Centennial of the Armenian Genocide: Recognition and Reconciliation

I have been involved in Turkish and Armenian issues since 1998. Then Turks were uncomfortable at the mere mention of Armenian issues. It was a code word for genocide recognition. Today things are different.
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The following are remarks I gave at the New York University conference "Armenians a Century After the Genocide: What Next?" on April 17, 2015.

My remarks concern the past, the present and the future.

The facts have been documented over a century of scholarship, eyewitness accounts, and testimony in trials carried out in Istanbul under Allied occupation after World War I. Sultan Abdul Hamid II launched bloody pogroms in late 19th century, resulting in deaths of 250,000 ethnic Armenians living on territories of the Ottoman Empire. Armenian community leaders were rounded up, killed, and deported on April 24, 1915. During the ensuing eight years, Armenians were systematically eliminated from their homeland. Up to 1.5 million died between 1915 and 1923.

Enough interminable discussions about whether the extermination of Armenians rises to the definition of "genocide."

Pope Francis recently called the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks "the first genocide of the 20th century." In turn, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "condemned and warned" Francis not to make "such a mistake again." Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Francis of "blackmail," saying the pontiff had joined an "evil front."

Erdogan wrote Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, on April 10, 2005. He proposed a joint history commission to study archives and historical records. Erdogan expected the commission would refute the genocide and undermine efforts aimed at genocide recognition. The initiative was not a sincere effort aimed at illuminating the truth. I have never supported officially sponsored history commissions. They are usually disingenuous efforts, which open the door to assertions of "shared suffering." Moral equivalency is another instrument of denial.

I have been involved in Turkish and Armenian issues since 1998. Then Turks were uncomfortable at the mere mention of Armenian issues. It was a code word for genocide recognition.

Today things are different. Turks are no longer committed to categorical denial. Armenian issues are widely discussed by Turks. Hasan Cemal, the well-known journalist and grandson of Cemal Pasha, a Genocide-era Turkish leader, wrote a book called The Armenian Genocide. Despite logistical obstacles, civil society initiatives engage Turks and Armenians on a broad range of issues. The European Parliament resolution of April 15 urges Ankara "to recognize the Armenian Genocide and thus to pave the way for a genuine reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples."

The Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), which I chaired from 2001 to 2004, was the first systematic effort to foster dialogue between Turks and Armenians. It was launched during the absence of official contact between Ankara and Yerevan. TARC helped break the ice and acted as a lightning rod so other initiatives could proceed.

TARC's final recommendations provided a way forward. TARC:

  • Suggested confidence-building measures between Turks and Armenians.
  • Called on Turkey to end its embargo and open its border to Armenia.
  • Recommended that the Turkish and Armenian governments issue statements in support of civil society programs in the fields of education, science, culture, trade, and tourism.
  • Proposed intensified government-to-government contacts leading to negotiations on normalization and opening the border for normal travel and trade.

TARC also found a way to address the genocide. It asked the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to facilitate an independent legal analysis on the "applicability of the United Nations Genocide Convention to events which occurred during the early twentieth century." Based on the definition in the Genocide Convention (Article I, A-E), the finding concluded:

International law generally prohibits the retroactive application of treaties.... The Genocide Convention contains no provision mandating its retroactive application. ... Therefore, no legal, financial or territorial claim arising out of the Events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the Convention.

(This does not exclude claims under other rubrics of international or national law.)

The analysis continued:

The term genocide ... may be applied, however, to many and various events that occurred prior to entry into force of the Convention. ... [Based on the definition of genocide, the] core facts common to all the various accounts of the Events ... were met.... [A]t least some of the perpetrators of the Events knew that the consequence of their actions would be the destruction, in whole or in part, of the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, as such, or acted purposively towards this goal, and, therefore, possessed the requisite genocidal intent. ... [T]he Events ... can thus be said to include all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined in the Convention, and legal scholars as well as historians, politicians, journalists and other people would be justified in continuing to so describe them.

I did not use the term "genocide" to characterize the events when TARC was launched. Based on the ICTJ-facilitated analysis, I do use the term today.

TARC was controversial. Some of TARC's initial discussions were confidential. Extremists on both sides were excluded. TARC was accused of being a pawn of the U.S. government; TARC members allegedly received compensation.

For the record: The U.S. supported TARC. So did five other governments. No payments were made to TARC members. I took all decisions regarding composition and agenda. Nobody in the State Department told me what to do; U.S. officials knew better.

TARC's findings and recommendations were endorsed by 53 Nobel laureates. President George W. Bush twice commended TARC for its contribution in his Remembrance Day statements in 2004 and 2005.

Track two is not a substitute for official diplomacy. Swiss mediation picked up where TARC left off. Beginning in 2007, Swiss diplomats facilitated talks between Turkish and Armenian officials. Negotiations resulted in the Protocols on Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and Development of Bilateral Relations (10 Oct. 2009). Prof. Dr. Michael Ambuhl, Switzerland's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, played a pivotal role.

The Protocols were a breakthrough. However, it became apparent that Ankara negotiated in bad faith. Erdogan linked ratification to resolution of issues in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), though NK does not appear in text or annexes. He dismissed reports of de-linkage as "slander and disinformation." He went to Baku and assured his Azeri brothers that the Protocols would not be ratified as long as any Azeri territory was occupied by Armenians. With Erdogan undermining ratification, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concluded, "The ball is in Turkey's court."

It is time to see Turkey for what it is, not how it used to be or how we wish it were. Under Erdogan, Turkey has become an authoritarian state. In 2012, environmental demonstrations in Taksim Square's Gezi Park sparked protests in 60 cities. Police brutality was widespread. Erdogan's government does not tolerate dissent. It uses Article 301 of the Penal Code and Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act to limit freedom of expression. Political opponents are silenced, arrested under trumped-up charges, and fired form their jobs.

Beginning in 2012, Turks aided jihadi groups including ISIS through logistics, financing, weapons, and health services. Turkey has refused the multinational coalition fighting ISIS access to Incirlik Air Force Base near Turkey's border with Syria.

NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. Turkey's anti-Western and anti-democratic practices make it unsuitable as a NATO ally. If NATO were being formed today, Turkey would not qualify as a member.

The Way Forward

Following are some steps that Turkish and Armenian civil society can take, and ways the international community can support their efforts:

  • Open the border and, at a minimum, establish diplomatic relations.
  • Assist contact, communication and cooperation between Turks and Armenians by expanding the EU's support for people-to-people projects. The State Department can also support such efforts by making an umbrella grant to an organization which would fast-track grants to partners in the region.
  • Renew discussion about the ICTJ-facilitated analysis on the applicability of the Genocide Convention. Both sides can find benefit from its findings.
  • Foster alternative views within the AKP. Just two days ago, former President Abdullah Gul warned about the dangers of an executive presidency. Political pluralism in Turkey deserves support.
  • Organize a reunion of Turkish and Armenian diplomats who negotiated the Protocols (after Turkey's national elections on June 7). Swiss Authorities could facilitate the informal meeting through their ambassadors in Ankara and Yerevan.
  • Resist efforts to link ratification of the Protocols on progress in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey-Armenia relations are a bilateral issue. Azerbaijan under President Ilham Aliev is prone to conflict, not conciliation.
  • Reengage Hillary Clinton in Turkish-Armenian issues. She invested her personal prestige into the signing of the Protocols. Mrs. Clinton has a stake in the issue.
  • Recognize the genocide. President Obama referred to the genocide as "Meds Yeghern," or "Great Calamity" in the Armenian language. Obama says, "My personal views are well-known." However, the president of the United States is not entitled to a personal opinion. He should say "genocide" in this year's presidential statement on Remembrance Day. Doing so would catalyze greater discussion in Turkish society. It would put the United States on the right side of history. Genocide recognition is also a legacy issue for Barack Obama.

I salute the heroic and visionary efforts of Turks and Armenians. Reconciliation is a lot like riding a bicycle: Stop pedaling and you fall over.

Contact and cooperation can advance to the goal of rapprochement. Genocide recognition is also indispensable to reconciliation.

Thank you.

David L. Phillips is the director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

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