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David L. Phillips (chairman) and Ozdem Sanberk (member)
David L. Phillips (TARC Chairman) and Ozdem Sanberk (member)

The Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission ("TARC") was formed in Geneva in July 2001 as the centrepiece of the Clinton administration's Track Two Program on Turkey and the Caucasus. "Track Two" diplomacy, which brings together civil society representatives and former officials to address issues and crises that have proven intractable at the governmental level, was expected to help improve relations between Turks and Armenians – and, as a result, between Turkey and Armenia. TARC's ten members included (from the Turkish side) Gunduz Aktan, Ustun Erguder, Ozdem Sanberk, Ilter Turkmen, Vamik D. Volkan, Sadi Erguvenc and (from the Armenian side) Alexander Arzoumanian, David Hovhannissian, Van Z. Krikorian and Andranik Migranian. The Commission was chaired by David Phillips, an American scholar and adviser to the US State Department.

In 2005, Phillips published "Unsilencing the Past", an engaging account of the birth, growth and demise of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission.

Phillips did not shy away from citing – and criticizing – some of the taboos, entrenched beliefs and prejudices that have always obstructed Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Most Armenians, he wrote (describing the plight of Ottoman Turks between the late 19th century and the First World War),

"have little sympathy for the historical suffering of Turks. Armenians strongly dispute Turkish claims regarding the magnitude of and scope of events, their context and intended effect, and the identities and affiliations of their perpetrators."

Turks, on the other hand,

"refuse to acknowledge the [Armenian] genocide because acknowledgment contradicts their noble self image. It is humiliating to be judged in the court of international public opinion for events that occurred before the Republic of Turkey was even born."

TARC, as Phillips describes it, was anything but a feel-good exercise. Interaction between its members, in fact, often revealed the sort of contentious issues that have made relations between Turks and Armenians so difficult throughout the last one hundred years. The debate on the Armenian genocide cast a long shadow over the Commission's entire work. Prior to TARC's formal launch, Phillips recalls, Van Z. Krikorian – one of the Armenian members – confirmed that Armenia "was prepared to participate in a truth and reconciliation process. He was, however, absolutely inflexible on one point. Its purpose was not to explore the truth of the Armenian genocide. That fact was beyond question." Predictably, Turkish members objected to any such preconditions.

As far as the Armenians were concerned, exploring the truth of the genocide was one thing; discussing it was quite another. While they recognised the importance of cultural projects – which the Turks considered especially valuable – the Armenian members of TARC preferred to focus on concrete issues like opening the border and establishing diplomatic relations. Some upped the ante. "Culture is nice but we need to come to an understanding on the genocide and other issues that divide us," Andranik Migranian once remarked. Otherwise, "we will continue to raise genocide in parliaments around the world."

The Turks often reverted to official positions, as when they tried to establish linkage between Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and the Nagorno Karabakh issue. "Ozdem Sanberk asked how TARC would handle the 'occupied territories' that had been forcefully seized by ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan," writes Phillips. "Would TARC call for the return of Azeris displaced from their homes?"

Some of the exchanges were very tense:

"TARC interviewed retired Turkish ambassadors Omer Lutem and Mumtaz Soysal. When the Armenians tried to explain the grief of being driven from the homes, Lutem retorted, 'Turkish books do not show any Armenian presence before the Turks. Anatolia was never an Armenian homeland. You were just visitors.' When Alex [Arzoumanian] pointed out that they were in Anatolia long enough to build more than four thousand churches, Soysal added, 'We tried to destroy them all, but there were just too many.' Then Lutem threatened, 'If Armenians insist on genocide, Turkey will inflict hurt on Armenia. Is that what you want?'"

The success of Track Two diplomacy relies on the ability of participants to engage in the sort of discussions – emotionally charged and painfully frank – that professional diplomats do everything to avoid. Of these, TARC had plenty.

"Gunduz interjected, 'Do you know how we feel when you try to embarrass us by introducing resolutions in parliaments around the world? Our feelings are hurt.' 'Your feelings are hurt. How do you think we feel?' responded Alex. 'We were the ones who were genocided.'"

From the beginning, the Armenian members of TARC also had to deal with pressure from nationalist circles back home. Dashnaks questioned the very idea of sitting at the same table with Turks. "All TARC has advanced," a Dashnak mouthpiece once claimed, according to Phillips, "is the flawed notion that there are two sides to the events of 1915-1923." It was but one example of how national politicians attempted to pull the rug out from under TARC's feet.

"TARC originally emphasized small steps and practical areas for cooperation, which would build momentum toward tackling core issues," wrote Phillips. This, however, turned out to be untenable in the long run: the genocide issue, having figured in almost each and debate from the outset, had to be addressed. To break the logjam, writes Phillips, TARC requested the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to help provide an "independent legal analysis" on the applicability of the 1948 Genocide Convention to events which occurred during the early twentieth century.

The ICTJ report arrived in February 2003. It offered a very balanced view. Armenians could welcome the report's conclusion that the events of 1915, "viewed collectively, can be said to include all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined in the Convention". Turks, meanwhile, could take comfort in its finding that "no legal, financial or territorial claim arising out of the Events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the Convention."

On 14 April 2004, TARC members decided that their work should come to a close. It may not have lived up to expectations (not least those of its own members) but, says Phillips, TARC did manage to pave the way for a more open debate. "Today peoples of the two nations are talking about relations more freely and with fewer prejudices," Tevan Poghosian, director of the Yerevan-based International Center for Human Development (ICHD) was to tell Phillips. "Even though the physical border remains, the psychological barrier has been broken."

David L. Phillips, Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation. Berghahn Books: New York, 2005.

August 2009

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