To Genocide or Not to Genocide

by Ariana Pekary

In early March, a U.S. congressional panel voted on a resolution stating that what happened to Armenians during World War I was indeed genocide. The Turkish government immediately issued a statement denying the crime and withdrew their ambassador from Washington, DC. Before he was elected in November 2008, Barack Obama called the tragedy a “genocide.” Since then, he’s avoided using that term. Turkey is an ally — a key friend to the United States in the Middle East, which provides a bridge (literally and figuratively) between the Muslim and Western worlds. This press release from the Aerospace Industries Association exemplifies that relationship:

Statement by Marion C. Blakey on the U.S.-Turkish Alliance

ARLINGTON, Va., March 5 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Critical national security, economic and diplomatic relations with our ally Turkey are threatened by yesterday’s House Foreign Relations Committee vote approving the resolution condemning Turkey for the Armenian genocide that took place 95 years ago.
Turkey and the United States have important and long-standing strategic and economic ties. Turkey is a strong democracy, a fellow member of NATO and a critical partner in the war against terrorists. Turkey plays an important role in America’s recovery as we anticipate more than $11 billion in potential defense and aerospace sales to Turkey this year providing nearly 70,000 American jobs.

While no one supports the events that led to this resolution, we believe it is not the best use of congressional energy when our nation’s economy is suffering, and Turkey is supporting our efforts in Afghanistan. We’re urging President Obama and the Speaker of the House to ensure that the resolution doesn’t go to the House floor for a vote. There is simply too much at stake.

“Aerospace Industries Association represents the nation’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of civil, military, and business aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aircraft systems, space systems, aircraft engines, materiel, and related components, equipment services, and information technology.”

So this question (is it genocide or something else?) is not just a matter of semantics. No one doubts that many innocent Armenians died during World War I and that they were forced from their land. What they do disagree upon is what to call it —- which in this case, boils down to intent.

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, specifically, genocide means: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Taking this a step further, if something is determined to be a genocide, then more than likely, someone is going to have to pay some consequence for the crime.  An apology certainly would be in order, but also possibly money —- and/or land.

That’s why so much is at stake for Turkey, and why they defend themselves. If you go to the website for the Turkish Embassy or the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, it’s hard to see how Armenia and Turkey might find common ground. The Assembly advertises at the top of their page: “ATAA Remembers Victims of Armenian Terrorism.” Another link is titled, “Did You Say ‘Apologize?’” The statement from the Turkish Embassy about the congressional resolution last month says:

“Turkey believes that the painful events experienced by all people of Anatolia during the First World War have to be scientifically examined by historians using historical records and archives in an unbiased manner. Intervention by politicians in the domain of historians has always led to negative consequences.”

That’s where Professor Taner Akcam and Dr. Rouben Adalian come in. Professor Akcam is a Turkish Scholar at Clark University in Massachusetts where he is the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies. He’s also the author of A Shameful Act: the Armenian Genocide and Turkish Responsibility. In that capacity, he hosted a conference in early April: “The State of the Art of Armenian Genocide Research: Historiography, Sources, and Future Directions.” You can visit the conference’s website, here.

He invited historians from around the world to discuss what happened, what is still being learned, and how to try to move forward in an academic setting. Both Akcam and Adalian agreed that what was most remarkable during the conference is how there isn’t any question in academia that what happened to the Armenians amounts to genocide.

Dr. Adalian is the director of the Armenian National Institute which has posted archival information on their web site, illustrating the deportation and starvation of the Armenians during WWI. They also post American and British documents that describe the atrocities witnessed by diplomats at that time.

The New York Times offers a one-page synopsis of what happened in 1915, here.

In truth, you could read for weeks about this subject and find validity in arguments on both sides – that’s why it will take bravery in leadership to try to resolve this (nearly) century-old problem. But for now, these links and resources should get you started.

Lastly, a special thanks goes to Levon Mikayelyan for providing the music for this interview.