Turkey tense over house vote

Turkey tense over house vote

The US House Foreign Affairs Committee is voting tomorrow on whether to use the term “genocide” to describe the World War One-era killing of Armenians during the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The vote will be closely watched by many in Turkey. Correspondent Matthew Brunwasser reports from Istanbul.

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MARCO WERMAN:  The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee is voting tomorrow on a controversial resolution.  It calls on President Obama to formally refer to the World War I killing of Armenians by the Turkish Ottoman Empire as “genocide”.  The term infuriates Turkey and Turkish officials have issued blunt warnings urging Congress to act with responsibility.  Many observers believe a yes vote on the measure could derail U.S. diplomacy in the region.  From Istanbul Matthew Brunwasser looks at why the word “genocide” is so contentious.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER:  Most historians agree that large numbers of Armenians were killed during World War I in the waning years of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  But not all agree whether what happened should be called “genocide”, the crime of crimes.

GUNTER LEWY:  The definition that could be used is that the one in the United Nations Genocide Convention.

BRUNWASSER: Gunter Lewy is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at UMass Amherst.

LEWY:  And that convention requires an intent to destroy a population in whole or in part.  And it seems to me using that definition, that’s strictly the only one really that is relevant and authoritative, what happened in 1915 does not constitute genocide.

BRUNWASSER: Turks certainly agree with that assessment.  According to the official Turkish version of history, there was no mass murder of Armenians.  Rather, there was civil strife in which both Armenian and Turkish civilians were killed.  But this view is increasingly being challenged in Turkey.  In recent years some 30,000 Turks signed an apology to the Armenians for the 1915 events.  Turkish historian Ahmet Kuyash of Galatasaray University was one of them.  Even so, he insists that genocide is not the right term for the wrongs done to Armenians.

AHMET KUYASH:  This was not a measure to purify a nation.

BRUNWASSER: He says the Ottomans were no Nazis; rather they killed both civilians and combatants to preempt the formation of an independent Armenian state on Ottoman lands.

KUYASH: As an historian, I have nothing against the use of or mass murder, horrors or crime against humanity, okay?  With respect to what happened in 1915, but when you jump into the conclusion of genocide, from this historical assessment, then you are into politics.

BRUNWASSER: Forty-four U.S. states and 20 countries have officially recognized the genocide according to the Armenian National Institute.  In France, it’s a crime to deny it.  Bryan Ardouny of the Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington D.C. based lobbying group, says that any other word would be failing to call a spade a spade.  Plus, it would set a dangerous precedent for future evil-doers.

BRYAN ARDOUNY:  Words do have meaning and words do matter.  Trying to wordsmith this is not something that we believe really helps the cause of genocide education and prevention.

BRUNWASSER: Genocide is a crime with legal consequences unlike atrocities or ethnic cleansing.  Turkey fears that even recognizing genocide could give legitimacy to Armenians’ claims for compensation.  William Schabas is a human rights lawyer and heads the International Association of Genocide Studies which advocates recognizing the Armenian genocide.  The central obstacle to resolving the dispute he says is that Turkey won’t officially apologize because of the liability issue.  But, he says, no one has found a way to establish legal liability for such historic events.

WILLIAM SCHABAS:  On balance one would have to say that it’s an unlikely scenario.  It’s just too far back.  We have claims relating to the African slave trade, relating to aboriginal peoples, in my view trying to make the events of 1915 a legal issue in terms of liability for a state, we’re pretty much in that zone of those historic claims.

BRUNWASSER: The dispute over the word genocide also threatens to unravel an agreement to open the Armenian/Turkish border.  Both Parliaments still need to ratify the protocols.  An Armenian court ruled recently that the agreement wouldn’t stop Armenia from seeking greater international genocide recognition.  Turkey called the ruling unacceptable and said it could freeze the warming relations between the two states.  For The World, I’m Matthew Brunwasser in Istanbul.

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