Call It a Genocide, Mr. President

April 23, 2015
Source: Bloomberg View

On Friday, President Barack Obama will issue his seventh annual statement about the genocide of at least 1 million Ottoman Armenians 100 years ago. And, for the seventh consecutive year, he reportedly will fail to call it genocide.

This failure is not only linguistic but also moral. Recognizing the truth -- that Istanbul's government in 1915 sought to eradicate the entire Armenian population from Eastern Anatolia -- is as important for Turks as it is for Armenians. By choosing the rest of his words carefully, Obama could give voice to "genocide" and ensure that it doesn't amount to a hostile act aimed at Turkey, and instead fosters better relations between the Turks and the Armenians.

Such a statement could point out, for example, that today, even many Turkish historians consider what happened in 1915 to have been genocide, and that the goal of U.S. recognition is not to disrespect Turkey or score a political victory for the Armenian side.

The president could note that the significance of the term "genocide" in this case is symbolic, not legal. The word was coined only in 1948 -- more than 30 years after the Armenians were killed. An important reason Turkey has resisted the word to describe the events of 1915 is its fear that it might become the basis of Armenian territorial claims or compensatory lawsuits.

A little humility would also help. Turkey is by no means alone in having to grapple with past abuses against weaker peoples that today might be considered crimes under international law. The U.S., for example, must deal with the decimation of the American Indian population. Similarly, the English, under Oliver Cromwell, conducted a genocidal campaign against the Irish; Imperial Russia ethnically cleansed the Circassians; and Japan continues to struggle with the World War II massacres at Nanking. The list is much longer.

Finally, because the Turks find it hard to accept a word that triggers comparison with Nazi Germany, the president's statement might also acknowledge the historical context of 1915. Turks see themselves as victims in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which during World War I was being dismembered by Russia, Britain, France and later Greece. The Ottoman Empire's Muslim citizens also suffered displacements and atrocities, including revenge attacks by Armenians fighting for Russia.

At the same time, the attempt to eradicate a population cannot be excused or mitigated by any context. One of the ways to prevent future genocides is to call past ones by their name. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently said that, from this year on, Turkey will mark the anniversary of the Great Catastrophe, as it is often referred to by Armenians, and that is truly welcome progress. On Friday, Obama can encourage Turkey to move even further toward accepting its history.

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