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April 26, 2010, Monday

President Obama is right in avoiding the word ‘genocide’

US President Barack Obama, in his statement commemorating the start of forced deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman government on April 24, 1915, avoided, as he did last year, the use of the word “genocide” to describe the events. He did the right thing, mainly for two reasons.
Firstly, because “genocide” declarations by leaders and resolutions by parliaments of third countries do not help the people of Turkey face the question of what happened to the Ottoman Armenians. Such statements and resolutions are exploited by nationalist politicians to suppress the domestic debate and scholarly research on the question, which has been flourishing during at least the last five years. The people of Turkey at large who have been kept ignorant by authorities of the mass deportation and killings of Ottoman Armenians during World War I, in retaliation for Armenian nationalist groups seeking independence from the empire, require more time to reach a sound and objective understanding of what really happened.

Secondly, the range of international problems, especially those that relate to the Middle East, necessitate close cooperation between the governments of Turkey and the US. Surveys indicate that the highly negative attitudes toward US policies in the region among the Turkish public since the invasion of Iraq have only partially been mollified by the election of President Obama and his visit to Turkey last year. It would not have been reasonable for President Obama to make a statement that would further fan anti-US sentiment in the Turkish public opinion.

As most sensible people would agree, the way forward for the people of Turkey to face the tragedy that befell Ottoman Armenians (an intentional genocide or not) would be mainly on the basis of the developing internal debate. A major contribution in this respect, surely, will be the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia by the ratification of the protocols signed by the two governments last year, which stipulate not only the establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of borders, but also the setting up of an international committee of historians to deal with the question as to what happened to the Ottoman Armenians.

Developments since October, when they were signed with Swiss arbitration in Zürich, have indicated that neither side is quite ready to ratify the protocols. The Armenian government, under the pressure of the opposition, officially suspended the ratification process last week, and the Turkish government is now under pressure from the opposition to withdraw the protocols from the parliamentary agenda. The protocols should not, however, be expected to remain on paper as long as the two sides continue to regard normalization in line with their national interests.

How then has the ratification of the protocols gotten stuck? There is no doubt that both sides have made mistakes in the process. The mistake of the Armenian government was to submit the protocols to the constitutional court for approval, which ruled that the documents were in accordance with the Armenian Constitution and 1990 Declaration of Independence, which states that “The Republic of Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.” The Turkish government viewed this ruling as adding new conditionality to the protocols, demanding guarantees that it did not do so.

The mistake on the Turkish government’s side was its assumption that there would soon be a breakthrough in the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had declared in Baku, five months prior to the signing of the protocols: “The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is a cause, and the closure of the border is an effect. Without the occupation ending, the gates will not be opened.” Why, then, did the Turkish side sign the protocols, which did not made any reference to the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh dispute?

Thomas de Waal, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points to the fact that the Turkish side “hoped to see progress on the Karabakh dispute in the months after the Zurich ceremony, giving them political cover to ratify the protocols.” He goes on to state: “Turkish officials, perhaps as a result of undue US assurances, had an overly optimistic impression of how well the Karabakh peace negotiations were going. When the officials learned in December 2009 that the talks were deadlocked, they found themselves boxed in.” (“Armenia and Turkey: Bridging the Gap,” April 2010.)

Is there, then, a chance for a breakthrough in the Karabakh negotiations that would open the way for the ratification of the protocols by Turkey? According to Tabib Huseynov of the International Crisis Group, the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia has reached a “make or break” point. There is a real opportunity for the two sides to open the way for a solution by signing the framework agreement outlined by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). For this opportunity not to be missed, the international mediators must keep up their concerted efforts to encourage the two governments to agree. (“A Moment of Truth in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks?” April 12, 2010.)

As an ardent supporter of reconciliation in the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Armenia triangle, I strongly hope that Huseynov’s expectations materialize.

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