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The EU Accession of Turkey as a Chance for Human Rights and Minorities?

Bachelorarbeit 2011 43 Seiten


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Terminology
2.1 Syriacs
2.2 Genocide and its recognition
2.3 Seyfo

3 Historical background
3.1 Dhimmi and Millet System
3.2 The Ottoman Empire
3.3 „Seyfo“ - The genocide of 1914/15
3.4 The Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne
3.5 Emigration due to Kurdish Conflict as 2nd ethnic cleansing

4 Turkey as a bridge between Orient and Occident?

5 Turkey’s application for EU membership
5.1 The Copenhagen Criteria
5.2 Soft power politics as a solution?
5.3 Developments outlined in the EU Progress Report 2010
5.4 Developments with regard to the Syriac community
5.4.1 Mor Gabriel
5.4.2 Turkish TV shows and minority rights
5.4.3 Other developments according to ESU

6 Coming to terms with the past - Turkey as a strong partner for Europe?

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The question of whether Turkey is ready to join the European Union has been discussed a lot in recent years and many arguments in favor and against an accession have been put forward.

This thesis deals especially with those aspects of the debate concerning human and minority rights. Though Turkey has made some progress in that field too, a lot of issues are yet unresolved; most importantly the denial of the genocide against Christians at the beginning of the last century and the associated discrimination of non-Moslems that still exists today.

Unfortunately, these points are rarely acknowledged and economic issues seem to be of higher importance. Only few people even know about the atrocities that took place a century ago and those who do, mostly connect it with the Armenians and - possibly - the Pontiac Greeks; one group of victims seems to be utterly forgotten - the Syriacs. This is of course not to say that the other minorities’ persecution is of lesser significance, but this thesis will focus on the Syriacs, in order to give those a voice, who were almost completely unheard up to now.

In the course of the following chapters it will be argued that Turkey has to come to terms with its past - which necessarily has to include recognizing the genocide - if it wants to become a member of the European Union and that it is up to the EU to make that topic a priority. The accession talks, if conducted in the right way, could offer a unique possibility to bring along a long-overdue change in Turkey’s human rights policy. Past events have shown that there is potential for improvement. However, to achieve this, certain facts have to be addressed; ignoring them would be to the detriment of all.

To show this, the first chapters will provide the historical background, focusing on the genocide and its aftermath, but also on Turkey’s role as a bridge between cultures. Then, the development of the accession talks and the criteria attached to it will be analyzed. Finally, the positive and negative developments for Christian minorities (especially the Syriacs) and a possible pathway for change will be elaborated on.

Before, however, I would like to explain my personal reason for choosing this topic.

I was born in Turkey myself - where my grandfather had experienced the genocide of Armenians, Syriacs and Pontic Greeks - but had to leave my grandparents behind and flee to Europe, as the situation didn’t improve.

As a child I had witnessed the trauma of the elderly people, but my parents never really had the courage to explain why we had to leave. For years I was angry because of that, until I went to look for answers myself.

At first I was shocked to find that the stories of my grandfather were substantiated by other witnesses, but all the insight I got took away my anger and lack of trust towards my parents and society as a whole. This experience made me realize that without getting to know one’s past it is impossible to understand one’s behavior and reactions. You can try to run from your past, but it is going to catch up with you at some point. And if you choose to talk about it instead of pushing it away, you can develop a strength, which can give hope for a better future; not only to the individual, but to all the others suffering in one or the other way.

The same is true for the collective. A society that doesn’t critically question its own past, cannot make any social, cultural or human progress; at least not in a positive way. Wise people have claimed for ages that the first step towards a better future is trying to learn from the past. Not only for the victimized group is it important to come to terms with its history and face its trauma, but even more so for the society of perpetrators.

With regard to Turkey, I am convinced that this means, the more people - or politicians in particular - speak out about the past, the better society will develop.

However, while Turkey’s application for EU membership has sparked various debates, there is a lack of discussion about Turkey’s history and the genocide in connection to the EU accession talks. Therefore, I feel confident that my thesis can add another interesting perspective to the discussion about the possible EU accession of Turkey.

2 Terminology

2.1 Syriacs

The introduction already included1 the term Syriacs and it was pointed out that this thesis will focus on the history and genocide of this group of people. At this point the most important facts, which are necessary to fully understand the following chapters, shall be provided.

The Syriacs are descendents of the ancient Near Eastern people of Syria and Mesopotamia; Assyrians, Chaldeans, Babylonians and Arameans. They are known by various names such as Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Suraye/Suroye/Suryoye or according to their denomination as Nestorians, Jacobites, Melkites, or Maronites (in this thesis the term Syriacs will be used).

As already mentioned, most Syriacs are Christians; however, they do not have one national church due to a very early separation from the Byzantine Church in the 4th/ 5th century. Due to arguments about the nature of Christ two branches of the Syriac Church developed, the Eastern part also known as Assyrian Church, Nestorians or Diophysites and the Western part sometimes called the Syriac Orthodox Church, Jacobites or Monophysites. Later, in the 17th and 18th century, inspired by Catholic missionaries, another separation took place; a group of people from the Eastern and the Western Syriac Churches formed a union with Rome. Thus, the Chaldean Church (East) and the Syriac Catholic Church (West) were founded. Eventually, in the 19th century protestant Syriac congregations developed.

All of these were minority churches and tried to resist assimilation and Islamization. For some periods they were tolerated, but time and again they faced persecution and eventually even genocide.

The Syriacs also have/had their own language; that of West-Semitic Aramaic, which is divided into an Eastern and a Western dialect. Until the 4th century A.C. it was an international lingua franca, but later lost its influence to Greek. The Eastern dialect, however, developed into a standard language for literature, which is still used for liturgy in the Oriental Churches and is a unifying factor. In addition, some popular dialects are still spoken by Syriacs today.

Nowadays, the Syriacs live in countries of the Near and Middle East, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, but also - due to immigration - in Western Europe, the United States and Australia.

2.2 Genocide and its recognition

As this thesis calls for the recognition of the genocide of Christian minorities by Turkey, it has to be clarified what exactly the term “genocide” entails and what it means for a state and the victimized group to recognize it.

Literally, the word genocide is derived from the Greek word “genos” (race, tribe) and the Latin “cide” (killing) and therefore denotes the killing of a tribe or race.2 In legal terms the UN offers a quite comprehensive definition in Article 2 of its “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948:

„(G)enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

An additional point was made by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, who argues that genocide is meant to destroy the “essential foundations of the life of […] groups” by means of a coordinated plan which includes the destruction of the culture, language and religion of the respective groups as well as their security, dignity and eventually even their lives.3

This definition stresses two important points: that genocide means a planned destruction and not “only” a random massacre and that it can build up gradually until it culminates in killing of all the people belonging to a certain group.

The UN Convention mentioned above qualifies genocide, whether in time of peace or war, as a crime under international law and demands that the signing states have to prevent such a crime from happening and, in case it does, punish the perpetrators.4

Thus, one reason why recognition of genocide is vital, is that - while it cannot substitute legal proceedings - it can make them possible. Recognition means an official public statement - on national or international level, either by noninvolved nations but also the responsible state - that makes the genocide an undeniable legal fact. It also represents at least a moral punishment for the ones responsible and makes people aware of atrocious historical events.5

But there is more to it than just the legal arguments. Gregory Stanton, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, sums it up quite perfectly, when he says that “Denial is the final stage of genocide”6 Denying a genocide means claiming that the victims never existed and calling the survivors liars7 ; it means that there is no chance for the former to be remembered and the latter to mourn them and to eventually cope with their own memories and experiences. It is therefore absolutely right to regard denial as a part of the actual crime, as it continues to destroy the people psychologically and adds insult to injury.

Finally, failure to reflect on genocide can lead to a false consciousness and encourage further crimes, as it sends the message that mass murder is simply to be ignored and denied instead of punished and confronted.8

Recognition of genocide is therefore important for remembrance and prevention; for coming to terms with the past in order to move forward.

2.3 Seyfo

The term “Seyfo” means “sword” and refers to the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire during9 the First World War, where more than 500.000 or 75% of the Syriacs living in the area were massacred. In particular it refers to the year 1914/15, which is known as “the year of the sword”. Seyfo took place at the same time as the genocide against Armenians and Pontic Greeks; millions of them were murdered as well.

The atrocities were planned and executed by the Ottoman rulers, especially zealously by Talat Pasha (Minister for the Interior), Enver Pasha (Minister for Defense) and Cemal Pasha (Minister for the Marine) in cooperation with some of the Kurds. It started off with mass deportations at the beginning of the war and culminated in massacres of Christian minorities in hundreds of villages. While those events were well-known to the combatant nations (especially to the Ottoman ally, Germany), they did practically nothing to prevent the genocide.

Though the European Parliament has made recognition of the genocide a mandatory precondition for a possible EU-membership, the Turkish government does not do so until the present. Quite the contrary, addressing that topic is punishable by law.

As to the recognition by other countries, the Armenian genocide was declared a genocide according to the UN Convention by national legislators of 20 countries, among them Russia in 1995, France in 2001 and Germany in 2005. The Syriac genocide was, up to now, only officially recognized by Sweden.10

About a year ago, on April 28th 2010, a number of EU-Parliamentarians stressed the need for recognition at a conference organized by the Assyrian Democratic Organization and the Sefyo Center.

There, Zeynep Tozduman, chairman of Izmir council of peace, gave the following statement, which shall serve as the ending of this introductory chapter (a more detailed outline of the events will follow in the historical part of this thesis):

“The Assyrians are a forgotten and ignored nation, Christ’s wounded birds. Within their ancestral homeland, portions of which are in Turkey, they have been a great civilization for more than 6000 years. However, since the 1840’s they have been exposed to exile, deportation and hunger, and up until 1915 almost complete annihilation. These people have made an effort to organize and gather in Europe for 30 years with the only result that they have been able to put their issue on the agenda merely as a subject.”11

3 Historical background

3.1 Dhimmi and Millet System

As mentioned before, the12 Syriacs’ homeland was Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers - Euphrates and Tigris - or Bait Nahrein in Aramaic, which was reigned by various peoples and empires; Accadians, Sassanids, Greeks and Romans being just some of them.

This thesis’ historical part shall begin with the reign of the Arabs, who conquered the area in the 7th century. At this time, Islam began to spread and the land was put under one law (Quran) and one ruler (the Caliph). Christians were basically outside the law, but respected to a certain degree as “peoples of the book” or “ahl-al-kitab” (this definition also included the Jews). In the “dhimmi” (protection) system certain contracts were made with the highest representatives of said minorities. These granted them the right to freely exercise their religion, have their own religious jurisdiction and their own charities, courts and schools, as long as they behaved in a way to be considered worthy of Moslem protection and paid special taxes. Officially they thereby gained a certain amount of religious and cultural autonomy and freedom from persecution.

During the Umayyad rule this system worked quite liberally, while the Abbasids applied stricter rules. In the 11th century the Arabs slowly began to lose their power over Mesopotamia and a lot of Christians were harassed and murdered. In the East they fled to Niniveh and Mosul; in the West mainly to Tur Abdin.

Finally, in the 15th century the Ottomans took over Byzantium and Constantinople was made the center of power in the new empire. In order to control the various ethnic and religious communities, a system similar to dhimmi was adopted - the Millet system, where each group formed a religious nation; a “millet”.

At first, only the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Jews were considered a millet and were in possession of official documents that granted them certain rights, though by no means equality to Moslems. Later on, the Syriac congregations were included as well; the East Syriacs still had an old protection contract (probably from the Abbasids), which was accepted by the Ottomans. The West Syriacs only formed their own millet in 1882, after being represented by the Armenian Patriarch for a long period. The Catholics and Chaldeans had their Patriarchs in Mosul and Aleppo and were additionally protected by France. Protestants had British and American consuls vouching for them.

This system had its rules attached, of course. Once more, in order to be allowed to practice their religion, the millets had to pay taxes once again and follow a certain code of behavior: “They [had to] dress differently from Moslems, [were not allowed to] carry weapons, ride horses built new churches or synagogues […], hold public office [or] be soldiers.”13

At that time about 500.000 Syriacs lived in Northern Mesopotamia, in the West mostly in Tur Abdin, northeastern in the Tigris and Bohtan area and near the Hakkari Mountains, South in the Mosul plain, and most Eastern in Azerbaijan and its center, the city of Urmia.

3.2 The Ottoman Empire

Life in the Ottoman Empire14 proved rather incalculable for the Syriacs and other Christian minorities. Periods of relative peace where interrupted by random massacres; for example the one in 1843 committed by Kurdish tribes in Hakkari. The 17th century marked the beginning of the decline of Ottoman power and as a result, the Christian millets were strengthened through contracts with European countries. Russia became the protector state of the Orthodox peoples, France for the Catholics and though England did not represent a special millet, they advocated for the Syriacs and Armenians in the Asian provinces.


1 Cf. Gaunt, David (2006): Massacres, Resistance and Protectors: Moslem-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I. Gorgias Press, pp. 2-5.
AND Krähenmann, Sandra (2001): Die Assyrer- ein vergessenes Volk in der Türkei. Dokumentation der Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker. Online:; pp. 1-4. AND Saadi, Abdul, Massih (2007): From Survival to Revival: In the Aftermath of the Assyrian Genocide. Online: area=1&cheatid=507; AND Yonan, Gabriele (1989): Ein vergessener Holocaust. Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Türkei. Pogrom Taschenbücher, pp. 2-8.

2 Cf. Lemkin, Raphael (1946): The Crime of Genocide. American Scholar, Vol. 15/2, p.227-230. Online:;

3 Cf. Lemkin, Raphael (1944): Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress. Washington D.C: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, p. 79-95. Online:;

4 Cf. UN (1948): Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 1. Online: UN (1948): Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Online:;

5 Cf. aga-online: Was bedeutet die Anerkennung von Völkermord? Online: http://aga anerkennung.php;

6 Quoted in: Holthouse, David (2008): State of Denial. Turkey Spends Millions to Cover Up Armenian Genocide. Southern Poverty Law Center Intellegence Report, Issue 130. Online: informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2008/summer/state-of-denial;

7 Cf. Heinsohn, Gunnar (1998): Lexikon der Völkermorde. Reinbeck Rowohlt, p.237 et seq. Quoted in: aga-online: Was ist Genozidleugnung? Online:;

8 Cf. Smith, Roger (1998): Professional Ethics and the Denial of the Armenian Genocide. Professional Ethics and the Denial of the Armenian Genocide. In: Hovannisian, Richard G. (Ed.): Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide. p. 287. Quoted in: aga-online: Was ist Genozidleugnung? Online: http://aga-;

9 Cf. Huyodo, Syriac People Internet Portal (2006): Die Massaker vor der Jahrhundertwende. Online:; AND aga-online: Was bedeutet die Anerkennung von Völkermord? Online: anerkennung.php;
AND Yonan, Gabriele (1989): Ein vergessener Holocaust. Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Türkei. Pogrom Taschenbücher, pp. VII, 251, 261.

10 Cf. AINA (2010): Assyrian Genocide Discussed in The European Parliament. Online:;

11 Ibid.

12 Cf. Gaunt, David (2006): Massacres, Resistance and Protectors: Moslem-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I. Gorgias Press, pp. 11-13.
AND Wigram, W.A. (2002): The Assyrians and their neighbors. Gorgias Press, pp. vii-xv, and 1.
AND Yonan, Gabriele (1989): Ein vergessener Holocaust. Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Türkei. Pogrom Taschenbücher, pp.12-19;

13 Gaunt, David (2006): Massacres, Resistance and Protectors: Moslem-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I. Gorgias Press, pp. 12-13.

14 Cf. ibid. pp. 31, 50-51. AND Huyodo, Syriac People Internet Portal (2006): Die Massaker vor der Jahrhundertwende. Online:; AND Yonan, Gabriele (1989): Ein vergessener Holocaust. Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Türkei. Pogrom Taschenbücher, pp. 27-29, 44-46, 50-51, 89-94, 103-107.


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EU Accession Turkey Syriac Christian Genocide Seyfo The Ottoman Empire Dhimmi and Millet System The Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne ethnic cleansing Soft power politics Minorities Humanrights EU Progress Report



Titel: The EU Accession of Turkey as a Chance for Human Rights and Minorities?