Tag Archives: Armenian Genocide

Armenian Grievances, Turkey, United States and 1915

26 Apr

 

 

            On April 10 by a vote of 12-5, with one abstention, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave its approval to Resolution 410 calling upon Turkey to acknowledge that the massacres of Armenians in 1915, and subsequently, constituted ‘genocide.’ It also asks President Obama to adjust American foreign policy by advocating an “equitable, constructive, stable and durable Armenian-Turkish relationship including full acknowledgement of ‘the Armenian genocide.’” So far, Obama since becoming president has refrained from uttering the g-word, although he has acknowledged the historical wrongs done to the Armenian people in the strongest possible language of condemnation.

 

            Such resolutions, although widely understood to be symbolic and recommendatory, reflect the efforts of the Armenian diaspora to raise awareness of the true nature of what the Armenians endured in 1915, and especially to induce the Turkish government to acknowledge these events as ‘genocide,’ or else suffer the reputational consequences of embracing what is being called ‘denialism.’ The resolution is the latest move to build a strong international consensus in support of the Armenian sense of grievance, and in so doing generate pressures on the accused Turkish government to admit the full enormity of the crimes against the Armenian people by admitting that it was genocide. Further there may also be present an intention to reinforce an appropriate apology, should it be forthcoming, with such tangible steps as restoring stolen property and possibly even establishing a reparations fund.

 

            The Armenian campaign also makes the wider claim that this process of redress for a horrendous historic grievance will also act as a deterrent to the commission in the future of similar crimes. The Senate resolution, however, make a minimal contribution to these goals. It is little more than a gesture of good will explicitly associated with commemorating the 99th anniversary of the 2015 events. As the April 24th day of commemoration has passed without the resolution being put on the action agenda of the full Senate prior to its Easter recess the resolution becomes consigned to the permanent twilight of a recommendation that is never even consummated by the relevant legislative body. Such an interplay of action and inaction manifests an underlying governmental ambivalence as to how this issue should be formally addressed by the United States at official levels of government. Why? Because the expression criticism of the Turkish government for the manner it is addressing the Armenian demands for redress inevitably engages American foreign policy.

 

            The Turkish Foreign Minister has already indicated his displeasure with such initiatives, insisting that respected historians should investigate the claim of genocide, that it is not appropriate for third countries to meddle in such matters, and that such an initiative, if it were formally endorsed at higher levels in Washington, will have a negative influence on the search for some kind of mutually acceptable resolution of these persisting tensions. The Turkish narrative on 1915, which has been softening its oppositional stance during the past decade, still argues that there were atrocities and suffering for Turks as well as Armenians, including a considerable number of Turkish casualties. Further, that the massacres of Armenians were less expressions of ethnic hatred than expressive of a reliance on excessive and undisciplined force to suppress an Armenian revolt against Ottoman rule at a time when Armenians were siding with invading Russian armies in the midst of World War I.

 

What is at Stake

 

            There are two important, intertwined concerns present. First, the whole issue of inter-temporal justice, how to address events that took place one hundred years ago in a manner that is as fair as possible to the victims yet takes account of the passage of time in assessing responsibility for such long past events. Secondly, the degree to which such an issue should be resolved by the parties themselves within the frame of the country where the events took place, or within the framework of the United Nations, rather than be addressed in the domestic politics of third countries whose governments are likely swayed by the presence or absence of aggrieved minorities.

 

            My impression is that the current leadership in Turkey is less seriously committed to upholding the Turkish narrative than in the past, but neither is it willing to subscribe to the Armenian narrative in some of its key elements, especially the insistence that what took place in 1915 must be described as genocide if it is to be properly acknowledged. It is not only the inflammatory nature of the word itself, but also a reasonable apprehension in Ankara of ‘the Pandora’s Box’ aspects of such a process, which once opened would likely move from the word genocide to such delicate embedded questions as reparations and the restoration of stolen property. Especially in recent months, the Turkish political scene has been rather chaotic, and undoubtedly there is a present reluctance by Turkish leaders to stir the hot embers of its nationalist political culture by acceding to the Armenian agenda relating to resolving the conflict. Yet with the 100th anniversary of 1915 around the corner, Turkey has its own strong incentives for being pro-active in developing a forthcoming posture in relation to Armenia and the Armenians.

 

            Against such a background, it seems important to ask what it is that the Armenian demand for the redress of historic grievances is seeking. Is it the belated satisfaction of having Turkey formally declare and admit that what took place in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ or is it more than this? Is there embedded this further demand that Turkey honor the memory of these events by some sort of annual observance, perhaps coupled with the establishment of an Armenian Genocide Museum? Or as signaled already that Turkey is expected to establish a fund and reparations procedures that will allow descendants of the victims to put forward economic claims for the harms endured? In effect, is the full range of Armenian expectations apparent at this stage or merely somewhat clouded? As the experience with the Holocaust suggests, there is no single event that can permanently shut the doors of history or dry the tears of extreme remorse. At most, acknowledgement, apology, and even tangible steps initiate a process that will never completely end, nor bring a satisfying closure to those who identify with the victims of such an unforgivable stream of past occurrences.

            As well, parallel to the genocidal and 1915 Armenian agenda, is a long festering inter-governmental dispute between Turkey and the sovereign state of Armenia over control of Nagorno-Karabakh region in the middle of Azerbaijan that has closed the border between the two countries since 1993. The Acting Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nabandian, added fuel to this diplomatic fire by welcoming the Senate resolution as “an important step” toward establishing “historical truth and prevention of crimes against humanity.” By so doing, the international dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is joined at the hip to the historical controversy about the events of 1915. In an unusual way, the Armenian campaign is mainly conducted under the direction of the Armenian diaspora, and has only been given a secondary emphasis by Armenia itself, which has generally seemed more concerned about economic relations, and especially the territorial dispute in Azerbaijan, when dealing with its Turkish neighbor.

 

            What is one to do about a course of events that occurred under distinct national and international conditions expressive of different structures and legal norms that prevailed a century earlier? I was similarly challenged recently after giving a lecture on moral responsibility in international political life. The question was posed by a native American in the audience who angrily asked me why I had failed to advocate the restoration of the land seized in earlier centuries from the indigenous peoples who then inhabited North America, implying that my silence about such matters was an implicit endorsement of genocide. Such a reaction is understandable on the part of those who identify with a victimized community, but cannot be prescriptive in relation to 21st century realities. Certainly it was genocidal in willing that distinct ethnic groups become extinct or endure forcible dispossession, but there was at the time no legal prohibition on such behavior, and whatever moral interdiction existed was inconclusive, despite the manifest cruelty of the colonizing behavior. At this point, the clock cannot be rolled back to apply contemporary standards of justice to past wrongdoings, although ethical sensitivity and empathy is fully warranted. And what is totally unacceptable are any present efforts to rationalize or even glorify past barbarisms. For instance, the disgusting revisionist view of American slavery recently articulated by the right-wing libertarian rancher, Cliven Bundy, who absurdly asserts that slaves were probably happier than freed African Americans because they enjoyed the satisfactions of family life. As Charles Blow observes in an opinion piece, “Slaves dishonored in life must not have their memories disfigured by revisionist history.” {Blow, “A Rancher’s Romantic Revisionism,” NY Times, April 26, 2014]

 

            We must begin from where we are (but not end there), seeking as humane and transparent a response to these historic injustices as seems possible given both the intervening developments and the relevant balance of forces now and then. True, the anti-colonial movements of the last half of the 20th century did undo earlier injustices because of their capacity to mobilize effective movements of popular resistance. Indigenous people do not have this capacity, and are confined to what legal remedies are voluntarily conferred, and to what degree documenting the past creates sufficient public sympathy to support initiatives seeking some fractional measure of moral and material rectification.

 

            To some extent, accurate documentation is itself a form of historic redress, as was the case with the post-dictatorial ‘truth and reconciliation’ processes that tried in Latin American and South Africa to reconcile peace and justice during a transition to constitutional democracy, yet never brought anything approaching satisfaction or even closure to the victim communities that had earlier experienced unforgiveable criminality. We should also learne from Nelson Mandela’s willingness to overlook the structural injustices associated with economic and social apartheid in achieving the ‘political miracle’ of a peaceful dissolution of political apartheid. Also relevant are some of the late reflections of Edward Said on how to address the Palestine/Israel struggle given the realities that existed fifty years after the establishment of Israel. In effect, Said was of the opinion that despite the legally and morally unacceptable dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and homeland in 1948, it was now both futile and wrong to challenge any longer the existence of Israel. To resolve the conflict, in his view, required an acknowledgement of past injustices, especially the nakba, and mutually agreed arrangements that allowed the two peoples to live and co-exist in peace under conditions of equality, security, and dignity.

 

Was it Genocide?

 

            Is there a single historical truth that must be affirmed by all those of good will, and is it what the Armenian movement and U.S. Senate resolution contends? Can Turkey only express its good faith by subscribing literally to the main features of the Armenian narrative? Until it makes such a willingness clear it is unlikely to deflect the accusatory agenda of those demanding redress. In effect, is the litmus test of Turkish sincerity and remorse dependent upon a formal acknowledgement that what took place in 1915 was unequivocally ‘genocide’? I believe the historical truth is quite unequivocal from a factual and moral perspective, namely, that there was a systematic and deliberate effort to eliminate the Armenian minority from Turkey stemming from government orders and plans, and although occurring in the midst of war, political instability, and national upheaval, the ethnic violence was so one-sided and comprehensive as to undermine the credibility of the central contention of the Turkish narrative that World War I brought about an inter-ethnic experience of shared suffering replete with atrocities, but the blame cannot be exclusively attributed to Turkey, nor can the suffering be exclusively assigned to the Armenian community. This historical truth of predominant Turkish responsibility, however, is far more equivocal in relation to the further Armenian insistence that these genocidal events constitute the crime of genocide as embodied in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which came into force in 1951.

 

            Criminal law is not retroactive. Even the Nuremberg Judgment, which endorsed such innovations as ‘crimes against the peace’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ avoided any attempt to hold the Nazi leaders being prosecuted responsible for genocide despite the magnitude of the Holocaust and the abundance documented evidence of the deliberate and planned elimination of the Jewish people. What exactly, then, is the crime of ‘genocide’? Can it be said to pre-exist the entry into force of the Genocide Convention, considering the wording of its first article, but if so, why was genocide ignored in the prosecution of these Nazis? The wording of Article 1 of the Genocide Convention lends an aura of ambiguity to such queries: “The contracting parties confirm that genocide whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” (emphasis added). The word ‘confirm’ in Article 1 seems supportive of the view that the crime depicted in the treaty somehow preexisted the adoption of the Convention, and that only the usage of the word is retroactive. Yet the concept of genocide was not conceived to be a legal category until the crime was proposed in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin. I would suppose that had Lemkin persuaded the political community to adopt the Genocide Convention a decade earlier the Nuremberg indictments would have included the crime, and possibly the decision would have given guidance as to whether the crime came into being with treaty or antedated its ratification.

 

            Controversy is present as soon as the idea is to compel Turkey to admit that the massacres of 1915 are massive commissions of the crime of genocide, and as such, have an array of legal implications. More flexible, by far, would be a process of inquiry by an international commission of independent experts, which included well respected international lawyers, that would likely conclude that the events in question were clearly ‘genocidal’ in character, and if they had occurred after the Genocide Convention was adopted in 1950, they would constitute ‘genocide.’

            The World Court in responding to the Bosnia complaint alleging Serbian genocide concluded that a high evidentiary bar exists to establish the crime of genocide even with the benefit of the Convention, but it did find that the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica was ‘genocide.’ The majority decision of the highest judicial body in the UN System indirectly highlights the crucial differences between the crime of genocide and the psycho/political/sociological realities of genocidal behavior.

 

Is U.S. Government Involvement Constructive?

 

            The question of whether the United States should be involved in shaping international public opinion is less significant than the substantive dispute about the events, but far from trivial. The questionable political opportunism that connects the responsiveness of Congress to a well-organized Armenian lobby in the United States does seem to make reasonable the official Turkish response that it is never helpful for a foreign government to take the anti-government side in an unresolved controversy of this sort. It is bound to harm bilateral relations between the two countries. In effect, the mutual respect for sovereignty requires governments to refrain from such meddling under almost all circumstances. One can easily imagine the furor in the United States if the Turkish Parliament passed a resolution insisting that Washington finally acknowledge that native American tribal communities were victims of genocide or that descendants of slaves are entitled to reparations. However sincere and morally plausible, in a world where legality and legitimacy are almost always matters for territorial sovereigns to resolve, the foreign source of such sentiments are deeply resented, and are more likely to produce an angry backlash than to induce an accommodating retreat.

 

Finding a Solution

            From the Armenian perspective seeking redress, is this show of American governmental support helpful or not? I suspect that a more discreet effort would produce less defensiveness on the Turkish side, and more willingness to seek a mutually satisfactory outcome. Mobilizing the American Congress and French legislative bodies is somewhat similar to looking beneath the lamppost for a watch dropped in the darkness of the night. Admittedly, if the purpose is to raise awareness and mobilize support from the Armenians such a public relations campaign may be effective even if it stiffens Turkish resistance in the short run.

             A second important concern is how to address the genocide issue given the passage of time, and the interplay of preoccupations on both sides. My preference would be for both Turkish and Armenian representative to agree that it is permissible to use the word genocide with reference to the Armenian ordeal of 1915, but with a shared understanding that the use of the word in relation to the massacres of Armenians is without legal effect. The concept of genocide is inherently ambiguous as it simultaneously puts forward an empirical description of a set of events that offers a political, psychological, sociological, and ethical evaluation of those events, while also advancing the possible legal evaluation of such events as constituting the crime of genocide, which would also mean sustaining a heavy burden of proof as required to establish specific intent, which is a vital element of the crime.

 

            What does not help internationally, it would seem, is posturing by the U.S. Congress. It will probably necessitate some quiet fence-mending by the Obama presidency to maintain good Turkish-American relations, a key strategic priority. At the same time, the Turkish government should not sit still. It should do more than angrily push aside this American initiative and the related Armenian campaign, and show a more forthcoming attitude toward finding common ground to heal gaping Armenian wounds that remain open after a century. Mounting pressure due to the worldwide Armenia is definitely raising the level of awareness, but only wisdom, empathy, and good will on both sides can overcome such an embittered past. In some respects, there is something tragic about this standoff between those who have reason to want the past to be a matter of historical reflection and those who insist that the past is forever present.

 

            The Turkish government has reiterated its offer to establish a joint commission composed of Armenian, Turkish and international historians to establish an authoritative narrative. Besides the likelihood that existing disagreements would be reproduced in the working of this type of commission, the idea that core concern is ‘historical’ misses a main point that such a traumatic series of events need to be interpreted from multiple perspectives, including that in this instance of international criminal law. Establishing the factual reality, which strongly favors Armenian empirical claims, does not resolve the question of what would qualify as an appropriate acknowledgement by the Turkish government, nor does it address the lurking concern as to whether acknowledgement is sufficient, and if not, what further steps must be taken by Turkey if it is to satisfy the Armenian campaign.

 

 

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Healing Wounds: Seeking Closure for the 1915 Armenian Massacres

12 Jan

 

Richard Falk & Hilal Elver

 

            Recently the National Assembly, France’s lower legislative chamber, voted to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in 1915, imposing a potential prison sentence of up to one year as well as a maximum fine of 45, 000 Euros. The timing of this controversial initiative seemed to represent a rather blatant Sarkhozy bid for the votes of the 500,000 French citizens of Armenian descent in the upcoming presidential election. It follows similar pre-election initiatives in 2001 when the French Parliament officially declared that the massacres of Armenians in 1915 were an instance of genocide and in 2006 when the Assembly first voted to criminalize Armenian genocide denial, an initiative that never became law because the French Senate failed to give its assent. And this hopefully may happen again with respect to this recent Assembly move.

 

            Predictably, the French action was perceived by Turkey as a hostile provocation. The Turkish government, which has so far refused to describe the 1915 events as ‘genocide,’ immediately reacted, warning France of adverse economic consequences if this initiative went forward, and has reacted by withdrawing its ambassador and freezing inter-governmental economic relations. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recip Teyyip Erdogan, denounced the action of the French Assembly that had been initiated by a prominent member of Sarkhozy’s party. Erdogan, known for his forthrightness, advised the French Government that instead of criminalizing the Turkish unwillingness to acknowledge the 1915 events as genocide, France should busy itself with determining whether its harsh tactics used during the 1950s in Algeria, and supposedly responsible for up to a million Algerian deaths during the long French campaign to hold onto to its north African colony constituted genocide.

 

            There are many issues raised by this turn for the worse in French-Turkish relations, and its embittering dialogue about historic events. Perhaps, the most important, is whether it is ever justifiable to criminalize the expression of an opinion about a set of past occurrences that goes against a societal consensus. It is true that genocide or Holocaust denial can be hurtful to those who are survivors or descendants of survivors, and identify with the victims of such severe wrongdoing, and its attendant suffering, but whether the sensitivities of these communities should ever be protected by the criminal law seems doubtful, conflicting with freedom of expression and censuring inquiries into historical events that are unpopular and controversial, but occasionally illuminating enough to challenge conventional wisdom. It would seem that informed agreement and social pressure should be sufficient to deter all but the most extremist instances of denial if a genuine and sufficient consensus exists as to the locus of responsibility and the character of the events. In this instance, such criminalization is especially unfortunate as even if the facts of the 1915 events are reasonably well established, the relevance of genocide is certainly ambiguous and somewhat problematic, especially from a legal perspective.

 

            Against this background, where Turkey has not yet been willing to describe the events of 1915 as ‘genocide’ the criminalization of the denial is more likely to raise tensions that encourage a long overdue accommodation. Of course, there are related irritants to the Turkish-Armenian relationship, especially the unresolved conflict over the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan. Among thoughtful Turks there continues to be some questioning of the character of the World War I events in question, not about their tragic character or even a willingness to condemn Ottoman wrongdoing, but there remains a Turkish governmental and societal reluctance to pin the label of genocide on these occurrences. It is well known that the Armenian diaspora has long been seeking to induce key governments around the world to make formal declarations to the effect that what happened in 1915 was genocide, and some 25 governments have done so, as have many lesser political entities such as sub-divisions of the state or cities. Such efforts to legalize historical truth, as distinct from mourning historical events, is itself

a political gimmick to circumvent diplomacy and accommodation. But to criminalize genocidal denial represents a still further escalation of Armenian efforts to resolve the controversy over this potent g-word through branding of denial as a crime. We would insist that rather than resolving the conflict, such steps make a politics of reconciliation that much more difficult for both parties.

 

            The discourse on genocide has always been confusing, multi-layered, and often toxic. The word ‘genocide’ is weighted down by its implications, explaining both why there is such a strong impulse to invoke it and an equally intense effort to deny its applicability.  We need to distinguish genocide as a crime in international law from the political assessment of historic events as genocide due to a clear pattern of deliberate killing of an ethnic or religious group. And such a political assessment needs to be further distinguished from a moral condemnation of a pattern designed to destroy systematically a beleaguered minority that might properly be described as ‘genocidal,’ or what has been more recently described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the setting of Bosnia, which is distinct from the judicially certified ‘genocide’ that shook the foundations of Rwanda in 1994.

 

            From a legal perspective it is not plausible to call these events in 1915 as genocide. After all, the word did not exist until coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1943, and the crime was not so delimited until the Genocide Convention came into force in 1951. Beyond this, and more telling than this technical observation, is the fact that the indictments at Nuremberg did not charge the surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, but convicted these Germans of ‘crimes against humanity’ for their connection with genocidal conduct, and even here only if the alleged criminal acts were associated with World War II, found by the tribunal to be an unlawful war, and thus a ‘crime against peace.’ If the Holocaust perpetrated against Jews and others did not seem to the Nuremberg tribunal to be a distinct crime, then it seems untenable to regard the Armenian tragedy as embodying the crime of genocide. When the UN expert body, the International Law Commission, put into words what was done at Nuremberg it explicitly affirmed the Roman dictum prohibiting retroactivity: no crime without law (nulla crimen sine lege).  Such a dictum touches on a fundamental component of justice to the effect that behavior, however detestable from moral and political points of view, is not a ‘crime’ until so designated in advance of the acts in question by a competent judicial body. This principle has never been contested, and it pertains to the genocide debate whenever attached to pre-1951 events, whether the Armenian experience or to the destruction of a variety of indigenous peoples in various parts of the world or to the barbarous institution of slavery.

 

            At the same time, if what took place in 1915 were to have occurred anytime after the Genocide Convention became effective, it would seem beyond any reasonable doubt to qualify as genocide. The International Court of Justice in the course of examining the Bosnian allegations of genocide, put the bar high by requiring written or documentary evidence of a clear intent by Serbian governmental leaders to commit the crime of genocide that was not available (except the particular incident involving the horrific massacre of several thousand Bosnian males at Srbrenica in 1995 was declared to be genocide). While such evidence was difficult to provide to the satisfaction of the World Court in relation to this notorious Bosnian experience of the 1990s partly as a result of a questionable arrangement with the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia not to release documentary evidence tying the Belgrade regime to the anti-Muslim cleansing operations in Bosnia, the situation with respect to Armenia is different. Unlike Bosnia, documentary evidence from the ruling Ottoman authorities does exist in sufficient quantity and quality to make a persuasive argument to the effect that ‘genocide’ took place in 1915, but because the events occurred 36 years before genocide formally became a crime such a showing is legally irrelevant.

 

            If this reasoning is accepted, it has important implications, including establishing some political space for bringing closure to the issue: Turkey could formally declare that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 took place in the 1960s it would have been genocide, while those on the Armenian side could accept the idea that the 1915 massacres were not then genocide, but that their extent, character, and evidence would constitute genocide if taking place now, or anytime after 1951. The French move, if indeed it becomes law, is irresponsible in the extreme as it disallows the explorations of constructive ways that the violence and suffering of the past might be mitigated. As post-apartheid South Africa has illustrated, it might sometimes be politically and morally preferable for a victimized people to opt for ‘truth and reconciliation’ than to insist on the criminalization of past wrongs however heinous.

 

            It seems to me that such an approach would have mutual benefits. It would bring a conflict that has endured for decades nearer to closure. It would allow Armenians to regard their victimization as genocide from a political and moral perspective, while enabling Turkey to make such a concession without fearing such legal implications as Armenian demands for reparations and the recovery of lost property. Turkish good faith and remorse could be further expressed by appropriating funds for the establishment of a major museum of Armenian History and Culture in Ankara, by recognizing April 24th as a day of Armenian remembrance, and by encouraging honest historical inquiry into these horrific occurrences.

 

            Of course, such a politics of reconciliation can only have any hope of succeeding if there is a large display of good will and a sincere search by Turkish and Armenian leaders for positive relations between the two peoples. It is to be expected that extremists on both sides would strenuously object to such an accommodation. Admittedly, there would not be complete satisfaction even among that largely silent majority of Armenians and Turks who might welcome a pacifying development. What would be created is valuable– a new opening that would allow a more benevolent future to unfold for both peoples that could include a joint cathartic reexamination of the past. Such a development might add to the solemnity and dignity of the expected worldwide observances in 2015 of the 100th anniversary of these events and avoid these occasions from being little more than sad remembrances and shrill recriminations.