Analysis

Why Armenia Genocide recognition remains a tough sell

More than 20 nations have recognized the Armenian deaths as the result of a genocide.

When parties in the Austrian Parliament last week signed a declaration calling the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks that began in 1915 a genocide, the Republic of Turkey issued a statement saying it would leave “permanent stains on Turkish-Austrian friendship” and recalled its ambassador from Vienna.

When Pope Francis urged the international community earlier this month to recognize the atrocities as “the first genocide of the 20th century,” Turkey declared his statements “null and void” in a statement and recalled its ambassador to the Vatican.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) told Times Community News it’s typical for Turkey to “vent” and make threats whenever a nation acknowledges the World War I-era slaughter as a genocide, but “it hasn’t ended the relationship with any of them.” Schiff, who has made similar unsuccessful moves in the past, sponsored a resolution introduced last month in the House of Representatives to have the United States officially recognize the mass killing of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide.

Turkish officials did not respond to requests for comment. However, according to a page on Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website addressing the controversy, country representatives state the Armenian deaths were due to the effects of “inter-communal conflict” and international war during a time when 2.5 million Muslims also perished.

The Armenians took arms against the Ottoman government and were relocated due to their political aims, not their ethnicity or religion — Armenians are largely Christian, while Islam was the empire’s official religion — according to the page, which outlines “facts and issues” from the Turkish perspective.

However, more than 20 nations have recognized the Armenian deaths as the result of a genocide. The list includes France, Germany, Canada and Russia, according to a list maintained by the Armenian National Institute, but not Israel or the United Kingdom.

President Ronald Reagan referred to the “genocide of the Armenians” in an April 1981 proclamation about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. In 1975 and 1984, the House of Representatives passed resolutions declaring April 24 a day of remembrance for victims of all genocide, but particularly the 1915 genocide in Turkey. Neither resolution passed in the Senate.

Despite the lack of recent recognition at the federal level, more than 40 states, including California, have recognized the Ottoman Turks’ actions as a genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute’s list, as do many municipalities, including at least 10 communities in California, beginning with Fresno in 1975.

Local cities that have issued proclamations recognizing the Armenian Genocide include Burbank, Glendale, Los Angeles and West Hollywood.

Several more recent efforts to recognize the Armenian Genocide at the federal level have failed. President Clinton’s administration opposed a resolution in 2000 as having potentially negative impacts on U.S. interests in the Balkans and Middle East. The Bush administration opposed a similar measure Schiff introduced in 2007, arguing it would hamper the war on terror.

Relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, were cited in the White House's official defense of the decision announced earlier this week that President Barack Obama would not use the term “genocide” in his commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the atrocities. Obama had called the atrocities genocide while on the campaign trail and had promised to do so in office, but he has not.

According to filings with the Department of Justice, Turkey has spent millions of dollars lobbying U.S. officials over the past several years, including specific efforts to convince them that “to convey the seriousness of the genocide issue and the potential threat it poses” to U.S.-Turkish relations.

A recent contract between the Republic of Turkey and Gephardt Group Government Affairs, a lobbyist group founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, was filed last August, showing the law firm Greenberg Taurig LLP would be paid more than $26,000 a month through the end of 2014 to “educate and re-educate” U.S. officials about Turkey’s “strong friendship.”

In 2007, Turkey paid one lobbyist for hundreds of faxes and dozens of phone calls to elected and appointed officials warning them about the possible impact of passing Schiff’s proposed resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. That same year, the lobby group also made campaign contributions to U.S. politicians on Turkey’s behalf.

Schiff, who has been pushing for U.S. recognition of the genocide for many years, said there are always excuses cited for why each year is not the right time for recognition — whether it’s to prevent the loss of Turkey’s cooperation in the war in Iraq, to ensure access to a strategically important air base in Turkey or to avoid disrupting Turkey’s plans at reconciliation with Armenia.

Each new excuse arises when resolutions calling for recognition of the genocide are on the table, he said, but “disappears immediately thereafter.”

Taner Akcam, a professor of history specializing in the Armenian Genocide at Clark University in Massachusetts, said it’s not just an issue of the term “genocide” but Turkey’s denials that a crime was even committed against the Armenians, whether or not it meets the definition of genocide.

He said U.S. recognition would have two significant effects — first it would pressure Turkey to change its policy of denial, and second it would open the doors to potential claims for restitution similar to those sought by survivors of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.

Akcam, who is from Turkey, said Ankara could recall its ambassadors for a few months, but “so what?” That would only further isolate them, he said, a posture he feels the country cannot maintain.

“They cannot continue to deny a historic fact,” Akcam said. “I personally think Turkey does not have much leverage.”

Schiff said the denials have become part of the Turkish “psyche,” and admission of their crimes would be “devastating” to them. But, he said, this is the year to finally recognize the genocide after the U.S. has “carried their water for decades.”

Akcam, however, questioned whether U.S. officials may see more political advantage in avoiding the recognition. He said it’s a “golden bullet” — something they can only fire once, or they can hang onto it, flashing it around to motivate Turkey’s continued “friendship.”

In a statement earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered condolences to the descendants of the Armenian victims and said it is important to face the past with honesty. However, he avoided the term “genocide” and called it “morally and legally problematic” to “[lay] all blame” on Turkey and to “reduc[e] everything to one word.”

Garland reports for Times Community News.

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