Revisiting the Armenian Genocide

During his presidential campaign, President Obama voiced numerous times the necessity to recognize what historians assert as the first holocaust of the 20th century, the Armenian Genocide. Unfortunately, after his ascension to the presidency, his words were rendered to an unfulfilled pledge, and this was not the first time this promise to the Armenian community had been broken.

In the midst of the First World War, during the early 1920s, the Armenian population, dwelling on Turkish soil, suffered gravely under the fist of the “Young Turks” government of the Ottoman Empire. Large groups of Armenians were violently uprooted from their homes and died of famine during their relocation, while others were executed during their employment in labor battalions. Even if there is no consensus on the exact number of Armenian deaths, the figures are still out of scale. According to Turkish state sources, 800,000 Armenians perished due to the extremities of that period, while numerous western historians have estimated the number of Armenian deaths as 1.5 million. Even with modern tools and practices, finding a ubiquitously accepted estimation of the fatalities is a difficult task.

Yet, the following years proved to be equally challenging for the Armenians, because they had to fight for the hearts and minds of the world, and secure the recognition of their blood-soaked past as one of the worst crimes against humanity. So far, twenty countries across the globe, including Greece, Belgium, Chile, France, Italy, Russia, and a handful of international institutions, which include the European Parliament, Mercosur, and the Council of Europe, have recognized the Armenian Genocide. For the USA, this issue remains controversial, despite the spirited efforts of passing a resolution that affirms the events of that period as genocide. The IAGS have repeatedly asserted that the Ottoman massacres of Armenians was genocide, and should be recognized as such by the United States. On March 7, 2009, in an open letter to President Obama, Gregory Stanton, President of IAGS stated, “we urge you to refer to the mass slaughter of Armenians as ‘genocide’ in your commemorative statement,’ just as you urged President George W. Bush to do in a letter, dated March 18, 2005.”

The aforementioned controversy is just hit the House of Representatives last month, when, on February 5, 2010, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Howard Berman, publicized his intention to call a committee vote on the nonbinding Armenian genocide resolution (H.Res.252) on March 4, 2010. This shouldn’t come as surprise, since the Democratic Congressman hails from the state of California, where the biggest Armenian community in the USA resides. H.Res.252 is the second resolution a Democrat from the Golden State has tried to pass through Congressional vote since 2007. It was introduced in the House of Representatives as a bipartisan resolution by Adam Schiff (D-CA), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and George Radanovich (R-CA) on March 17, 2009. Similar, thereby, to the previous one (H.Res.106), the new resolution calls on the President to ensure two basic things:

  • That U.S. policy formally refers to the massacre as ‘genocide’, and to use that term when he delivers his annual message on the issue in April. (This was something Obama avoided doing last year.)
  • The foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide, and for other purposes.

Evidently Mr. Herman’s call has come in a timely fashion, because for the last few months, Turkey and Armenia have been trying to overcome their differences, replace their diplomatic relations, and open up their borders. At least, that is the desired direction of the accord the two countries signed on the 10th of October 2009 in Zurich, Switzerland. Although, this accord is at risk since both governments experience strong internal opposition, and Turkey has already shown marks of cold feet. If Turkey and Armenia kindle their relationship, it would profoundly reshape the South Caucasus area and put old allies at odds with the new regional status quo.

As for the USA, if the Congress ratifies the Armenian genocide resolution, a strong anti-American backlash will occur in Turkey. Such a development has the potential to disturb their bilateral relations in and out of NATO and yield obstacles in the deployment of American military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, could the acceptance of such a harsh labeling facilitate the path toward the European Union for Turkey? Could this also bring a new sense of regional stability? Or, will it push Turkish nationalists over to the brink of eruption? To be frank, the Armenian Genocide issue is not only a political matter, but also an emotional one in the memories of two nations. It resembles a dramatic chess game where the players hold in their hands the fate of millions. Handle with care, or else it will not end well.

Editor’s update: On March 4, 2010, a U.S. congressional panel has described the killing of Armenians by Turkish forces during World War I as ‘genocide’, despite White House objections. The resolution was narrowly approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Turkey, a key U.S. ally, responded by recalling its ambassador in Washington for consultations. It has fiercely opposed the non-binding resolution.The White House had warned Congress that the vote would harm reconciliation talks between Turkey and Armenia.

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Ilias Kountoupis is a journalist and student who lives in Athens, Greece. Visit his website and his Facebook page. Photos used in this article are from www.firstgenocide.com

Last 5 posts by Ilias Kountoupis

Last 5 posts by Ilias Kountoupis