The Need for a New Conversation

By Taner Akçam

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The question I would like to ask here is very simple: As we all know, President Biden has recognized the Armenian genocide. So….that’s a good thing, you say? And now that he has acknowledged it…what of it? Has anything changed? And if, in fact, nothing has changed, why hasn’t it changed?

And if nothing has changed, why was so much effort put into making it happen? So then, what does have to be done? These questions beg dozens more; we could go on forever asking questions like these. There is a much more dramatic dimension to the matter.

We were all certain that “recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the US government” would be the end-all and be-all for diaspora Armenians. I would even go further and suggest that the outstanding issue of “recognition” was the central component of Armenian diaspora identity.

For decades, the Armenian diaspora defined itself through this concern and the demand for recognition was like the glue holding it together. And now, with the attainment of the goal, what is to become of this central component, this element that has been so central in shaping Armenian diaspora identity?

The most significant identity marker for the Armenian diaspora has now lost its energizing power, its raison d’etre. What, if anything, will replace it as a rallying cry, as a definer of Armenian identity outside of Armenia? Frankly, I have no ready answers to these questions; thus, the title of my talk: is “The Need for a New Conversation.”

The first issue that I would like to touch upon is that the lack of any substantive change in the wake of Biden’s recognition pushes us to ask what exactly is ‘recognition’. Is it just lip service? A low-cost political sop?

Does it have any more weight than simply saying that “Yes, some bad things happened in 1915,” if we continue, in the wake of our “never again” moment, to do such things in the future? If that is the case, then ‘recognition’ can be likened to attending church services. We may sincerely repent of our sins on Sunday but go back to sinning on Monday.

But of course, things have to change; individual sins are not the same thing as great historic crimes; such practices cannot be allowed to continue if any semblance of civilized society is to survive. And a “recognition of a historic injustice” should be accompanied by consequences. But what are these consequences? And whence will come the impetus to move in this direction?

The question lends itself to a variety of answers. One of the possible responses lies in the complex logic of international relations. As I will mention at greater length below, nation-states operate from the starting point of national interest and security concerns, and they work within the military and financial means available to them to secure for themselves the most favorable results from within the wild and anarchic condition of international relations.

And you can well imagine that the Armenian Genocide and questions as to whether its recognition by enough other powers will ultimately pressure Turkey to acknowledge the genocide itself do not receive much attention in these complicated and changing relations.

The Republic of Armenia may have been the only country with the ability to bring the subject to the public agenda, but it has little leverage to press its case, as its combination of political and military weakness and precarious geopolitical position put its very existence at risk.

But let us leave aside the world of international relations for a moment and to seek elsewhere the reasons why Biden’s recognition of the genocide will not change a thing. There is a misconception regarding both denial and recognition, and we see this misconception manifest itself in international relations as well, one that I would refer to as temporal compartmentalization.

By temporal compartmentalization, I mean a misperception regarding genocide denial or the acknowledgment of historic wrongdoing. This misperception has two prongs; the first is that denial is often regarded as a mistaken but tolerable ideological attitude toward mass atrocities; second, it assumes that confronting denial is about establishing a “moral” attitude towards a single crime that remains forgotten in the pages of history. Any connection with the present is effectively walled off.

The logical consequence of this misperception is the tendency to place the past and present into different boxes and to ignore their interconnectedness. Thus, once we abandon the idea of denial as referring to a single historical event, we can begin conceiving of it as something more than simply a “past event.”

The truth is that it is impossible to detach the phenomenon of denial from contemporary political problems. Denial and recognition are not only about an ideological attitude towards the past, nor is the demand for recognition of historical crimes confined to a moral conviction regarding past events (that can be atoned for through admission and repentance).

Denialism is a structure, an intellectual framework that is not — cannot — be limited to past atrocities. Instead, it has produced and continues to foster policies in the present day. And correspondingly, the repercussions of recognition will not and must not be confined to our understanding of the past; it must have practical results in the present.

In this sense, it would be appropriate and reasonable to compare Turkish denialism, for instance, with the racist apartheid regime of South Africa. The system, mindset, and institutions of apartheid were constructed upon racial differences; denial of the Armenian genocide has similar roots. It was manufactured upon the discrimination and exclusion of ethnic-religious minorities and considered the democratic demands of these groups a national —even existential — security threat that had to be eliminated.

In the past, the so-called “Armenian question” was the result of Armenian requests for equality and social reform; demands which, if fulfilled, would have arguably led to a better and stronger Ottoman society. It is no different for Kurds today. Like the Armenians of the late Ottoman period, the Kurds are demanding social and political reforms.

Granting these basic rights could well lay the foundation for a democratic Turkey. In the past, the Armenians’ demands, and even the Armenians themselves, were considered security threats, and understanding eventually transformed them, in the minds of the ruling Muslim elite, into legitimate targets for massacre and genocide. Today, Kurds are facing a similar fate.

Denying the truth about the Armenian Genocide and suppressing the basic democratic rights of Kurds and other ethnic-religious minorities are two of the foundational components of the Turkish national security conception. Once again, democratic demands for truth and justice and the request for basic democratic rights, such as equality under the law, social reform, and freedom of speech are considered threats to national security.

What is valid regarding the Kurdish population is equally valid for the Armenians and other religious minorities living in Turkey today, albeit in far smaller numbers. Although officially and legally recognized as full citizens, these minorities are prevented by the “unwritten laws” of Turkish society from entering many careers. Non-Muslims and, to a lesser but still significant extent, non-ethnic Turks cannot expect to attain high positions in either the military or civil bureaucracy.

Additionally, just as regarding charitable foundations belonging to the minorities, their rights of normal citizenship are not recognized. And I’m not even referring to the various exclusions from daily public life and othering-alienation praxises or the atmosphere of psychological terror that is the product of hate campaigns and discrimination. The connection between the current conditions for Turkish minorities and the genocide of the Armenian and other Christians is thus painfully evident.

A very clear picture emerges from all this: by denying what happened in 1915, Turkey reproduces the institutions, social relations, and mindset that created the events of 1915. Denial is not simply a defense of an old regime (Ottoman Empire).

Denial also fuels the politics of continuing aggression, both inside against the ethnic-religious minorities and democratic opposition and outside against the neighbors of Turkey today. The bottom line is that there is a strong interconnectedness between the denial of past atrocities and policies that trample on basic democratic and human rights, and violence against civilians in the region today.

This brings me to my next point: Before, and even after Biden recognized the Armenian genocide the opinion was widely accepted that, while resisting denial and the acknowledgment of a historic crime might be a meaningful and positive moral stance, we must nevertheless be realistic and prioritize the more crucial and compelling security and national interests of contemporary states.

Accordingly, it has often been and still is thought that, in situations where the recognition of a historic crime conflicts with the national interests and security of today, it is meaningless and nonsensical to maintain the demand for recognition because the event in question has long passed.

To insist on doing such, while fundamentally moral, is hopelessly unrealistic. The argument juxtaposes “national interest” with “morality” as two mutually exclusive positions.

Despite his recognition of the genocide, Biden’s political approach has not changed in any way, and remains directed toward the logic of maintaining good relations with Turkey.The logic goes something like this: “We recognized the genocide, but this is a matter for the past; in foreign policy we must continue to follow a course that is in line with American national interest.” In other words, all of the arguments ever used for not recognizing the genocide remain valid. In my opinion, this is a logic that has to change.

But why should it? The reason is very simple. As I mentioned earlier, both internal developments in Turkey and those things experienced in Syria and by Azerbaijan during its recent war with Armenia serve to demonstrate the strong connection between security, democracy, and facing up to history in the Middle East and Caucasus. Even a passing glance at the region makes it clear that historical injustices and the persistent denial of the same by various states and ethno-religious groups remains a major obstacle, not only for the democratization of the region, but also for the establishment of stable relations between different ethnic and religious groups. You cannot solve any problem in the region today without first addressing historic wrongs that have been committed, because history is not something in the past; in the Middle East and Caucasus, the past IS the present.

I would argue that we must cease this senseless distinction and compartmentalization between the recognition of 1915 and contemporary realpolitik. When, in the past, the West had failed to recognize the events of 1915, whether for reasons of “security” or “national interest,” or, in the present day, has adopted some affectatious recognition of genocide, it has nevertheless continued to carry out policies based on this compartmentalization of past and present. And this practice has been performed solely for the purpose of giving support and political cover to Turkey. If democracy, peace, and security are truly the objectives, the end-goals of the West’s policy towards Middle East and Caucasus, then the current approach toward foreign policy must change. For it is this attitude and behavior of the West that emboldens Turkey to continue its denial of 1915 and encourages it to persist in policies that threaten democracy, peace, and security in the region today.

My view on this issue is simple: as long as Turkey continues to fail to honestly face up to its history and its own role in historical wrongs, instead viewing them as threats to its national security, then security problems in the region will persist. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not something to be either ignored or simply ‘shelved’ when confronted with the seemingly more pressing issues of today. On the contrary, it is the key to solving contemporary problems related to democracy and regional peace and stability.

Yet, if we are realistic, we will be forced to admit that, due to the core logic of international relations, it will not be possible to quickly free ourselves of this compartmentalization. As the Russia-Ukraine war has shown, Turkey is a country that is both a regional power and perceived as a source of advantage to the great powers. This is well confirmed by the current situation: Turkey is indirectly supporting Ukraine by selling it highly effective drones, but at the same time, Turkey has and wishes to maintain very good relations with Russia. And for this purpose it is violating the Western-imposed embargo on Russia. It is interesting to note here that neither Russia nor the West, which has imposed sanctions on Russia, is particularly uncomfortable with the role that Turkey is playing here. On the contrary, they encourage it. And for this reason, neither the United States nor Europe believe that it is either realistic or practical to pressure Turkey to acknowledge the Genocide.

In this sense, at least, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to conclude that “genocide recognition” has now come to the end of its journey. Certainly, it is significant that the over 30 countries—including the United States—have now recognized the events of 1915 as the genocide, and this has indeed been a psychological and moral victory for the Armenians. But we must also admit that, aside from the act of “recognition” itself, it has not produced much, if anything, in the way of meaningful, “real world” effects.

The Need for a New Conversation

At this point, the question of “What now?” becomes important. There are two points that I would like to mention here. First, “recognition” politics have now largely come to an end. To be sure, the official recognition of the Armenian genocide by 30 countries — the United States among them — is a significant development and a clear psychological and moral victory. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that this victory is largely symbolic. Second, the demands of international relations make highly unlikely the appearance of a foreign policy trend that would pressure Turkey to acknowledge the genocide.

And it is for this reason that I have titled my talk “The Need for a Conversation.” I have two brief observations in this regard. The first is that it is now necessary to replace the “politics of recognition” with a politicis of “attaining justice”; the second is that, despite the relationship between “attaining justice” and foreign policy, any effort to “attain justice” should be considered within the sphere of American domestic politics. In this sense, the recent recognition can be meaningful and significant.

It should be pointed out that the American recognition of the Genocide does not resemble that of those countries that have preceded it. While other countries’ recognition has been acting largely possessing symbolic value, the official recognition by the United States technically obliges the country — an obligation that may ultimately end up being honored in the breach — to act in ways that offer the possibility of attaining a certain level of justice in the way of reparations and recompense. American law allows its citizens to sue foreign countries, companies, or institutions for damages and compensation.

The significant point here is this: it is customary in international law for states to have a legal “immunity” that keeps them beyond the jurisdiction of other countries’ courts. The United States is bound by international understandings and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) prevents foreign countries or their affiliated institutions from being taken to court and sued. These countries are thus theoretically under relevant legal protections. But some exceptions do exist — and they are of direct relevance to our topic at hand.

One of these exceptions relates to crimes against humanity. Countries (and their associated institutions) that are seen to have been involved in crimes against humanity, such as genocide, can be taken to trial in US courts.

But in order for this to occur, it is necessary for the federal government to first recognize that such a crime has been committed. This fact has historically stood as a serious obstacle in cases concerning the Armenian Genocide and even resulted in their being thrown out of court.

But now, with official Genocide recognition coming from both Congress and the White House, this obstacle may have been removed. I say “may because it remains to be seen whether Congressional recognition alone can be legally binding.

Within the American legal system, the recognition of a crime as a “crime against humanity” is not in itself sufficient to open a case. Rather, two preconditions must first be met. In the case under discussion here, however, we can confidently say that they have been met.

The first precondition is that it is necessary to show that the target of the suit, be it a state or institution, was both involved in the perpetration of a crime and obtained some economic or financial benefit therefrom.

The second precondition is the necessity of showing that the institution in question had commercial relations with the United States. Both the Republic of Turkey and its affiliated institutions, such as the Ottoman Central Bank and Ziraat Bankası, fall into this category. Without a doubt, these institutions can be taken to trial.

While working to prepare such cases as I have suggested, it will be advantageous to replace the general demand of “recognition” with one of “attaining justice.” In this sense, the various cases from the Holocaust and the debate over reparations for slavery should be our guides.

We must learn from the Jewish experience in preparing cases for the recouping of lost or stolen property. I would suggest the examples of organizations such as The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) as models for the formation of similar Armenian organizations.

As mentioned, the reparations debate is also important and may give us some new ideas and open up new horizons for approaching the subject of massive ‘communal’ material loss and how to recoup it. Indeed, the concept of reparations and the possibilities it suggests must be employed, but all of this must be studied and understood within the context of American domestic politics. In this sense, the survivors of the Armenian genocide must, I believe, ‘reconceive’ themselves against the background of slavery and the Native American experience.

Of course, the “attaining of justice” will take many paths and not be limited to that of litigation. Nor is there any guarantee of success. What is certain is that the litigation path will be long and strewn with a great many legal and political obstacles. Nevertheless, we must always bear in mind that the campaign for recognition continued for decades before finally achieving success, and we should — nay, must — be prepared for a struggle no shorter and no less arduous.

(The above article is a lightly edited version of a talk at Cupertino, California on April 23.)

by The Armenian Mirror-Spectator

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