By Emil Danielyan
Armenia has sent a diplomatic note to Britain protesting its Yerevan-based ambassador’s inflammatory remark that the 1915 slaughter of more than one million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey was not a genocide, a spokesman said on Thursday.
Ambassador Thorda Abbott-Watt’s explicit denial of the genocide, voiced at a meeting with students last month and reiterated afterwards, has caused an uproar in Armenia and especially its worldwide Diaspora. Over the past two weeks she has been bombarded with angry letters condemning her and demanding an apology.
Abbott-Watt argues that her comments reflect the position of the British government which does not recognize the mass killings as genocide. “I am sorry that my Government's position on how we refer to the events of 1915-16 causes you personal distress,” she replied to an Armenian-American detractor by e-mail last week.
“Please accept that we understand why Armenians feel so strongly about what happened, and have ourselves always condemned the massacres. We extend our sympathy to the descendants of all the victims and our assurance that what happened will not be forgotten.”
There have also been calls for the Armenian government to seek the envoy’s expulsion from Armenia. But both President Robert Kocharian and the Foreign Ministry have ruled out that option. The ministry spokesman, Hamlet Gasparian, said Yerevan can only “regret such a position.”
“Such issues are better dealt with through diplomatic channels, not publicly,” Gasparian said in a statement. “As in the past, this time, too, the authorities expressed their position to the UK government with a diplomatic note.”
“Of course each country has its own position on this matter, based on its own strategic interests. However, the ambassadors of those countries to Armenia should approach such a sensitive issue with great caution and sensitivity.”
In February 2002, the Foreign Ministry protested to Israel over its Ambassador Rivka Kohen’s similar denial of the genocide. Kohen had told reporters in Yerevan earlier that what happened to the Armenians was just a "tragedy" that should not be compared to the Jewish Holocaust. Yerevan’s reaction was more strongly-worded at the time.
It is not the first time that the current British government’s handling of the sensitive issue comes into question. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet faced domestic protests in January 2001 when it attempted to exclude Armenians from official ceremonies marking Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day. It caved in under pressure from prominent public figures and media.
“The Daily Telegraph,” the UK’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper, referred to the events of 1915 as “the first genocide of the modern era.” “Britain stands firm among a dwindling band of nations that fail to acknowledge the massacres were genocide,” another leading London daily, “The Guardian,” wrote in a lengthy article on the subject.
Ironically, British statesmen’s First World War-era accounts have been a major source of reference for the Armenians in their campaign for international recognition of the genocide. The Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, for example, has a plaque dedicated to Lord James Bryce, whose 700-page Blue Book, a collection of evidence of the massacres, was published by the British Foreign Office in 1916.