It's no use papering over Turkey's past

October 26, 2006
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)

The Canadian government has taken the contradictory position of recognizing the 1915 genocide of more than one million Armenians in Turkey and, as of this week, supporting Turkey's proposal for a fresh study of those events. It would be possible to square those two acts if there were any reason to believe that Turkey is ready to openly and honestly look at the historical truth. There isn't.

This is a country that persists in laying criminal charges for "insulting Turkishness" against writers who dare to question the official state denial that the genocide happened. Novelist Orhan Pamuk, who won this year's Nobel Prize for literature, was one of those charged. Turkey also persists in threatening to limit trade with countries that use the g-word. In May, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper explicitly recognized the genocide, Turkey recalled its ambassador and withdrew its jet fighters from NATO exercises at CFB Cold Lake in Alberta.

Turkey did do Canada the courtesy this summer of taking in thousands of its nationals who otherwise would have been stuck in a war zone in Lebanon. But surely Turkey does not expect that every time it does a favour for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, the quid pro quo will be some form of symbolic support for the Turkish denial of its past.

As an act of realpolitik, this support for more "study" is far from Canada's first sop to the Turks. In 1996, when a Bloc Québécois MP put forward a motion to recognize the genocide, none other than the Liberal secretary of state for multiculturalism, Hedy Fry, amended the motion to say tragedy instead of genocide. When a Reform MP amended that amendment to say "the tragedy of genocide," the government voted to defeat the motion. Mr. Harper is not the first to bow to Turkish pressure, but his backtracking is at odds with the principled stand he prides himself on taking on international issues.

Twenty years ago, Benjamin Whitaker of Britain, a special rapporteur to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, included the massacres of the Armenians on a list of 20th-century genocides. "At least one million, and possibly well over half of the Armenian population, are reliably estimated to have been killed or death-marched by independent authorities and eyewitnesses." Corroborating information, he said, was in reports in U.S., British and German archives and in those of contemporary diplomats in the Ottoman Empire; as he noted, Germany was Turkey's ally in the First World War. The Turkish position was that all evidence to the contrary was forged.

Some day Turkey will have to do what most of Europe has done and acknowledge its genocidal past.