The Treaty of Lausanne 100 Years After: Stop the Fighting, Sign the Treaty and Then What? 

Turkey-Greece-Bulgaria on Treaty of Lausanne. Image Source: Wikipedia

Peace is supposed to follow the end of wars. To guarantee stability, all concerned parties sign a treaty, a formal legal agreement promoting short, medium, and long-term tranquillity. That’s ideally how wars should end. But what happens when a treaty ends immediate fighting but indirectly leads to a future conflict because it fails to eliminate the root causes of the fighting? Are treaties, one of the three foundational sources of international law, only worth the paper they’re written on?

Recent celebrations in Lausanne on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the July 24, 1923, Treaty of Lausanne have been muted, at best. The aim of the Treaty, the last treaty ending World War I, was to stop fighting between the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the Allies of World War I as well as concluding the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War. Included in the text were 143 articles. Among the provisions were the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey, delimitations of the boundaries of islands in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the granting of amnesty for crimes committed between 1914 and 1922.

In retrospect, how did the Treaty fail to establish lasting resolutions within those three provisions? While solving certain contentions, did it create others?

As for the border of Turkey, the Treaty failed to establish an autonomous region or statehood for ethnic Kurds as scheduled in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, a document that was never ratified by the Turkish government. The Kurds were not even involved in the Lausanne negotiations. Their hopes for an autonomous Kurdistan were rejected when the Treaty divided their homeland between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Today, there are 40 million ethnic Kurds within the four countries as well as in a larger diaspora without a homeland.

The Treaty also failed to resolve the status and border issues of islands in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tensions remain between Turkey and Greece particularly over Cyprus. The Turks relinquished their rights in Cyprus under Article 16 of the Treaty and recognized British annexation in Article 20. After the Treaty’s signing, an important exchange of populations took place with Christians leaving Turkey for Greece and Muslims leaving Greece for Turkey. But the historic rivalry between Greece and Turkey was not settled in Lausanne. The independent Republic of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when a Greek-inspired coup to unite the island with Greece ousted the Cypriot president and led to Turkey invading and dividing the island. U.N. facilitated talks have failed since 1974, with Turkey insisting on a two-state solution.

The granting of amnesty for crimes committed between 1914 and 1922 also remains a contentious issue. The Treaty’s granting of amnesty ignored what Armenians and others consider a Turkish genocide. The recognition of the Republic of Turkey and its new borders was the culmination of years of deportation of Armenians and Greeks from Turkey.  The genocide, according to Armenians, occurred when about one million Armenians were forcibly displaced from Turkey between 1915 and 1916 and placed on death marches in the Syrian Desert.

The Treaty of Lausanne has been called “the longest-lasting of the post-war [WWI] settlements.” It has also been called a “doomed” or “wretched” treaty as the three examples show.

On the very day of the anniversary of the signing, about 6,000 Kurds from all over Europe protested in Lausanne, marching to the Palais de Rumine where the Treaty was signed. For them, the Treaty of Lausanne is a form of treason. “We will never accept this text,” a spokesperson for the National Congress of Kurdistan (KNK) said at a meeting of Kurdish leaders. “There was a denial of our identity which continues today,” he asserted.

As for unresolved contentions about Cyprus, just after positive comments from Greek and Turkish leaders at the recent NATO summit, Turkish President Recep Erdogan cast doubts on new negotiations; “Everyone needs to understand now that a federal solution is not possible,” Erdogan declared on July 20, 2023, at the 49th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. Erdogan said negotiations cannot restart without recognizing the “sovereign equality and equal international status” of Turkish Cypriots. “July 20 is the symbol of sovereignty and the equal status of the Turkish Cypriots,” he said.

For Armenians, the Treaty’s granting of amnesty for Turkish massacres is also contentious and condemned. The Treaty is like a “second genocide,” Manuschak Karnusian, a Swiss resident of Armenian heritage, told Reuters.

“For us, Turkey will remain a threat as long as it doesn’t recognize or condemn the genocide,” an Armenian protester in Lausanne explained to a local newspaper. The genocide has been recognized by 34 countries as of 2023.

So while the Treaty has left unresolved the questions of a Kurdish homeland, the ultimate status of Cyprus, and responsibility for the Armenian genocide, it did make official a peace arrangement at the time. Isn’t that what treaties are supposed to do?

The problem of the three unresolved issues is temporal. While a treaty is a formal commitment, there is no guarantee that its provisions will be followed indefinitely. Who is to guarantee that the treaty will be respected? Who is to guarantee that the outstanding issues behind the conflict will be resolved? Formal treaties are just that; formal, legal agreements. Peace is not perpetual, treaties are not always sustainable.

The 100-year anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne is a propitious moment to reflect on how complicated peace can be. Rather than just the opposite of war, peace is a halt to fighting, but not necessarily a final resolution of the outstanding issues behind a conflict. Treaties may even create problems causing new conflicts.

The Treaty of Lausanne served a function 100 years ago. That the Kurds, Turkish Cypriots, and Armenians are not satisfied with some of its provisions makes temporal sense. Any treaty, like peace, is ephemeral. Perhaps not as radically ephemeral as a representative of the KNK, who said about the Treaty of Lausanne: “We want to remind all the states that supported this agreement that for us it is ‘not valid’… We will continue to fight to get what we want: its cancellation.”

The 100th anniversary celebration of the Treaty of Lausanne was a reminder of the unforeseen consequences of treaties and the dangers of euphoria when treaties are signed and peace declared.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.