottoman Empire slaughtered tens of thousands of innocents.

 

1894, Ottoman Empire: Christian Armenians’ acts of civil disobedience and refusal to pay taxes levied upon their for their ethnicity had incurred violent retribution from the Ottoman Turks. Over the course of the next two years, Kurdish militias financed by the Ottoman Turks destroyed Armenian properties and businesses, razing dozens of villages to the ground, and massacring between ten-thousand and thirty-thousand Armenians in what would become known as the Hamidian Massacres.[1] These acts against the Armenians precipitated a series of legislative acts enabling what would become the Armenian Genocide.

 

The first of these acts was a memorandum issued by the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior in April 1915. It “ordered the shutting down of all Armenian committees and the arrest of their leaders,” with special emphasis on the capture of Armenians known to be associated with nationalist or revolutionary interests.[2] Despite these measures to curtail Armenian nationalistic fervor, the Ottoman Empire watched aghast as an Armenian rebellion in Van--backed by powerful western European allies--blossomed and flamed.[3] Thus, in 1915, so-called temporary legislation was passed allowing the Turkish government to relocate Armenians under the guise of keeping them safe from the war zones of World War I.[4] The Tehcir Law was born.

 

On August 8, 1915, the first deportation of Armenians under the Tehcir Law took place in Yozgat.[5] Four hundred and seventy-two from the city were arrested in their homes and registered for deportation.[6] Somewhere along the four-mile trek to Dere Mumlu its destination, the group was attacked with only a handful of survivors.[7] This process was repeated until the entire city of Yozgat and its surrounding localities were liquidated of Armenians. A survivor later recalled how Turks living in Yozgat did not use the term tehcir (deport) to describe what occurred to the Armenians, but instead used kasim,[8]which means “massacre.”

 

Along with these executions and deportations, the Ottoman Empire conceived of another piece of legislation enabling them to erase the existence of Armenians from the state: the ordinance of June 10, 1915.[9] This ordinance consisted of thirty-four articles describing how goods and properties left behind by deported Armenians would be confiscated by the state and what would become of them.[10] It ruled that Armenians in the future could not handle the transfer of their own properties and claimed that a future announcement would return the confiscations back to their original owners; this promised proclamation, of course, never occurred.[11]

 

The most crucial laws that formed the foundation of confiscation of Armenian tangible wealth would come in the legislations of September and November of 1915. They created the Committees and Liquidations Commissions and outlined the tasks of these new boards.[12] The most important inference from the passing of this law is that, in spite of prior claims that the confiscations and liquidations were only temporary, the Ottoman Empire had no intention of returning their stolen wealth to its rightful owners.[13] This is seen in the lack of legislation concerning the arrangements that would restore properties or equivalent value to the Armenians, whereas a wealth of legislation can be found detailing how so-called abandoned properties would be seized by the government.[14] The articles also ensured that court decisions concerning the properties could not be overturned nor appealed; the legislation seems all the more insidious when one realizes that deported or killed Armenians could never be present when these all-important decisions were being made.[15]

 

Over the course of World War I, the Ottoman Empire carried on a quiet genocide of its Armenian population, enabled by crafty legislation which subtly wiped out the existence of Armenians in pursuit of a “pure” Turkish state. With the end of World War I, which ended poorly for the Ottomans, the government heads behind the genocide silently resigned, and new governments taking their place began allowing Armenians to return to their homes beginning in 1918.[16] They set forth legislation demanding the resettlement of Armenians and finally setting forth the powers necessary to return properties or equivalent compensation to the surviving Armenians; it appeared the new government was taking a step in the right direction.[17] How effective this change in mindset was is open to interpretation: a statement made by Finance Minister Hasan Fehmi Bey noted that ninety percent of confiscations had yet to be returned as of 1922, and yet the new Ankara government was in high favor of ceasing to return wealth.[18]

 

The perpetrators of the Armenians Genocide utilized not only military might but also insidious legislation to advance their efforts to cleanse the Ottoman Empire of Christian Armenians. Memorandums, the Tehcir Law, and articles concerning “abandoned” properties left behind by forcibly deported Armenians, as well as the lack in effort to return those properties to surviving Armenians, demonstrates the power of legislation in the Armenian Genocide. As supranational organizations begin to check the actions of the world on marginalized peoples, it is my hope that warning signs of discriminatory or insidious legislation will lead to the curtailing of genocide and the prevention of the mass murder of innocents

 

REFERENCES

[1] Freedman, Jeri. The Armenian Genocide. Rosen Pub. Group, 2009.

[2] Sarinay, Yusuf. "The Relocations (Tehcir) of Armenians and the Trials of 1915–16." Middle East Critique 20, no. 3 (2011): 299-315. doi:10.1080/19436149.2011.619768.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Sarinay, Yusuf. "The Relocations (Tehcir) of Armenians and the Trials of 1915–16." Middle East Critique 20, no. 3 (2011): 299-315. doi:10.1080/19436149.2011.619768.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] Kurt, Ümit. "The Plunder of Wealth through Abandoned Properties Laws in the Armenian Genocide." Genocide Studies International 10, no. 1 (2016): 37-51. doi:10.3138/gsi.10.1.04.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.