Four Reasons Why the Public Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Matters

Four Reasons Why the Public Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Matters

It is April 24 soon – Armenian Genocide commemoration day.

Every year, the public remembrance of the victims of a horrific crime during a tumultuous period becomes political in many places Armenian communities call home, not the least of which in the United States.

The White House has been issuing statements annually on April 24 for more than a quarter of a century now, but always avoiding the term “Armenian Genocide”. The massacres and deportations are duly and solemnly condemned by each president. However, calling it by that explicit term – genocide – would be detrimental to relations with Turkey, because the government in Ankara has long held either denialist positions or has pushed forward modified arguments about the broader historical context, general widespread suffering and chaos during the First World War, and so on. It is comparatively rare in Turkey nowadays to hear outright denial of killings, dispossession, and the exile from Anatolia and Asia Minor of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other communities in 1915 and later. But describing it as genocide remains taboo in most Turkish circles.

There have been reports that President Biden will invoke “the g-word” this year. Congress, for its part, has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide on a few occasions, most recently in October, 2019, when relations with Turkey were at a low. Almost all state governors or state houses have made various proclamations or passed resolutions on the Armenian Genocide during the last few decades, as have many city-level governmental bodies throughout the United States. However, there is no sustained, federal Armenian Genocide policy position consistently adopted and expressed by the legislative and executive branches in Washington. It remains a challenge at the forefront of the impressive and moving efforts undertaken by the Armenian-American advocacy and activist community.

The broader question lingers: why even acknowledge the Armenian Genocide? What’s the point of any public or national commemoration in the US or elsewhere? It happened more than a hundred years ago. Yes, it was tragic, it should be condemned, the community has every right to hold memorial services. But what makes it a live public, political issue?

I think that is a reasonable question. Here are four reasonable responses.

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Shades of Sèvres

Shades of Sèvres

In Turkish public discourse, “Sèvres Syndrome” refers to the looming legacy of the agreement signed in a suburb of Paris in 1920 which envisioned carving up the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Although it gives off an impression of being conspiratorial at first blush, political leaders in Turkey do have a basis in bringing up the notion of foreign powers planning to dismember the country. For over a century, the Eastern Question was on the agenda in the corridors of power in London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Geopolitical rivalries about this and other matters came to a head with the First World War, with mixed outcomes for all the empires involved. The Republic of Turkey – forged out of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 – has far less reason to suspect aspirations regarding its territory today, Kurdish separatists notwithstanding.

A sovereign Armenian state was foreseen by the Treaty of Sèvres, to include vast swathes of modern-day eastern Turkey. By contrast, Lausanne did not even involve any Armenian delegates during its negotiations, given the inroads made by a resurgent Soviet Russia and the consequent collapse of the infant Armenian republic in the Caucasus next door. As a result of the tumultuous first quarter of the 20th century (among other eras), hindsight and the notion of “historical justice” and “the restoration of historical justice” is ingrained in Armenian public discourse, even featuring in the country’s declaration of independence from the USSR. Nothing could be more emblematic of such a sentiment than Sèvres, which, unlike in Turkey, is shorthand for a missed opportunity alongside insufficient support or intervention from any of the Great Powers, the United States, or the West in general.

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