After the bitter winter months, springtime brings hope and warmth to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. As the melting alpine snow gives way to roaring streams, wildflowers push through the sleepy soil, dotting the earth with yawning yellow daffodils and brilliant blue-purple irises. Bustling Armenians hastily prepare wreaths of willow and dye eggs a blood-red hue to prepare for the Easter Holiday. Neighbors drift through with plates of spiced rice pilaf with raisins, and chattering children return to rolling hills to play pretend. Springtime brings rebirth and celebration to Armenia. But late in the spring, the sweet air suddenly grows heavy with remembrance. The air is thickest on April 24, the day the nation grieves for the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide. Every year, the anniversary brings thousands of mourners to the ancient hill at Tsitsernakaberd who visit the memorial that commemorates the great tragedy committed against their countrymen.
On April 24, 2015, the thousands who pay tribute with their trek to Tsitsernakaberd will be joined by mourners from around the world. A flood of commemoration efforts, originating from within the country and in the Armenian diaspora will demand the ear of the world on this the 100th anniversary of the first genocide of the 20th century. From students and survivors, politicians and prayer-groups, among their disparate objectives for the 100th anniversary will arise a common plea: remembrance.
As the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s refusal to admit that the systematic slaughter of Armenian men, women and children constituted genocide reflects a steely strain of nationalism that permits no room for orchestrated atrocities in their painted narrative. Turkey alleges that the tragedy that befell the Armenians was the result of a civil war that claimed casualties on both all sides, and that the violence against Armenians was at least in part a preventative security measure aiming to stifle uprisings that threatened the Ottoman Empire.
On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the United States must carefully consider how to remember. Will it join the ranks of the 20+ nations that have officially recognized the genocide? Will it continue to express deep sympathy and condolences for the “terrible events of 1915,” avoiding the explosive “g-word”? How will this chapter of history be recorded, and what role should the United States play?
The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide presents a unique opportunity for the US to shift its current stance, recognize the genocide, and stand on the right stand of history.
Early Narrative Battle: Remembrance Under Fire
Accounts of the horrors of the Armenian Genocide first reached the US through the then-ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau. Unable to corroborate early reports of unbelievable atrocities, the ambassador waited a crucial three months before sending word back to Washington. With the international community still decades away from embracing the term “genocide” to describe the systematic extermination of a group, Morgenthau could only speak of the horrific “race murder” of the Armenians unfolding. Despite extensive coverage of the horrors in The New York Times and Morgenthau’s own dogged determination to convince the United States to respond and prevent the possible extinction of the Armenian people, the United States declined to intervene, stopping short at offering humanitarian aid to survivors. It wouldn’t be the last time that lack of domestic political capital and a shortsighted grand strategy would land the United States on the wrong side of history.
At the end of World War I, enthusiastic efforts to hold offenders in Germany, Austria, and Turkey responsible for what were at the time termed violations of the “laws of humanity” soon fell prey to wavering international will. They had already been damaged by the Wilson administration’s refusal to participate, a boycott rooted in Wilson’s disbelief in the existence of universal principles of justice. By 1921, even the Brits, who had keenly pursued trials for Ottoman leaders suspected of orchestrating exterminations, gave up the fight and surrendered to immediate strategic and political pressures. With this surrender disappeared the last remaining hope for a major power to chronicle a narrative faithful to history. The voices best placed to safeguard remembrance and facilitate transitional justice fell quiet, and the inheritors of the Ottoman State raised a new voice. Embarking on sweeping campaign ensure a proud and unified launch to a state that could boast of secularism and republicanism as founding principles, Turkish leaders so began to re-write history and scrub away at the deep stain of genocide.
Reeling from the shock of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, the international community was forced to confront the failings a system that had permitted such a tragedy. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, commonly referred to as the Genocide Convention. This act made two key introductions; first, a clear definition of the crime of genocide into international law, and second, a crucial caveat to the iron immunity from intervention that state sovereignty in the post-Westphalian system guaranteed. Genocide would now not only authorize international interference, it would require it. But even Raphael Lemkin, the father of the genocide convention, made a shrewd calculation in deciding to ignore the genocidal history of certain countries, in order to increase attract signatories and strengthen the convention’s future.
Although the next half-century would bring case after case of inaction or delayed action in the face of genocide, this early work launched a crucial process by which the crime of genocide became “privileged,” entering international consciousness as a crime of irredeemable evil. The fierceness with which leaders accused of genocide reject the label is at once a testament to the potency of the accusation and a tacit acceptance of the hierarchy of atrocities erected by international law that places genocide at the very top.
Progression of International Opinion
After the signing of the Genocide Convention and other seminal human rights treaties, international focus landed squarely addressing present atrocities and preventing those of the future. As such, the question and significance of retroactively labeling the slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire did not attract much attention on the international stage until the later part of the 20th century. Suddenly, in quickening succession, national governments and international entities embraced the label “genocide” to describe the Armenian situation. Once the g-word was out of the box, there was no stuffing it back in.
A 1975 US House of Representatives resolution designated April 24, 1975 as “National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” specifically to referring to “those of Armenian ancestry who succumbed to the genocide perpetrated in 1915”. A 1982 resolution adopted by the Cypriot House of Representatives also recognized and strongly condemned the “genocide of the Armenian people.” In 1984, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal was the first major international body to recognize the genocide. They were followed three years later by the European Parliament, which passed a 1987 resolution clarifying that the “tragic events in 1915-1917 involving the Armenians living in the territory of the Ottoman Empire constitute genocide.” Faster and faster came the resolutions remembering, honoring, and condemning the Armenian genocide. Particularly significant was the resolution passed by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, which unanimously recognized the Armenian Genocide in 1997. Today, governments of at least twenty countries officially and consistently use the g-word to describe the atrocities. The US is not one of them.
Flirting with the G-Word: An American Approach
The United States’ policies on recognizing the Armenian Genocide are riddled with inconsistences that weave a tangled web out of the principles of representative democracy, constitutionalism, and federalism. Forty-three state governments to date have recognized the genocide, meaning that elected officials representing the vast majority of Americans unequivocally express the view that the tragedy that befell the Armenians constituted genocide. Yet, the republican structures of government that the founding fathers enshrined in the constitution to capture the will of the American people have proven no match for federal executive supremacy in matters of foreign policy.
Gone are the days of deliberate presidential use of the g-word to describe the Armenian tragedy. Where President Ronald Reagan once plainly spoke of the “genocide of the Armenians,” sitting presidents in recent memory vigilantly avoid the term, speaking instead of “horrific events,” “inhumanity,” and “great tragedy.” Before taking office, President Barack Obama repeatedly used the g-word to acknowledge the events of 1915, supporting a congressional resolution to that effect and even vowing to use the term ‘genocide’ if elected president. But since taking office, Obama has assiduously avoided the g-word, reneging on his vow year after year. In response to the thoroughly unsatisfying language from the oval office (though not unrelated to urging from a well-organized Armenian lobby) Congress has attempted to take matters into its own hands several times.
In 2000, a resolution was introduced into the House of Representatives calling on President Clinton to refer to the atrocities as “genocide” in his annual message on the Armenian Day of Remembrance. Two days after the International Relations Committee voted to send the bill to the floor, the leaders of all five major political parties in Turkey issued a statement threatening to block US access to a crucial airbase in Incirlik. Turkish officials also threatened that the bill would jeopardize a four and a half billion-dollar defense contract. Under mounting pressure from the White House, the bill was soon pulled from the agenda.
Seven years later, a non-binding resolution that labeled the Armenian tragedy ‘genocide’ and called upon then President Bush to do the same managed to pass through the House Foreign Affairs Committee over strong opposition from the Bush administration and a pleading letter signed by all living secretaries of state. Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador in protest. Eventually House Leader Nancy Pelosi succumbed to political pressure and declined to bring the bill to a vote on the House floor. The measure had been steadily losing steam as co-sponsors withdrew their support, overwhelmingly pointing to an unwillingness to strain relations with Turkey at what was considered an especially volatile geo-strategic moment in history. The strongest voices opposing the measure feared the worst from a Turkish leader who warned of “serious troubles in the two countries’ relations” if the measure passed. Of concern were crucial supply routes through the country as well as access to a strategic US air base in Turkey. Deep fears of negative consequences for US security interests were reinforced by Ankara’s decision to cut military ties with Paris the previous year following France’s criminalization of genocide denial. To top it off, US operations in Iraq would be especially vulnerable to Turkish noncooperation. The most nightmarish scenario would have been for a reactionary invasion of northern Iraq to retaliate against and crush the PKK, the Kurdish militant group, a stunt the US had been desperately persuading Turkey not to pull. One professor of international relations at a university in Ankara commented, “if the Armenian genocide resolution passes, then I think that the possibility of a cross-border operation is very high.” And so, that time around, Congress backed off.
Three years later in 2010, the same resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but by a margin of just one vote. Again, Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador and the White House stifled a floor vote, pointing to unstable US-Turkey relations.
Most recently, in April of 2014, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a measure that would have called upon Turkey and President Obama to acknowledge the genocide ahead of the April 24 Anniversary, but the resolution was not included in the full Senate agenda before the Easter recess and died.
Over the course of a decade and a half, Congressional forces have persisted in their efforts to record the Armenian Genocide as such once and for all, especially in the face of the executive branch’s reluctance to do so. The constitutional division of foreign policy powers between the President and Congress ensures at least some messiness in foreign affairs. But the institutional structure upon which we have relied for a balanced, flexible, and democratic foreign policy in the past may not sufficient to handle the delicate question of the g-word. Among the critics of congressional efforts to recognize the Armenian Genocide are those who consult a calculus that prioritizes short-term geo-political strategic interests over remembrance. But there are also those who find it inappropriate for Congress to influence foreign policy so aggressively and so directly, especially in the face of overwhelming executive opposition. While some advocates of the g-word in Congress may be electorally motivated, it must also be the case that supporters of these resolutions see a great value in remembrance that outweighs the obvious risks that accompany recognition.
What do these members of Congress see that the White House does not? Is each side enlightened or encumbered by its perspective and priorities? What shifting external factors could give rise to a productive way forward? The rest of this paper will suggest that the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24th, 2015 presents an exceptional opportunity for the Obama administration to adjust its policy on the g-word.
The key lies in understanding the shifting tide of Turkish political will, capitalizing upon opportunities to levy broad international pressure, and recognizing the crucial normative and strategic value of remembrance. In doing so, the US can leap over the black hole of weak political capital and short-sighted grand strategy that has wrought so much havoc in the past, to stand firmly on the right side of history.
Rumblings in Turkey
Although Turkey’s categorical rejection of the use of the word “genocide” to describe the events of 1915 is as ferocious as it is predictable, under a knee-jerk exterior lie important trends in Turkey’s denialism that may indicate an opportune softening. Sossie Kasbarian, a lecturer at the University of Lancaster, writes of the growing “proliferation of counter-narratives and counter-memories circulating and undermining the denialist discourse [in Turkey].” Kasbarian credits these counter-narratives with reframing academic discourse outside of the denialist framework.
These subtle forces accelerate around an inflection point that on first glance appears to be proof of the Turkish commitment to denialism: the murder of a Turkish-Armenian journalist who wrote and spoke about the Armenian Genocide, Hrant Dink. Dink was thrice prosecuted under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to insult the Turkish Nation. But in the wake of his assassination by a young Turkish Nationalist, thousands protested both his murder and the court decision to acquit 18 defendants who were implicated in the conspiracy. In 2008, four Turkish intellectuals gathered over 30,000 signatures from Turks and Kurds as part of a campaign to apologize for the events of 1915. In the past year, the Human Rights Association of Turkey issued a statement calling for the Turkish Government to recognize the Armenian Genocide, and the Turkish Greens Party tweeted, “we recognize unequivocally the Amernian Genocide.” Last year, ahead of the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, then Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan issued an unexpectedly conciliatory statement. Despite the rhetorical gymnastics to reaffirm the tragedy of losses on all sides, the statement offered unprecedented “condolences” to the grandchildren of victims of “inhuman” acts. Just as significant as Erdogan’s conciliatory tone was the unusual release of the statement in nine different languages, a clear signal that he meant his words to be widely noted.
Beneath a reactionary denialist stance, movement within Turkey hints at a slow but quickening introduction of counter-narratives and recognition that atrocities were indeed perpetrated against the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Without overstating the significance of these events, this subtle but crucial progression has enormous implications for domestic political support for reactionary denialist actions by Turkish leaders.
International Interdependence: Burden or Opportunity?
Turkey’s effective gag rule on the g-word in the US is sustained by the reluctance to trouble relations with an ally so central to US strategic interests. Without a doubt, direct Turkish cooperation is key to a number of pressing US concerns from providing crucial intelligence in the War on Terror to granting access to in country airbases. But recently, issues requiring Turkey’s cooperation that affect US interests may be moving from bilateral to multilateral consideration. One such issue is stemming the threat from the jihadist group, ISIL. As part of a general strategy to manage US obligations in an arena of dissipating power, diplomatic pressure exerted by the US is and will continue to be broadly supported by other nations, somewhat relieving pressure on the US and dispersing coercive responsibilities.
Turkey is essential in undercutting ISIL’s potency as a global threat. Among other issues, without cracking down on the enormous black market that facilitates the sale of oil, commodities, weapons, antiquities and more, a steady stream of revenue will continue to provide tens of millions of dollars to what is regarded as the best-financed terrorist group in history.
Returning foreign fighters pose a threat many Western nations, but the UK is particularly concerned with how to prevent Britons from joining ISIL in Syria and Iraq through Turkey. UK Prime Minster David Cameron traveled to Turkey in the middle of December 2014 to discuss the matter. This meeting was followed a visit by the EU foreign policy chief, who also discussed the issue of foreign fighters on a visit to Turkey earlier in the year. She remarked that the “visit [was] a strong indication of the strategic importance of the EU-Turkey relationship and our desire to step up engagement.” In this way, we see nations waking up to the reality that ISIL’s ability to destabilize the region poses a broad threat to the international commons and stepping up to do their part. The broadening of international consensus and diplomatic pressure may mean that inasmuch as US strategic objectives align with the objectives of the international commons, the risk in derailing these objectives is tempered by broader coalitions.
The decision of recent US presidents not to use the g-word reflects a shortsighted understanding of the normative moral and strategic value of remembrance. It may be difficult to argue in the case of a centuries-old genocide that not using the term “genocide” emboldens potential offenders today. Unfortunately, would-be offenders could find many more recent examples of atrocities committed in the face of international inaction, if they were looking for encouragement. All the same, accurate remembrance holds incalculable psychological value to the Armenian diaspora.
Additionally, waning US soft power and a narrative of US immorality clearly has tangible negative consequences, not least being to fuel global jihad. While no country has a perfect record on human rights, central to American exceptionalism is an appeal to morality, even in the face of strategic challenges. It is in this spirit that the country was able to engage in an intense debate over the recent CIA Torture Report. The risk that the report could endanger American lives or compromise security objectives was balanced against a ruthless pursuit of self-improvement in light of past moral failings. A similar opportunity presents on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Those who remain unconvinced of morality’s role in US foreign policy might consider in the starkest realist terms the very dangerous results of the US being seen as an immoral nation, particularly with the bar to do harm in the world being lower than ever. It is hard to determine the extent to which not recognizing the Armenian Genocide actively contributes to a negative international reputation, but a reversal of executive g-word avoidance policy would certainly buttress a moral reputation. Finally, one might consider the political capital that recognizing the genocide could earn the US with Russia. Having recognized the genocide in 1995, a Russian spokesperson was particularly disdainful of US Congressional failure to vote on a g-word resolution, calling it a “test for American democracy, which would serve to clarify the priorities of America: good relations with Turkey or historical truth.” US bravery in accepting possible negative consequences in order to record historical truth could go a short way in smoothing relations with a nation that believes the US to be conveniently selective about naming and shaming,
The Way Forward
For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.
The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is likely to draw an unprecedented level of focused public attention on the use of the g-word. It would be prudent for Obama administration to recognize the factors that could make official recognition a less costly action than it has been in the recent past, and likely less costly than it would be without a centennial planting the issue firmly on the international agenda. From the pace of international recognition, overwhelming recognition by individual US states, and the strong consensus by scholars, history will show the Armenian Genocide to be a matter of fact and not of opinion. Future generations may wonder what prevented the United States from siding on the right side of history. A look through the “retrospectoscope” could very well reveal that while at every point, decision makers judged Turkish cooperation to be too crucial to threaten, increasing interdependence and a slow destabilization of the Middle East would only make Turkish cooperation more and more valuable over the years meaning that a long-sighted grand strategy might judge the costs of using the g-word to be lower than in the future.
In other words, the decision to switch from g-word avoidance to g-word utterance is like swimming through piranha-infested waters in order to get to safer land. The safer land is the right side of history, and the hungry piranhas are the negative consequences the US would be vulnerable to in the case of an explosive response from Turkey. At any given point in time, no person in her right mind is eager to plunge into these dangerous waters. But the longer one waits to swim through, the more piranhas gather in wait. The 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide affords us a temporary protective armor and highlights a path of least resistance through murky waters that the US will plausibly make sooner or later, but the longer we delay, the more our armor erodes.
Emefa Agawu (’15) is a Political Science major in Silliman College.
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 Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic, 2002), 5-6.
 Power, 6.
 Ibid., 5,
 Ibid., 11-13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Kemal, the new Turkish leader had kidnapped 29 British soldiers in 1920. For their safe return, Churchill exchanged the Ottoman leaders who were awaiting trial. In 1923, European powers agreed to a treaty with Turkey that dropped all mention of prosecution; Ibid., 16.
 See Ayla Göl, “The Identity of Turkey: Muslim and Secular,” Third World Quarterly 30:4 (2009): 795-811, for a discussion of Kemalism, Turkey’s founding principles, and their effect on Turkish Political History.
 Before being summarily executed by Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor of the genocide, Talaat Pasha, the former Turkish interior minister who played a central role in the atrocities, began to rewrite history in his own memoirs. His creative re-telling of history is marked by bold assignments of blame. He claims, “I admit that we deported many Armenians from our eastern provinces… [but] the responsibility for these acts falls first of all upon the deported people themselves;” Power, 15.
 The Convention passed in no small part due to the unrelenting efforts of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” and tirelessly lobbied for the passage of the genocide convention; Power, 50-58.
 The Convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group the conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in party;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
 Power, 58.
 Ibid., 63-64.
 There were of course earlier motions of commemoration, but many avoided the term ‘genocide.’ For example, the Uruguayan Legislature passed a resolution declaring April 24th a “Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Martyrs.” Despite not using the g-word, the Law compelled Official Radio Service stations to honor the date, excused Armenian descendants from government work, and more. [Ley No. 13.326, Uruguay Senate and House of Representatives]
 House of Representatives Joint Resolution 148, 94th Cong. 1st Session (1975).
 “Fact Sheet: Armenian Genocide,” Knights of Vartan Armenian Research Center, Apr. 3, 1996, accessed, Dec. 8, 2014, <http://www.foothilltech.org/krenger/world_hist/ww1/armeniangenocidearticle.pdf>.
 European Union, European Parliament, Resolution on a Political Solution to the Armenian question, Doc. A2-33/87, Brussels, 1987.
 “Recognize the Armenian Genocide,” The Coalition to Recognize the Armenian Genocide, accessed Dec. 7, 2014, <http://www.recognizearmeniangenocide.org>.
 “Q&A: Armenian Genocide Dispute,” BBC News, May 3, 2010, accessed Dec. 9, 2014,
 “International Affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.” International Affirmation of the Armenian Genocide. Armenian National Institute, accessed Dec. 10 2014, <http://www.armenian-genocide.org/affirmation.html>.
 Ronald Reagan, “Proclamation 4838 – Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust,” (Speech, April 22, 1981).
 “U.S. Presidential Statements on Armenian Genocide—William J. Clinton & Barack Obama, Armenian National Institute, accessed Dec. 10, 2014, <http://www.armenian-genocide.org/current_category.4/affirmation_list.html>.
 Peter Baker, “Obama Marks Genocide Without Saying the Word,” The New York Times, Apr. 24, 2010, accessed Dec. 10, 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/world/europe/25prexy.html>.
 Jake Tapper, “For 6th Year in a Row, Obama Breaks Promise to Acknowledge Armenian Genocide,” Apr. 24, 2014, accessed Dec. 10, 2014, <http://thelead.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/24/for-6th-year-in-a-row-obama-breaks-promise-to-acknowledge-armenian-genocide/>.
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 Gary Kamiya, “Genocide: An Inconvenient Truth,” Salon, Oct. 16, 2007, accessed Dec. 9, 2014, <http://www.salon.com/2007/10/16/armenian_genocide/>.
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 The most recent national government to recognize the Armenian Genocide was Bolivia. The unanimous approval by the Legislative Assembly may indicate that governments that have yet to pass such resolutions may do so with little contention whenever the action tops the agenda; “Bolivia Unanimously Approved a Resolution on the Armenian Genocide.” Horizon Weekly, Nov. 30 2014, accessed Dec. 10, 2014, <http://www.horizonweekly.ca/news/details/54170>.