Dilemmas about the Armenian Genocide

On March 4, 2010 the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 252, recognizing the Armenian genocide. This non-binding piece of legislation was adopted by 23 votes against 22. H.R. 252 is still of great relevance since debates continue about whether to bring it to the full House for a vote or not.

This resolution is far from being one that divides Members of Congress among partisan lines. Certainly, the markup held on March 4 in the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing room was one that provoked a lot of tension and emotion within the Committee, the most that I have seen since my fellowship in Congress started. High-ranking Turkish officials, including the Ambassador himself were present, whereas Armenian constituents brought Armenian women in wheelchairs, more than 90 years old and born in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Genocide. Constituents of Armenian and Turkish origin were waiting in long snaking lines in front of the hearing room, well before the markup started. It was clear that both sides tried to put as much pressure on the representatives as possible.

It is not the members of congress who do the sophisticated historical research on this issue. What they rely on is the work of historians on the one hand and the recognition by other states on the other. With regards to the work of historians, as Chairman Howard Berman said, “the vast majority of experts – the vast majority – academics, authorities in international law, and others who have looked at this issue for years, agree that the tragic massacres of the Armenians constitute genocide”. So far, 22 countries have recognized the Armenian genocide, so did the European Parliament and 42 states out of 50 in the United States.

While listening to the arguments of the Members, I tried to reconstruct in my mind the same chain of thought that a Representative might wade him/herself through before making such a decision. First of all, a Member has to decide whether he or she personally believes that the Turkish crimes against Armenians constitute a genocide. In fact, this is not where the point of disagreement lies. Most Republicans and Democrats seemed to recognize the fact.

From an idealistic point of view, the issue could be perceived in the following way: Will one of the most tragic events of the 20th century be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism and national security interests? “History has to be acknowledged” as many of them say

On the other hand pragmatists argue that the recognition might derail the process of rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. Approximately 1,5 years ago a process of rapprochement began between Armenia and Turkey that seemed to bring an end to a conflict that started in 1991 with the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. On 10 October 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Duvatoglu and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandyan signed official protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and agreed to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations”.

In my opinion, the rapprochement process was already somewhat put on a side-track when the Armenian parliament refused to ratify the protocols and when Ankara set the Armenian withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh as a pre-condition to the Turkish ratification process. I would further argue that the reconciliation process is the result of a growing international (and mostly European) pressure on the Turkish government: even the most prominent allies of Turkey in the European Union have recognized the Genocide, including Sweden, Poland and the Germany. France, having a significant Turkish population similarly to Germany, also did. The Turkish Genocide diplomacy was about to fail – this is most probably what Ankara itself recognized as well before it signed the protocols. Otherwise it could have normalized the relations earlier at any point in the last two decades – there has been no specific development in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in the last couple of years.

According to another commonly heard pragmatic argument, H.R. 252 might put at risk U.S. national security interests by jeopardizing the use of U.S. military bases in Turkey and Turkish military assistance in those two wars that the United States is fighting. I differ from his points for a pragmatic and a more idealistic reason:

  1. I share the views of Howard L. Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who believes that Turkey has just as much interest in maintaining military cooperation since the U.S. intelligence services share crucial information with their Turkish colleagues about Kurdish separatist movements in Northern Iraq since 2007.
  2. I acknowledge that the United States, like every other country, has legitimate national security interests. But arguing with national military interests can be counterproductive: What would distinguish then the United States from China that so far has been trying to prevent the adoption of UN sanctions against Iran due to its economic interests? I do not intend to draw a parallel between Iran and Turkey or China and the United States but I do believe that the U.S. and the EU should continue to act as “normative powers” and remain committed to their shared values. It is these values, this soft power that made America and its ideals attractive to so many people for so many decades.

In general, I am not a proponent of pieces of legislation recognizing such genocides. There are many other acts of genocide that legislative bodies do not recognize.

I am not entirely convinced either that Congress is the most appropriate body to judge upon such issues. As the quoting attributed to Winston Churchill says, “history is written by the victors”. Although I do believe that by careful historical analysis we can get closer to the ultimate truth but instead of looking at the past, I would rather focus on the present and the future. In current days, imprisonment of Turkish journalists raising the Genocide issue in the media is an accepted practice. Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights that a healthy democracy should acknowledge. There is even less reason to violate such a right if Ankara and Turkish scholars honestly believe that the Armenian Genocide is a biased and untruthful story.

– Tamas Medovarszki


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