The United Nations Genocide Convention (1948) lists five criteria that constitute genocide:

In the present Convention, genocide 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:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The government policies of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 have caused 1.5 millions Armenian nationals dead.

Many countries, including Armenia, claim that these events constitute genocide, arguing that:

  • The vast majority of the victims were civilians;
  • Casualties of 1.5 million can't be "occasional";
  • Independent eye-witnesses, like American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, explicitly called that "a campaign of race extermination";

Those who deny argue that:

  • The term of Genocide has been introduced after 1915, so it can't apply post factum;
  • It was not intentional (e.g., there were no deliberate intent to kill these people, only sending them with no food or water into a desert);

So, my question is:
Do the events in the Ottoman Empire constitute genocide, according to the international law?

  • 17
    Both those arguments against are seriously flawed. While you can't generally prosecute an individual for crimes that weren't illegal when they were committed, anyone involved in the Armenian genocide is likely dead; the debate is over historical labeling, and you can absolutely apply a label to things that happened before the label was created, particularly when (like here) the label was invented to describe that thing). And I'm having trouble understanding how sending people off into a desert without food or water somehow means you weren't trying to kill them.
    – cpast
    Apr 23, 2015 at 6:35
  • 2
    In fact, condition 3 specifically mentions that putting the group in conditions calculated to kill them is genocide.
    – cpast
    Apr 23, 2015 at 6:42
  • 4
    @cpast, I also think it was a crime (regardless how it is labeled). However, I formulated my question in a neutral (maybe, overly neutral) tone since I really expect for an answer based on the principles of international law, preferably backed with credible sources. In other words, an answer from the mind, not from the heart. Apr 23, 2015 at 7:12
  • 1
    a crime ? It was (probably) more than one million crimes.
    – Bregalad
    Apr 23, 2015 at 11:31
  • 1
    I believe the person who coined the word “genocide”, Raphael Lemkin, explicitly established a link between the massacre of the Armenians and the nazi genocide. It's not necessarily decisive in international law but it does count for something.
    – Relaxed
    May 28, 2015 at 20:27

1 Answer 1


1.Killing members of the group; 1-1.5 million Armenians were killed. This isn't denied; the Turks just say that it was due to their acts in the war, not a concentrated effort.

2.Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; This was present throughout the forced relocations in which much of the killing took place.

3.Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; The stated goal of the relocation was to push the Armenians out of the Ottoman Empire, via forced deportation, killing, and rape, which was systematic in nature.

4.Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; In addition to the previous criterion's answer, the men were separated from the women and children early in the relocations. Men also accounted for the majority of the dead.

5.Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Additionally, women and children were sold into slavery and forced marriages.

These were all done deliberately, as attested via eyewitness accounts in "The Armenian Genocide: an interpretation"

I believe that leaves only the post factum argument.

Article 11, paragraph 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that no person be held guilty of any criminal law that did not exist at the time of offence nor suffer any penalty heavier than what existed at the time of offence. It does however permit application of either domestic or international law.

Very similar provisions are found in Article 15, paragraph 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, replacing the term "penal offence" with "criminal offence". It also adds that if a lighter penalty is provided for after the offence occurs, that lighter penalty shall apply retroactively. Paragraph 2 adds a provision that paragraph 1 does not prevent trying and punishing for an act that was criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations. Specifically addressing the use of the death penalty, article 6, paragraph 2 provides in relevant part that a death sentence may only be imposed "...for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime...."

So, by international law, it is what is currently known as a genocide but cannot be punished as such, because there was no law for the crime itself at the time and as a European nation, Turkey is subject to the above because:

Effectively all European states (except Belarus), including all European Union and European Economic Area states, are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 7 of the convention mirrors the language of both paragraphs of Article 15 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, with the exception that it does not include that a subsequent lighter penalty must apply.

So... yes and no.

  • 9
    It's also hard to prosecute individuals for the crimes these days because virtually all of those who were involved are dead.
    – cpast
    Apr 28, 2015 at 23:20
  • 1
    @cpast, atrocities and war crimes have no expiration term, have they? Jun 27, 2015 at 4:55
  • 6
    @bytebuster Yes, they do. The death of the perpetrator is a nice upper bound; you cannot actually prosecute a corpse.
    – cpast
    Jun 27, 2015 at 5:17
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    @bytebuster No, it's not intended to be a case against a state. That's why the Convention uses the term "persons charged" rather than "states charged:" because genocide the crime is something done by individuals, for which individuals are held accountable (this is actually the whole point of the conventions: holding individuals accountable). Because genocide is intended to be a crime prosecuted against individuals, charges cannot be filed against a deceased purpose; you are also incorrect in the assumption that the statute of limitations is the only time limit on prosecutions.
    – cpast
    Jun 27, 2015 at 6:47
  • 5
    This answer does not address the most important criterion: The actions must be taken “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”.
    – chirlu
    Apr 8, 2018 at 15:55

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