President Obama: Recognize the Armenian Genocide

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Protesters outside the Turkish Embassy exhort President Obama to recognize the Armenian Genocide, 98 years after it occurred (Flickr Commons)

Protesters outside the Turkish Embassy exhort President Obama to recognize the Armenian Genocide, 98 years after the massacre occurred (Flickr Commons)

It is time for Mr. Obama to fulfill his promise to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide as president. A genocide denied is a genocide continued: Mr. Obama must end the United States’ decades-long censure of Armenian Genocide recognition, which perpetuates violent discrimination against Armenians and degrades United States leadership on human rights.

Mr. Obama’s April 24 Armenian Remembrance Day statements have thus far taken a predictable course, attempting to acknowledge Armenian grief while safeguarding Turkish pride. In memorializing the mass murder of the Armenians throughout his presidency, he has used the term Meds Yeghern, Armenian for “Great Calamity,” instead of calling their fate genocide.

However, Mr. Obama’s refusal to use the term “Armenian Genocide” fails to do justice to the memory of some 1.5 million Armenians annihilated by Ottoman Turkey and the thousands of survivors who were violently uprooted from their homeland and scattered around the world. The president’s choice of words on April 24 has been troubling, considering his commitment to recognize the Armenian Genocide once he entered the White House.

In a prelude to the Holocaust, Armenians were slaughtered for being Armenians, to “cleanse” Ottoman Turkey of the ancient Christian nation which stood in the way of its pan-Turkic ambitions. In 1915, US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, alerted Washington to a “campaign of race extermination,” against the Armenians. His protestations were met with deaf ears by the Ottoman Turkish government, and a muted official US reaction to the ongoing slaughter. He resigned his ambassadorship in disgust, and the killing continued.

When Raphael Lemkin penned the term “genocide” in 1943, he referred to the decimation of the Armenians as a seminal example of genocide. During the 1930s, he labored to define the “crime without a name” which befell the Armenians, warning that such barbarity could happen again. Lemkin submitted a paper to a 1933 League of Nations conference on international criminal law in Madrid which, as Ambassador Samantha Power writes in A Problem from Hell, “drew attention both to Hitler’s ascent and to the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians, a crime that most Europeans had either ignored or had filed away as an ‘Eastern’ phenomenon. If it happened once, the young lawyer urged, it would happen again. If it happened there, he argued, it could happen here.”

Regrettably, Lemkin’s proposal for new international laws to forbid the “destruction of national, religious, and racial groups” was ignored. Genocide scholar Dr. John Docker explains that “Lemkin always regretted that the 1933 Madrid conference did not enact his proposals in international law. If his proposals had been ratified by the countries represented at Madrid, the new laws, he thought, could have inhibited the rise of Nazism by declaring that attacks upon national, religious and ethnic groups were international crimes and that the perpetrators of such crimes could be indicted whenever they appeared on the territory of one of the signatory countries.” Absent Lemkin’s proposed laws against such state-sponsored persecution, Nazi Germany was emboldened in its assault on the Jews. “Who, after all,” said Adolf Hitler in 1939, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians.” The Holocaust ensued, and the killing continued.

In 2006, an eminent member of the Armenian minority in Turkey and editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, Hrant Dink, appeared in a documentary film where he was interviewed about Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, and his prosecution for violating Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code for “insulting Turkishness.” Not long after the film’s release, Dink was assassinated in front of his Istanbul office. The killing continued, yet the US remained silent on genocide recognition.

Last year witnessed a series of attacks against elderly Armenian women in Samatya, the historical Armenian quarter of Istanbul. The Turkish Human Rights Association insisted that the crimes were motivated by racism. And recent reports suggest that Turkey may have been involved in last month’s sacking of Kassab, an Armenian village in Syria near the border with Turkey, by the Nusra Front and other radical Islamist groups. The continual pattern of violent discrimination against ethnic Armenians is the lasting legacy of the Armenian Genocide, which Turkey has tried so hard to forget, rather than confront. The US should no longer be complicit in this destructive amnesia.

A firm statement by Mr. Obama recognizing the Armenian Genocide would indeed have negative short-term consequences for United States-Turkey relations. Ankara would make a fiery protest, immediately recall its Ambassador to Washington for consultations, and restrict United States use of the Incirlik Air Base. The freeze in relations would eventually thaw, as evidenced by Turkey’s ties with France, which weathered a diplomatic crisis caused by a French Senate bill to criminalize Armenian Genocide denial in 2012.

On the other hand, the positive long-term benefits of Armenian Genocide recognition would far outweigh the momentary costs of such a rift. Recognition would reaffirm United States leadership on human rights and genocide prevention at a time when it faces diminished moral standing in the world. Further, it is in the United States’ interest that Turkey be a model for the Middle East. But if this model is to succeed, Turkey, like Germany, must face up to its history.

Because the cancer that was the Armenian Genocide has been ignored and denied, its relapses continue to this day. If Mr. Obama fails to recognize the Armenian Genocide, he would ultimately send a dangerous signal to a world still ridden with ethnic conflict: that power trumps human rights and dignity. Reneging on genocide recognition would therefore not only be unbecoming of the President of the United States and Nobel Peace Prize recipient- it would be a handicap to US global leadership.

Mr. Obama has previously stated, “The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.” This April 24, he should have the courage of conviction to say these words as president.

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Mark Dietzen

Mark Dietzen served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Armenia from 2006-2008. He holds a BA in History from Wabash College and an MA in International Relations from Yale University, where he formerly served as Executive Director of the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Dietzen is currently Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based non-profit Americans for Artsakh (AFA).

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