If we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory - Professor Howard Zinn, 1922-2010.
Is the cost in spoilt relations with Turkey outweighed by respect for the memory of well over one million Armenian victims?
This was probably an over-riding question in the minds of the 45 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 4 March 2010. Should they adopt a non-binding resolution urging President Obama to use the G-word on 24th April during his annual address to the Armenian American communities in Massachusetts, New York, California, and across the whole USA?
But let me first look at the dynamics of this exercise, and whether, or how, 2010 differed from those attempts in previous years”
Unlike previous US Administration heavyweights, President Barack Obama, as well as his top two aides, Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have all supported labelling those massacres as genocide when they served in the Senate. During the presidential campaign, President Obama boldly stated, “I believe that 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 … As President, I will recognise the Armenian Genocide.” Yet, last week, in the face of such a resolution, all three key politicians faced a quandary and laboured quite hard to dissuade the Committee members of the House from voting in its favour.
In 2007, the chairman of the panel, the late Tom Lantos of California, did not sponsor the bill although he ended up voting for it after agonising over the decision in his opening remarks. This time, Lantos’ successor as chairman, Howard Berman of California, not only did not agonise over his position, he even co-sponsored the bill alongside Adam Schiff of California. Yet, despite the proactive attitude of the chairman, H. Res. 252 passed narrowly in 2010 by 23 votes against 22, whereas the difference in 2007 was a more spacious 27 votes to 21.
Will the resolution - as adopted by the Committee - proceed to a vote in the full House? Highly unlikely, would be my opinion. Not unlike 2007, it is almost safe to assume that House speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) would decide to keep it from the floor of the House although she too has been a vocal supporter of recognition in the past.
Turkish lobbying in the USA is becoming increasingly more professional and aggressive. Ironically enough, its main lobbying engine is led by former House majority leader, Richard A Gephardt (Democrat, Missouri) who had urged recognition of the Armenian genocide when he was in Congress. According to the records, the public-relations firm Fleishman Hillard also holds a contract with Turkey that is worth over $100,000 a month. The Turkish government has ostensibly spent millions on lobbying in Washington over the past decade and the Gephardt Group collects some $70,000 a month for lobbying services from Ankara. Another group is the Turkish Coalition of America that has also targeted the districts of committee members who are deemed potential swing votes.
Conversely, the Armenian government, which had previously enlisted BKSH & Associates and Burson-Marsteller, is now focusing its lobbying efforts more specifically on the Armenian National Committee (ANC) and the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), which together spent roughly $380,000 on lobbying last year.
In 2007, seven out of eight Jews on the committee voted for the then resolution - albeit with heavy hearts - with the sole exception being Robert Wexler of Florida who was a supporter of the Turkish position. In 2010, all the Jewish votes were in favour of the resolution. This statistic might help diminish the magnified hype over the fact that American Jews - and Israel - were together punishing Turkey for its criticism of Israeli actions during the Gaza war.
Let me now touch upon a number of related issues that also flow out of this resolution.
The first issue centres on the two Turkey-Armenia protocols. Signed in the midst of much fanfare in Zürich on 10 October 2009, and including a planned commission on historical issues, they are now bogged down by Turkish objections and ploys that are forestalling their parliamentary ratification. This resolution will not directly impact the future of those protocols, since Turkish intentions toward them are, alas, questionable anyway, and Turkey is using them as a way of pressuring Armenia into ceding some of its vital strategic interests - particularly over the enclave of Nagorny-Karabakh.
However, notwithstanding the separateness of both those issues ad abstractum, I would add that the US is sending Turkey a coded message that it had better proceed with the ratification of those protocols - which it, alongside Russia, the EU and even OSCE, supported quite strenuously. It is in their geo-strategic interests for the Southern Caucasus - or else America would let go of its political sword of Damocles and recognise officially this first genocide of the 20th century.
Another issue much closer to home for me addresses the position of the British government. Whilst the US grapples with this question year-in-year-out, successive British governments - Labour and Tory - have constantly fudged over the genocide. Despite the clear assertions of the most eminent British and international historians that Armenians suffered genocide, let alone the opinion of Geoffrey Robertson, QC, that the Armenian experience fulfilled the legal requirements of the UN Convention on Genocide 1948, our government has constantly denied this fact for fear of upsetting Turkey - going so far as to refuse to include the Armenian genocide in Holocaust Memorial Day - although Wales has valiantly bucked the system.
Overall, US policy toward the genocide oscillates between an approach based on conscience and morality versus one of political realism and foreign policy prerogatives. American conscience and Armenian-American votes would tend to support recognition, but an acknowledgement of the ‘political consequences’ of such recognition always interferes at the last minute.
However, I would argue that the US, not unlike the UK, is puffing up the Turkish riposte. Whilst it is true that Turkey would inevitably recall its Ambassador for a while and threaten to sever all political, military and trade relations with the US (including use of the Inçirlik airbase), it is clear to me that a lot of bluff and bluster lie in its sempiternal démarches. I recall the doomsday scenarios Turkey drew when France recognised the genocide and passed a law criminalising its denial, or the hubbub with Switzerland and a number of EU countries. Yet things always quietened down after the initial outburst due to the inescapable realisation by Turkey that it needs the US and Europe irrespective of its dramatic [petulant] brinkmanship.
I am also heartened by the increasing outspokenness of intellectuals, academics and journalists in Turkey over the fact that Turkish denials are spurious falsehoods that need to be addressed directly sooner or later. Although there is a blackout on any education about this genocide in modern-day Turkey, there are now a number of Turks who are challenging the legal taboos (particularly Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code) by questioning the horrors perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey during WWI. An example is a powerful article entitled Genocide by Ahmet Altan in Taraf on 6th March (excerpted):
Amongst this entire hullabaloo, my favourite comment comes from a Turkish speaker who denounces this decision: “Turkey is no longer a country that can easily be humiliated.” When a commission of the US Congress votes for “genocide”, we are “humiliated”. Do you know what humiliation is?
Turkey is not humiliated because that commission approved that resolution with a difference of one vote. Turkey is humiliated because it itself cannot shed light on its own history, has to delegate this matter into other hands, is frightened like hell from its own past, has to squirm like mad in order to cover up truths.
The real issue is this: Why is the “Armenian Genocide” a matter of discussion in American, French and Swiss parliaments and not in the parliament of the Turkish Republic? Why can we, ourselves, not discuss a matter that we deem so vital that we perceive the difference of one vote as a source of humiliation?
If you cannot discuss your own problems, you deserve to be humiliated. If you keep silent in a matter that you find so important, you deserve to be humiliated. If you try to shut others up, you are humiliated even more. The whole world interprets the killing of so many Armenians - a number we cannot even estimate properly - as “genocide”. The history of every society is tainted with crime and blood. We cannot undo what has been done but we can show the courage to face the truths, to discuss the reality. We can give up trying to silence the world out of concern for incriminating the founders of the republic.
We can ask questions. No one dares humiliate brave people who are not afraid of the truth. If you feel humiliated, you should take a hard look at yourself and what you hide.
George W Bush called the Armenian genocide "historic mass killings". Bill Clinton settled on "deportations and massacres". Last year, Barack Obama used the chapter of Armenian-Turkish football diplomacy that preceded the signing of the two protocols as justification for the neutered use of the Armenian term Medz Yeghern (or great catastrophe). But as Robert Fisk wondered in his article of 6 March, what would happen today if Germany suddenly decided that the Jewish Holocaust was not genocide: would America lobby that Germany should be allowed to get away with such a travesty?
24 April 2010 is six weeks away: will the truth [not] come out? After all, did the Swedish Parliament not speak it last week?
© Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/) Dr Hagopian has written extensively on the Armenian Genocide for Ekklesia and many other global news and analysis sources.
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