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Audere est Facere! - EU-Turkey & the Armenian Genocide
Calls on Turkey to recognise the Armenian Genocide; considers this recognition to be a pre-requisite for accession to the European Union - European Parliament Resolution (28 September 2005).

21 October 2005   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Genocide

Across much of Europe, the last ten months have been buzzing with discussions about the Armenian Genocide. This is not solely because Armenians worldwide have been commemorating in 2005 the 90th anniversary of the genocide. Nor is it necessarily because this gruesome chapter in early 20th century history awoke the collective conscience of the world toward recognition. Rather, it is largely due to the ongoing negotiations regarding Turkey's accession to the EU. It is inevitable that Armenians, and their supporters across the Union, have been pressuring Turkey to come clean on the chapter of their history that deals with the 'Armenian Question' during WWI, and have repeatedly requested from their governments to include the recognition of the genocide as a precondition in their discussions for Turkish accession to the EU. Consequently, this Armenian position has become congruent with that of the European Parliament as evidenced by its latest Resolution of 28th September in Strasbourg.

On 3 October 2005, the EU and Turkey finally signed a negotiating framework that would allow formal talks and screening processes to begin on Turkish membership of the European Club. There was the obligatory last-minute brinkmanship, with Austria demanding the insertion of an additional clause that referred to privileged partnership rather than full membership. However, this objection was overcome with a Croatian compromise, and the question now is to explore what happens in the next ten to fifteen years when negotiations between the EU and Turkey cover the 35 chapters (including judiciary and fundamental rights as well as justice, freedom and security, in chapters 23 & 24 respectively) and Turkey's need to adapt its political, economic and social system in such a manner that it implements 80,000 pages of EU laws. This, after all, is the EU-Turkey political dossier today, and the critical period in the years ahead will decide between an EU that insists upon the candidate country Turkey to accept the acquis communautaire of the Union or a Turkey that dictates more or less its own terms of accession to the EU.

Principle 6 of the EU Negotiating Framework for Turkey clearly stipulates that the advancement of negotiations will be guided by Turkey's progress in preparing for accession. Such progress would include the Copenhagen criteria (with the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities) as much as Turkey's 'unequivocal commitment to good neighbourly relations and its undertaking to resolve any outstanding border disputes in accordance with the United Nations Charter, including if necessary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice'. Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Enlargement, told the European Parliament earlier that "the start of the negotiations will give a strong push for those in Turkey who want to reform the country to meet the European values of rule of law and human rights; they are also a way for the EU to have leverage on the direction of these reforms".

But let me recap for a moment. On 22nd September, I attended a conference in Brussels entitled December 2004-October 2005: Has Turkey changed? During the final plenary session, the discussions led to the unavoidable conclusion that the EU Commission was doing its utmost to justify the start of accession talks despite an implicit admission that Turkey had not yet met all the criteria for the start-up of negotiations. This EU position could prove disconcerting if it were to accentuate the yawning chasm between the political decisions adopted by the EU institutions (namely the Commission and Council) and the European population across the whole Union. After all, a recent Eurobarometer poll revealed that only 35% of EU citizens support Turkish membership, and yet the EU institutions are not heeding to the concerns of their constituencies but are proving why the 'disconnect' is growing alarmingly larger between an institutional and bureaucratic Union and its peoples. In fact, this phenomenon became abundantly evident when France and the Netherlands rejected the EU draft constitution on 29 May and 1 June 2005 respectively as an instrument - with much merit, I still maintain - that was nonetheless being imposed upon the European peoples without adequate consultation, coherence, transparency or feedback.

But what about the Armenian Genocide in the overall context of EU-Turkey dossier?

There have been quite a few developments within Turkey that have highlighted the inherent paradoxes of the Turkish mindset on this human rights issue. There has also been a tug-of-war between progressives and reactionaries on the one hand, and between the small minority of Turks openly addressing the issue of the genocide and an ignorant or fearful majority who maintain the denial that has typified Turkey for the past 90 years.

One of the most prominent issues in the past few months that highlights Turkey's non-EU credentials to date as much as its paranoia about the Armenian Genocide, is the case of Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey's most acclaimed contemporary writers. On 1st September, a district prosecutor indicted Pamuk under Article 301(1) of the Turkish penal code for having 'blatantly belittled Turkishness" by his "denigrating" remarks. Pamuk's crime was to have given an interview in the Swiss Tages Anzeiger newspaper on 6th February stating that Turkey was responsible for the deaths of 1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds during WWI but that nobody within the country dared speak about this genocide. If convicted at his trial that starts on 16th December, Pamuk could well face up to three years in gaol. Article 301/1 of the Turkish penal code states that 'a person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years ... Where insulting being a Turk is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty shall be increased by one third'.

This case came almost at the same time as that of Hrant Dink, editor of the bilingual Agos magazine who received a suspended six-month sentence in Istanbul on 7th October for writing a column that allegedly insulted Turkey, and for telling an audience in 2002 that he was not a Turk but an Armenian of Turkey. According to PEN International, fifty writers, journalists and publishers currently face trials in Turkey. The International Publishers' Association, in its deposition to the UN, has also described the revised Turkish penal code as being 'deeply flawed'. It is questionable how a country such as Turkey that has ratified both the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) could flout the fundamental freedom of expression and continue to enforce a penal code that is contrary to such universal and EU-friendly principles. No wonder therefore that Fethiye Cetin, Dink's lawyer, averred that the ruling against her client showed how little had changed under Turkey's new criminal code, despite international and internal pressures.

With those Turkish manoeuvres, Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink have joined a long list of cognoscenti and literati such as Kemal Tahir and Fakir Baykurt who have been muzzled by the state for expressing their viewpoints. Numerous international bodies, such as the Commissioners of the US Helsinki Commission, have sent letters to the Turkish Prime Minister calling upon him to authorise the dropping of charges against the writer. In an Opinion in the Turkish Daily News, Semih Ydyz wrote critically, "Anti-EU forces that are using the legal system to bound people like Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink may believe they are doing a great service to the country. They don't realise, however, that they are doing the opposite ... They are exposing the outmoded system of thought for what it is and forcing progressive Turks to rally around principles like respect for freedom of thought".

This Turkish imbedded sense of nationalism, dissimilar to patriotism, was manifested again in the deferrals of an international conference entitled Ottoman Armenians in the Period of the Collapse of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy. Many people, from the Turkish Minister of Justice to a lawyer from one of the districts of Istanbul, tried twice to cancel this conference. However, it finally took place at Bilgi University in Istanbul on 24th September. As the Economist wrote in an article entitled Too soon for Turkish delight on 29th September, "For Turks who want a European future, there was a dollop of hope last weekend, when brave historians managed to hold a conference in Istanbul to discuss the fate of the Ottoman Armenians. It was the first time Turkish pundits were permitted to challenge publicly the official line, holding that the mass deportation of Armenians in 1915 did not amount to a conspiracy to kill them. As participants read out letters between the 'Young Turks' then ruling the empire, a rapt audience was left with no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were deliberately slain". In the words of Halil Berktay, coordinator of the history department at Sabançi University and participant at the conference, 'This is a country of more than 70 million, with a strong nationalist past; there are strong forces opposed to the European Union, to democracy and opening up'. Berktay added that 'the question of what happened in 1915-1916 is not a mystery, it's not like we know just 5 percent, so the question is not finding more evidence. The question is liberating scholarship from the nationalist taboos ...'

Fatma Muge Goçek, a sociologist at the University of Michigan and advisor to the conference, said that 'Turkey has to confront its history, and the fact of the violence of 1915 and 1916, and lack of accountability, sanctioned more [state] violence'. Equally, Elif Shafak, a social scientist and renowned novelist whose works include The Flea Palace and who recently captured the cultural voices of Turkey in Street of the Cauldron Makers (Kazançi Yokushu), published an editorial in the Washington Post on 25th September entitled In Istanbul, a Crack in the Wall of Denial. She wrote, "I also got to know other Turks who were making a similar intellectual journey. Obviously there is still a powerful segment of Turkish society that completely rejects the charge that Armenians were purposely exterminated. Some even go so far as to claim that it was Armenians who killed Turks, and so there is nothing to apologise for. These nationalist hardliners include many of our government officials, bureaucrats, diplomats and newspaper columnists. They dominate Turkey's public image - but theirs is only one position held by Turkish citizens, and it is not even the most common one. The prevailing attitude of ordinary people toward the 'Armenian question' is not one of conscious denial; rather it is collective ignorance. These Turks feel little need to question the past as long as it does not affect their daily lives". Shafak concluded her editorial about the conference, "Whatever happens with the conference, I believe one thing remains true: Through the collective efforts of academics, journalists, writers and media correspondents, 1915 is being opened to discussion in my homeland [Turkey] as never before. The process is not an easy one and will disturb many vested interests. I know how hard it is - most children from diplomatic families, confronting negative images of Turkey abroad, develop a sort of defensive nationalism, and it's especially true among those of us who lived through the years of Armenian terrorism. But I also know that the journey from denial to recognition is one that can be made".

As Munir Begle, another Turkish historian and a contemporary of Selim Beligir, opined much along the same lines during the conference in Istanbul, "The younger generation in Turkey knows nothing about the events in the early 20th century and the reason is the educational system. The Armenian Question is one of the darkest pages of our history, and naturally no one wants to admit it. People who want to revisit and discuss the problem gave gathered in this university". Another speaker at the conference, historian Fikret Adanir, stated outright that the killings constituted genocide whilst Cengiz Candar, a prominent columnist for the Bugun newspaper in Turkey wrote, "The judiciary is one of the most reactionary and backward institutions in Turkey, and the illegal [court] verdict reflects the inherent problems. But the fact that we are discussing this is ample evidence to be optimistic". 

Could things be shuffling forward at long last in Turkey?

A letter from the International Association of Genocide Scholars, published in the International Herald Tribune (France) on 23 September 2005, re-affirmed the well-established facts of genocide. The letter underscored 'that it is not just Armenians who are affirming the Armenian Genocide but it is the overwhelming opinion of scholars who study genocide: hundreds of independent scholars, who have no affiliations with governments, and whose work spans many countries and nationalities and the course of decades'. It added unequivocally, 'We believe that it is clearly in the interest of the Turkish people and their future as proud and equal participants in international, democratic discourse to acknowledge the responsibility of a previous government for the genocide of the Armenian people, just as the German government and people have done in the case of the Holocaust'. Rebutting the claims of those historians who deny the genocide, the letter had harsh words toward Turkey. It said, 'We would also note that scholars who advise your government and who are affiliated in other ways with your state controlled institutions are not impartial. Such so-called "scholars" work to serve the agenda of historical and moral obfuscation when they advise you and the Turkish parliament on how to deny the Armenian Genocide'.

With the incontrovertible evidence in the German and Austrian archives of WWI (allies of Turkey) confirming the genocide committed against Armenians, as much as in the archives of the US (neutral at the time, with no axe to grind) and Britain (with the HMSO Blue Book written by the British historian Arnold Toynbee in 1916), it is time for Turkey to halt its tiresome denial and thereby pave the way not only for a cleaner EU-bound slate but also for improved relations with Armenia and for stability in the Caucasus region. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide is admittedly a moral imperative, but it also helps improve state relations, and carries with it the weight of geopolitical and democratic considerations. Just like the recent spate of resolutions from various EU Parliaments, and following the two Resolutions of 15th September by the US House International Relations Committee (H.Res.316 and H.Con.Res.195), it is high time to stop the brusque manifestations of a misplaced ideological nationalism that spells denial. Turkey must not only legislate reforms and submit them to the EU as evidence of progress, but it should also implement them on the ground. Legislation = implementation. Otherwise, criminal justice and judicial systems would remain steeped in decades of nationalist ideology, reinforced by an authoritarian constitution, and could betray any reformist government's best intentions.

In a Commentary entitled Turkey's missed appointment by Pierre Lellouche, Chairman of NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and published in the French Liberation newspaper on 26th September, Lellouche wrote, "The European public, especially in France, expected - again rightly - a gesture from Turkey in connection with the Armenian genocide of 1915 and relations with independent Armenia. Turkey can indeed say that such a gesture is not mentioned - and I regret the fact - in the conditions expressly set by the European Council. But we cannot build the future on a denial of history and a negotiation of past crimes, even if they were committed by previous generations and under a different political regime, in this instance the Ottoman Empire. There is no point in evading responsibilities towards History: better to acknowledge, to mend and to be reconciled. Germany fully realised this following 1945 and that is what made possible its involvement, with equal rights, in European building".

Indeed, a powerful challenge was put forward by Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian at an International Conference on the 90th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan on 21st April. Entitled Ultimate Crime, Ultimate Challenge, his closing address included the following set of questions:

Armenians were one of the largest minorities of the Ottoman Empire. Where did they go? Is it possible that all our grandmothers and grandfathers colluded and created stories? Where are the descendants of the Armenians who built the hundreds of churches and monasteries whose ruins still stand in Turkey? Is US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau's account of the atrocities that he witnessed a lie? Why was a military tribunal convened at the end of WWI, and why did it find Ottoman Turkish leaders guilty of ordering the mass murder of Armenians? How does one explain the thousands and thousands of pages in the official records of a dozen countries documenting the plans to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire? If it wasn't genocide and they were simply 'war time deportations' of so-called rebellious Armenian populations near the eastern border with the Russian Empire, as Turkish apologists sometimes claim, why were the homes of Armenians in the Western cities looted and burned? Why were the Armenians of the seacoast towns of Smyrna and Constantinople deported? Boatloads of people were dumped in the sea - is that what deportation is all about? Could rounding up scores of intellectuals on a single night and killing them be anything but premeditation?

In a study entitled Eight Stages of Genocide by Gregory H Stanton, Vice-President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and President of Genocide Watch, originally written in 1996 at the US Department of State and presented in 1998 at the Yale University Center for International and Area Studies, he wrote that "denial is the eighth stage that always follows a genocide" whereby the perpetrators deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. Once Turkey assumes its responsibility to recognise the genocide, we could perhaps witness the beginning of a fresh dawn for Armenians and Turks alike, and perhaps also a narrowing of the huge gap that separates our EU political institutions from our day-to-day realities.

In an article entitled Turkey's Memory Lapse: Armenian Genocide Plagues Ankara 90 Years On in the German Spiegel International (Online) on 25th April, Bernhard Zand wrote:

Confronted with more and more Armenia resolutions in European parliaments, opinion is growing among some that Ankara's position on the Armenian issue could ultimately endanger its prospects for EU membership. Although there is no formal requirement that Ankara recognise the murder of the Armenians as "genocide," politicians including French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier have made clear comments in that direction. "I believe that when the time comes, Turkey should come to terms with its past, be reconciled with its own history and recognise this tragedy," he said. "This is an issue that we will raise during the negotiation process. We will have about 10 years to do so and the Turks will have about 10 years to ponder their answer." Recently, Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union, filed a resolution on the Turkey-Armenia issue in its own parliament, the Bundestag, where it will be discussed this week and voted on in June.

Many of the accomplices to the Ottoman war crimes nevertheless fared well in the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923. Surprisingly, Atatürk himself, spoke with such openness about the crimes that his comments could be enough to land him behind bars today. In 1920, in parliament, he condemned the genocide of the Armenians as an "abomination of the past" and pledged to dole out severe punishments to the culprits.

As Harut Sassounian opined in a Commentary entitled Armenians should Squeeze Concessions Out of Turkey During EU Negotiations in the California Courier on 13th October, "The interest of Armenians requires that, on the EU issue, Turkey remain a bridesmaid, as long as it refuses to pay the dowry to become a bride!"

Once recognition by Turkey of this human rights travesty occurs, and the sacrifices of well over one million Armenian men, women and children during the period 1915-1923 are marked with closure, we could underline with conviction the maxim audere est facere - to dare is to do - in the sense that we dared together to overcome the physical, psychological and historical traumas of a painful and stolen past.

Can we pick up the gauntlet today? Our answer would help define the future of the EU in the decades ahead.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   21 October 2005


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