Why most Turkish liberals oppose genocide resolutions

In my last entry on Rumeli Observer I shared some recent reaction to the US resolution on the Armenian genocide from Turkey. Let me share some more responses here today.  It did not take long for reactions to the most recent ESI newsletter on the Armenian-Turkish debate on 1915 to reach our mailbox. As always, these reactions included the good, the bad and the ugly: the silly/aggressive, the thoughtful/dissenting, the thoughtful/supportive and the deeply moving.

Let me share one that falls into the last category.  One Turkish reader wrote about a personal experience very much reminiscent of the story of Fethiye Cetin, the courageous lawyer of Hrant Dink:

“I got your newsletter about the Armenian issue and wanted to tell my personal experience with it. I heard lots of stories about the issue and follow the issue as a individual. My parents told me the following Story.  My grandma is saved during the “incident” in Sason, she “became” muslim and was named “Naze” and thereafter she is married to my grandpa. All her relatives probably were killed.

Once a man who was involved in killing her family was guest of my grandpa and she was supposed to server dinner to him.  We do not know anybody of her family. I sometime bump into people whose ancestors are from Sason in Germany and UK. It is a pattern of many similar stories. As I returned to Istanbul I planned to visit Hrant Dink and speak to him about my personal story and possibly contribute to Agos in some way. I was in Istanbul as he was killed. I only could join his obsequies.

I hope the whole or part of the ancestor of the Armenians and Greeks who suffered because of nationalistic nonsense, will be again a part of peaceful Anatolia one day.”

Fethiye Cetin
Fethiye Cetin, in our documentary Istanbul Truth Fear And Hope (2008)

This hope – that confronting the past will bring about a very different future – is the most important concern for Turkish liberals and most Turkish Armenians. This hope also moves Fethiye Cetin, as she explained in an excellent article in the New York Times to Dan Bilevsky earlier this year (read it if you have not yet):

““Most people in Turkish society have no idea what happened in 1915, and the Armenians they meet are introduced as monsters or villains or enemies in their history books,” she said. “Turkey has to confront the past, but before this confrontation can happen, people must know who they are confronting. So we need the borders to come down in order to have dialogue.”

And how did she deal with the issue of terminology? Dan Bilevsky writes:

“Ms. Cetin published a memoir about her grandmother in 2004. She said she purposely omitted the word “genocide” from her book because using the word erected a roadblock to reconciliation. “I wanted to concentrate on the human dimension,” she said. “I wanted to question the silence of people like my grandmother who kept their stories hidden for years, while going through the pain.”

As always, human rights activist and columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz also wrote a thoughtful article.  He explains why he both opposes the parliamentary resolutions and Turkey’s reaction:

“As I have written before, this resolution is a perfect example of political usage of human rights discourse, which is inherently in conflict with the spirit of defending human rights. It came forward with political force, and it was stopped by political force. It has no potential to contribute to anything. But the Turkish way of stopping it is deeply embarrassing.

Turks do not discuss the substance of the resolution, and they just threaten American politicians to halt its passage. All Turkish governments have done this, and this government has just followed what others did in the past. They gave a billion dollars to lobbying firms and made alliances with anyone who would support them for their “cause.” Turkish governments threatened arms manufacturers with embargos, and in return these arms dealers pressured the US government. Some see this as a strength and confirmation of the importance of Turkey. It is like silencing someone with the threat of using physical violence against someone who said to you that you are rude. It is really tragicomic.

Turks do not care how they stopped the passage of this resolution. Did we convince American congressmen that what happened in Turkey in 1915 was not genocide? No. Did we stop them by saying: “This is none of your business. We ourselves are discussing it, and we will find a peaceful way with our Armenian brothers to solve this problem, just stay out of this”? No. Everyone knows what American congressmen think about this matter, but we want them not to say what they are actually thinking. And some Turks call this “power”; for me it is just an indication of weakness, sorry.”

This is similar to an argument made by Omer Taspinar in 2008, who pointed out at the time that in the past Turkey had always failed to convince even those in the US who voted against genocide resolutions in Congress:

“The reason Ankara won the battle was because important newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times picked up the “genocide” story and humiliated the House of Representatives with columns and editorials such as the one written by Krauthammer. Yet, this was not a sight any believer in Turkey’s version enjoyed. Yes, these articles opposed the Armenian resolution. But none of them believed Turkey’s version of history about “the events of 1915.”

Turkey won an important battle but ended up losing the war. Just like Krauthammer’s, most of these articles argued that what happened in 1915 was genocide. But Turkey was geo-strategically too important an ally to offend in the middle of mayhem in the Middle East. In other words, the opposition to the genocide resolution had nothing to do with the sudden discovery of new historical facts proving correct the Turkish version of history. The discussion was only about Turkey’s geo-strategic importance and bad timing.”

Orhan Cengiz Kemal in his latest piece also underlines what, in his view, is the real priority:

“Another thing this resolution would do is to kill democratic discussion in Turkey on the Armenian question all together. Do not forget, we had an “apology campaign” last year. Including myself, more than 30,000 Turks signed the petition apologizing to Armenians for the great tragedies that happened to them while the Ottoman Empire was falling apart. We couldn’t imagine something like that happening in Turkey without some people being assassinated. Thanks to the Ergenekon case, no one was killed or hurt during this campaign.

Turkey has made serious progress since we had the first Armenian conference in 2005 at Bilgi University. This conference caused much tension and anxiety back then. However, when I looked at this week’s Turkish newspapers I was able to see at least a dozen columns encouraging Turks to confront their past.

Confronting 1915 is one of the most important and most difficult parts of the democratization of Turkey. Some would like to live with these lies officially created and protected in Turkey. Some believe if Turkey confesses what happened in the past it would be devastated. The day Turkey confronts this first “sin,” the shadow that has darkened our last hundred years will disappear. The spirit that created 1915 has never died. It has continued taking lives and sucking our blood up until today. When Turkey confronts its past not only will it serve justice but will also get rid of this ghost that wants to keep Turkey hostage forever. I wish this kind of unwise interference would not postpone Turkey’s confrontation with its past.”

Red herrings in Turkish-Armenian Debate

Gerald Knaus and Piotr Zalewski

On 15 December 2008, shortly after several Turkish intellectuals launched a public apology campaign to commemorate the victims of the “Great Catastrophe” of 1915, a group of 146 retired Turkish ambassadors issued a counter-declaration. “Today, Armenian terror has completed its mission,” it lamented. “We are aware that the second phase of the plan includes an apology and the next step will be demands for land and compensation.”

The ambassadors’ response is emblematic of the sort of fears that we have come across during our research for “Noah’s Dove Returns”, a recent ESI paper on Turkish-Armenian relations. As many of our Turkish interlocutors told us, recognition of the Armenian genocide, whether in Turkey or abroad, not only threatens to undermine “Turkish prestige and honor”; it also throws into question the current Turkish-Armenian border and paves the way for compensation and restitution claims against the Turkish government.

We disagree that Turkish national prestige is at risk in this debate. The growing number of third country resolutions on the Armenian genocide since 2000 has done nothing to dent Turkey’s international standing. On the contrary: the same period has seen Turkey open accession talks with the EU, secure a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (the first time since the 1960s), attract rapidly growing levels of foreign investments, and win widespread international praise for its domestic reforms and foreign policy initiatives. Meanwhile, the widening domestic debate on Turkey’s difficult past is boosting both Turkey’s democratic image and its chances for EU accession. A Turkey that comes to terms with its Ottoman past, evidently, stands to win – not lose – international prestige.

The question of territorial claims is another red herring in the recognition debate. Though it has been on the agenda of a vocal nationalist minority in Armenia (and in the diaspora) for decades, border revision has never been part of any Armenian government’s policy. The nationalists’ claims, based on the never-ratified Treaty of Sevres, have not managed to secure any international support. Normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia, in any case, would put them to rest once and for all. (This, in fact, is exactly why some Armenian nationalists have had second thoughts about opening relations with Turkey.)

The third argument – that recognition, be it by countries in the EU, the US or by Turkey itself, will allow Armenians to sue the Turkish government – is also widespread. Not because it is true; but because many people believe that it involves complicated and ambiguous points of international law. This is not the case, however.

To begin with, the Armenian genocide has by now been officially recognized by 20 countries. If recognition is meant to pave the way towards restitution, these countries’ courts must surely be flooded with Armenian lawsuits? Not at all. In fact, not a single genocide-related claim has successfully been made against the Turkish government anywhere in the world – this, despite genocide resolutions having been passed in countries like France, Germany and Russia.

The European Parliament, in its 1987 resolution, even took pains to explain why. As it stressed, “neither political nor legal or material claims against present-day Turkey can be derived from the recognition of this historical event as an act of genocide.” The only international framework under which such claims could theoretically be pursued, the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, cannot be applied retroactively. There is no serious disagreement on this point. The findings of a 2002 study on the “Events” of 1915 by the International Center for Transitional Justice are unambiguous:

The Genocide Convention contains no provision mandating its retroactive application. To the contrary, the text of the Convention strongly suggests that it was intended to impose prospective obligations only on the States party to it. Therefore, no legal, financial or territorial claim arising out of the Events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the Convention.”

In only one instance have legal claims proved successful – and even then they had no link to genocide recognition or the Turkish state. Over the past few years, a number of insurance companies have had to pay compensation to those Armenians whose relatives, having purchased insurance policies before 1915, perished in the genocide. But it was the companies themselves – and not the Turkish government – who were the defendents in these cases. The claims had nothing to do with the Turkish state. Also, despite Armenian protestations, the courts found the question of what to call the events of 1915 completely irrelevant. They were dealing not with terminology, but with individual property claims.

Even Armenian leaders have publicly acknowledged that genocide recognition has no impact whatsoever on the claims issue. It is not that Armenians have forsaken pursuing legal consequences, explained Armenian president Robert Kocharian in a 2001 interview with Mehmet Ali Birand. It’s just that these have nothing to do with whether or not Turkey or another state recognizes the genocide. “The issue is that genocide recognition does not create the legal bases to allow Armenia to present certain demands before Turkey,” said Kocharian. “I am surprised that Turkish attorneys themselves have not provided the Turkish government with such counsel and such an assessment.”

All this is not to say that restitution or compensation by the Turkish state is impossible. Armenians could, in theory, file claims against the Turkish government – but only in Turkish courts, and only if Turkey adopts a binding legal act allowing them to do so. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in the area of property restitution confirms this. As the ECHR has ruled, “For a claim to be capable of being considered an ‘asset’ […] the claimant must establish that it has a sufficient basis in national law, for example where there is settled case-law of the domestic courts confirming it, or whether there is a final court judgement in the claimant’s favour.”

All of these cases, across a number of different jurisdictions, point to the same conclusion. There is no connection whatsoever between genocide recognition on the one hand and property restitution or compensation claims on the other. There is, in other words, no slippery slope leading from a non-binding US Congressional resolution to a successful lawsuit against the Turkish state to – as some of our interlocutors in Ankara seem to believe – the confiscation of THY planes at American airports. Turkish decision makers and opinion leaders should make it clear that such fears are a red herring. Dodging this conclusion – and giving unsubstantiated rumours free rein – threatens to make serious and honest discussion of Turkey’s Armenia policy even more difficult than they already are.