This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Armenian Genocide occurred in the Ottoman Empire (Suny 2015). It was a systematic mass murder of around one million ethnic Armenians during World War I. The genocide was spearheaded by the ruling Committee of the Union and Progress (CUP). Before World War I, Armenians were largely located in Anatolia (Payaslian 2007). They had a protected (but subordinate) position during Ottoman rule. They had already faced a history of large-scale massacres between 1890 and 1909 (Suny 2015).
In 1912 and 1913, when the Ottoman Empire suffered major military defeats and losses of territory during the Balkan Wars, many CUP leaders assumed that the Armenians would also try to break away from the Ottoman Empire (Payaslian 2007). While invading Russian and Persian territory, the Ottoman paramilitaries began massacring local Armenians. Slowly, isolated incidents of Armenian resistance emerged – but the Ottoman Empire treated it as a widespread rebellion (although none existed) and cracked down on the Armenians (Suny 2015). They rounded up, arrested, and deported several Armenians, and forced several more to go on death marches (Kévorkian 2011). The genocide eventually culminated in the destruction of over two millennia of Armenian civilization in eastern Anatolia, and the death of as many as 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians. In the course of this genocide, the Young Turks, the Turkish armed forces, militias, and members of the public engaged in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape against Armenian women and children (Kévorkian 2011).
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
The genocide that took place in 1915 was planned well in advance. Sexual violence and rape were deliberately deployed to target women and children of all genders. While several Armenians were forced into the desert and made to go on death marches, many women and young girls and boys were raped, mutilated, and tortured on the way (Ball 2011).
The genocide campaign proceeded with a systematic plan wherein attackers would kill the men, rape the surviving women, and then forcibly displace them or kill them thereafter. Before the genocide, forced marriage, prostitution, sexual slavery, and sexual mutilation were carried out to humiliate women (Herzog 2011; Miller and Miller 1999). The victims included children and women who were well into their eighties.
Forced prostitution, rape, and sexual assault prevailed. Military commanders often issued commands to their men to "Do to them [the women] whatever you wish" (Akçam 2012). In Damascus, Armenain women and children were displayed naked and auctioned off as sex slaves. Armenian women and girls were also trafficked and sold – which served as a major source of income among soldiers (Von Joeden-Forgey 2010).
Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence and rape were used as a deliberate method of war to intimidate and humiliate the Armenian population. The intention was to make it known to the community that they were not welcome in the Empire and that they were not to continue living there. On many occasions, women were raped in front of their families and in their homes before they were relocated and forced to go on death marches (Smith 2013).
Rape and sexual violence were also used as methods to carry out the genocide, where forced pregnancy and harming already pregnant women so they would miscarry were carried out through rape and sexual violence. Several women who were gang-raped died by suicide (Joyce Frey 2009). Rape and sexual violence were also carried out as part of a eliticide campaign, which aimed at destroying the group’s leadership and suggest that the Armenian community had been “conquered” (Von Joeden-Forgey 2010).
After World War I, the British put pressure on the Sultan to prosecute the CUP for their crimes against humanity. By April 1919, after 100 Turkish officials had been arrested, trials began. Several testimonies that were presented alluded to the rampancy of genocidal rape and sexual violence. The court found the Lieutenant Governor Kemal Bey of Yozgat district and Major Tevfik Bey guilty of forced relocation and murder, and punished them with the death penalty and a 16-year prison sentence, respectively. No formal charges were made on anyone for rape and sexual violence (DeLaet 2005).
To date, however, the Turkish government contends that the mass deportation of Armenians was legitimate in order to address a threat to the empire, but vehemently denies any intention to kill the Armenian people.
Akçam, Taner (2012). The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton University Press.
Ball, Howard (2011). Genocide A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO.
DeLaet, Debra (2005). The Global Struggle for Human Rights. Wadsworth Publishing.
Herzog, Dagmar (2011). Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History. Cambridge University Press.
Joyce Frey, Rebecca (2009). Genocide and International Justice. Facts On File.
Kévorkian, Raymond (2011). The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History. Bloomsbury.
Miller, Donald Earl; Miller, Lorna Touryan (1999). Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide. University of California Press.
Payaslian, Simon (2007). The History of Armenia: From the Origins to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan.
Smith, Roger W. (2013). "Genocide and the Politics of Rape". In Joyce Apsel, Ernesto Verdeja (ed.). Genocide Matters: Ongoing Issues and Emerging Perspectives. Routledge.
Suny, Ronald Grigor (2015). "They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide. Princeton University Press.
Von Joeden-Forgey, Elisa (2010). "Gender and Genocide". In Donald Bloxham, A. Dirk Moses (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies. Oxford University Press.