Does US Armenian Genocide Recognition Matter?
It is difficult to ignore the feeling that the White House’s recent Armenian Genocide recognition achieved a momentous victory in the narrative surrounding the genocide and what recognition means for the descendants of its survivors. Demanding recognition is both a tangible political objective and a potent motivational force which has mobilised millions through the generations to honour the memory of ancestors brutally murdered in their own homelands simply for being who they are. But is this particular recognition a meaningful development for the descendants of its survivors and the discourse surrounding genocide? Or is it mostly a placebo for a traumatised diaspora?
Recognition or Absolution?
The text of the declaration aims to appease rather than rectify. We are encouraged to “turn eyes to the future” and “prevent future atrocities”. I believe that if we can move past the jubilation of seeing the words “Armenian” and “genocide” framed together under the White House letterhead, we may perceive how this rhetoric can be interpreted as cheapening one of the gravest atrocities in modern history. In demanding the deployment of one word, much else has been seemingly sacrificed.
There is a pointed stipulation in the text that this is not meant to “cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.” Genocide is widely understood as the worst crime imaginable. For survivors, its difficult to even process and understand, since the attack is not only on your physical person in the present, but your collective past and future. It is an ongoing blight on every new generation of survivors because the place of each new generation in history has been shaped by the mutilation of their forebears and dislocation of their very identity and memory from the world. This has a cumulative effect in the form of creating silhouettes in time — chalk lines for the death of entire communities which do not wash away in the rain, but stain living memory passed down over and over again.
There is no understanding of the scars of genocide that can be communicated in a short proclamation, especially since words have never been cheaper. Understanding should instead be measured by the manifestation of real world policy, not rhetoric. True recognition must involve action. Otherwise, we are to assume that recognition comes with no intention to change the course of history — and what bigger insult can there be to the memory of the victims?
In a twisted way, the proclamation provides more in terms of reconciliation for Turkey with its past (by offering Turkey that definition — that this is all in the past), rather than Armenians and other survivors with theirs (by offering them a different kind of future).
Germany paid somewhere in the region of $89bn mostly to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime over six decades after the Second World War. As part of the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, Germany lost around 12% of its territory and was required to pay $269bn — a debt so crushing it took 92 years to pay off. The Ottoman Empire also lost this war having sided with Germany, but what was forfeited? In addition to ceding control of its markets, economic regulations and trade policies, the Ottoman Empire lost over 70% of its resource rich territory to France and the United Kingdom, mostly in the form of Western mandated Syria and Iraq, rather than provide any reparations to the victims of genocide. This failure is a Western one motivated by greed and regional ambitions, and one where no Western leader has had the integrity to even begin making right.
The Armenian [redacted — ?]
On June 10th 1994, then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, by then under severe internal and external pressure to recognise the mass killings in Rwanda as genocide, relented to a reporter:
“If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide, I have no hesitancy in saying that.”
On September 9th 2004, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding the crisis in Darfur:
“Mr. Chairman, some seem to have been waiting for this determination of genocide to take action. In fact, however, no new action is dictated by this determination. We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese Government to act responsibly. So let us not be too preoccupied with this designation. These people are in desperate need and we must help them. Call it civil war; call it ethnic cleansing; call it genocide; call it “none of the above.” The reality is the same. There are people in Darfur who desperately need the help of the international community.”
Prior to all of this, many people seem to have forgotten the fact that US President Ronald Reagan had already recognised the Armenian Genocide in those very terms as part of a proclamation remembering the Holocaust on 22nd April 1981:
“Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it — and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples — the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.”
Its important to highlight this relationship between the political determination of genocide and the absence of any legal recourse for reparations or corrective measures as a result of it. On 22nd April 2021, UK MPs voted overwhelmingly to recognise the Uyghur Genocide perpetrated by China — something that, like these other determinations, does not compel the UK government to act or behave any differently, and has more to do with strategising around broader UK-China relations than improving the lot of the victims in question. In perhaps the most overt politicisation of genocide recognition, Assad’s regime in Syria recognised the Armenian Genocide on 13th February 2020 as Turkey continues to support its own proxy forces inside the country.
On the other hand, there are several comparable examples of corrective action without recognition that emphasise the relative emptiness of this particular proclamation and others like it. Here, the victims of genocidal violence received far more material support that translated into truly beneficial outcomes either without recognition or with recognition that came years later. Firstly, the genocidal violence targeting Bosnians by Serbian forces set in motion a series of interventions and policies ultimately providing for Bosnian sovereignty — and yet the facile recognition by major Western powers only came years later. Secondly, the genocidal violence targeting Kosovar Albanians does not really have any recognition but also set in motion policies and outcomes similar to the Bosnian case. Finally, Saddam’s genocidal campaign in northern Iraq during the uprising in 1991 did not result in much recognition of any kind but also set in motion policies that surpass any of the policy interventions stemming from genocide recognition elsewhere in the same time period.
Many major states have recognised the crimes ISIS committed against Yazidis, Assyrians and other minorities as genocide, but what has this achieved for these people? Despite much publicised international aid programmes, Assyrians and Yazidis continue to be degraded and dehumanised in their own homelands, with no force or contract of reparation coming from the states which have failed them but still insist on administering their affairs and controlling their security in totality. International actors continue to receive their representatives in order to legitimise their own positions as a matter of procedural etiquette (i.e. its part of their job description), rather than as factors which determine a change of policy.
In October 2016, then Vice President Joe Biden embraced a tearful Nadia Murad who had hoped that her relentless energy and desire to deliver justice and a better future for Yazidis would materialise as the most important political leaders in the world all extended their hands to her. In order to do this, she relived her tragic story countless times in front of political leaders who could demonstrate their own capacity to empathise (with varying success) in front of the media. A few months prior to the meeting with Biden, Obama’s administration signed off on $416m worth of dedicated funds for the KRG’s peshmerga without any conditions related to the safety and dignity of Yazidis who they had abandoned to genocide two years prior. This policy was repeated in subsequent appropriations bills, and continued in Trump’s Administration.
Despite declarations of genocide and all of the rhetoric around it, there is nothing separating these two administrations in terms of policy concerning the welfare and future of Yazidis in their homeland. Sadly, a combination of optics and existing partisan loyalties will guide many people to believe differently. Partisan loyalties have developed and strengthened within each diaspora community, proving that no community is safe from the brain rot which renders every issue into a tribal binary. These loyalties often warp history to fit through a particular Western lens too, impeding the development of unified structures among diasporas which centre their own community’s interests and experiences, as well as their own internal accountability mechanisms. Among diaspora communities, this brand of partisan politics has created a system of gatekeepers (or more often than not, liars) to power which define themselves entirely by narrow political allegiances and the support they can draw because of them.
Communities of survivors are influenced not only by the political leaders they support but the agendas those leaders carry by association. Nominee for USAID Secretary, Samantha Power, who served under Obama, demonstrates this narrow range of partisan interests by omitting the fact that a Republican-majority US Senate actually recognised the Armenian Genocide through S.Res.150 in 2019 after a Democrat-majority House did the same in her apparently reflective Twitter thread on the latest recognition.
Far from being strictly a US phenomenon, despite the uniquely toxic political qualities America currently provides, partisanship is a phenomenon that is growing more broadly within diaspora communities which are not immune to the political attitudes and circumstances which define our times. In many ways, these communities are less prepared than others to withstand the negative aspects and behaviours of political tribalism, and may even overcompensate for acceptance and approval. This too is an effect of trauma and dislocation — the yearning to be part of a mainstream society in adoptive states often means putting partisan interests ahead of your own, or marrying them together too closely and definitively.
In Turkey, the foundation of modern society was never understood for what it really was after the defeat of the Ottomans, the genocide of its minorities, or the ascension to power by Turkish nationalists. The future that was proposed to its population in the turbulent years between 1919–1923 was either foreign rule through the defeated Sultan, or the opportunity of democratic rule provided by nationalists under Ataturk. A war ensued whereby the nationalists, with assistance from Russia, forced the Allied powers into a weaker negotiating position which concluded with the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, undoing some of the territorial losses they were forced to accept after the First World War.
This never gave Turkish society a tangible opportunity to remake itself on more pluralist and conciliatory terms, since every force in opposition to Turkish nationalism became associated with a foreign threat or conspiracy — an enduring belief that lingers like an open sore to this day.
On 28th December 1919, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk delivered a territorial vision which became part of the foundation and future ambitions of the Republic of Turkey in the years to come:
“Our national borders pass through Antioch and span east-ward, containing Mosul, Sulaymaniya, Kirkuk. We say: This, is our national border.”
This vision underpins Erdogan’s regional ambitions. Many have already bandied around the term “neo-Ottomanism” in a pejorative sense, but the campaigns Turkey is waging against PKK affiliated Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq are colonial wars which do not honour the borders of today. These campaigns serve to eliminate political agitators in what are perceived to be lost but reclaimable territories. As in the 19th C, there are complaint actors such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, which serve to legitimise their growing presence by acting as the stewards of territory already economically and politically bequeathed to Ankara.
But moving beyond this interpretation of modern events, the designation of “Ottomanism” as something divorced from the modern Turkish state is not even true of Ataturk’s Western-facing Republic. While many ivory tower historians cast Ataturk as a moderniser by virtue of his reformulation of a Turkish state along loosely Western principles, the Turkish state was built on the unmarked graves of millions of non-Muslims who never saw justice. The “Turkishness” of his project was only possible to institutionalise because of the jihad which defined the decades prior: the extermination of non-Muslim Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and Yazidis from what became the territory of the modern Turkish state was necessary in order to render this project feasible.
Turkey was a fallen power, but one which, thanks to its Ottoman lineage, had a strong identity and functional institutions. The modern mythos surrounding Turkey’s “War of Independence” is a narration of its defence of empire — a defence of its lineage. Because this phenomena has not been understood on those terms, Turkey’s fight to join the modern world as a nation-state could never have been in the form of an ethnic and religiously heterogeneous society.
Severing Turkey from Ottomanism means rewriting its history and redefining the trajectory of a state and how it came into being. This is why Turkey’s population, after generations, defends it so vigorously. This is not something Turkey was forced to do in the aftermath of the First World War given the priorities of the Allied powers, and given that failure, it has become an impossible task to achieve today by way of isolated events and declarations by successive Western leaders.
The concurrent genocides targeting Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks were born from careful planning which instrumentalised religious fervour and the prospect of taking control of entire economies for its perpetrators. The process to disseminate information about this and teach new generations the facts and enduring effects will outlive all of us as it will outlive our parents and grandparents. The genocide was an example of calculated, long-term statecraft by the Ottoman authorities and their Young Turk successors, as outlined in the recent history “Thirty-Year Genocide” by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi.
The authors commented that the “Ottoman-Turkish archives [had] been purged over the past century of incriminating evidence”, because it is in Turkey’s interests to obscure the conditions surrounding their demographic and economic landscape. Here, the shift to the ‘secular’ rule of Ataturk’s Republic — in centering the Turkish identity — from the Islamic rule of the Ottomans who afforded their subjugated Christian peoples dhimmi status with limited rights and privileges, was merely an extension of Turkish Muslim supremacy in another form, rather than a departure from it.
Quoting Mardean Isaac’s review of this book in September 2019:
“The “de-Christianisation” of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic was a “common political impulse”, and even the “ostensibly secularist National Struggle of Kemal “frequently referred to Islam as the primary unifier of the nation”. Islam served as the “glue that bound together” the non-Turkish ethnic groups — Kurds, Circassians, Arabs and others — that participated in the genocide. Under Abdulhamid’s “policy of political Islam”, the creation of new military units that elevated the status of “restive Muslim tribes” allowed Kurds to “appropriate land held by Armenians for centuries”.
“The authors are especially vivid in conveying a sense of how innumerable acts of theft, under the mandate and management of governing authorities, amounted to a complete takeover of Christian economies. With the removal of Christians from towns in Turkey, swathes of industries and services disappeared overnight. But Muslims were guaranteed long-term ownership of the entire economy.”
In the decades that followed, it is in the interests of the heirs of these economies to retain ownership of them and obscure their histories. Importantly, like any business, these economies are passed down through generations — the inheritance afforded by the governing authorities to the descendants of perpetrators and collaborators is cumulative wealth and security, but the inheritance for the survivors of this theft is a diaspora existence defined by continued insecurity and the tension between tradition and so-called “Western values”.
Western states who offer ‘recognition’ but do not otherwise contribute to any corrective actions erase the memories of those who have been lost to these campaigns of extermination. Despite presiding over a sovereign state which can command billions in resources both locally and in diaspora, Armenians do not benefit from status quo politics regionally or internationally. At every important juncture, whether its the conquest of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan in 2020 or Turkey’s ongoing activities in the region, Western states — those who have recognised the Armenian Genocide and those who have not — proceed with the status quo as normal, and this status quo not only obscures this bloody past, but continues to build outwards from it.
As we have learned with real world examples, genocide recognition can mean almost nothing, and in some examples, only serves the boost the moral authority of those who make those declarations, rather than centre those who are subject to the recognition.
Witnessing Assyrians lament the lack of inclusion in this declaration and explain it on terms which once more resurrect the false spectres of our inferiority, lack of organisational capacity, dedication, or motivation, I am reminded just how deep these wounds are even when it comes to simply tasting this nectar of emotionally-charged rhetoric. It must be understood beyond any doubt that genocide recognition in an Assyrian context has mostly been a diaspora activity given the precarious, almost constant danger Assyrians face in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and having to endure waves of Islamism, Ba’athism, and Kurdish nationalism within those states.
Each Assyrian community, whether in our homeland or in diaspora, has not had an opportunity to consolidate itself in a way conducive to reflecting on this question or dedicating large resources to its resolution. These are not problems faced by a sovereign Armenian state nor its long-established diaspora, so it is unfair to compare the two communities in any way when measuring outcomes regarding genocide recognition in terms of success and failure. This isn’t a question of solidarity, but one of varying priorities and resources.
Beyond recognition of this sort being a triumph for dedicated campaigners, some NGOs and think tanks (depending on where their funding is coming from), and perhaps a few political representatives with the relevant constituencies and influential voter blocs, what does it ultimately mean for survivors? For Assyrians, today a people living mostly in the West, the desire to see the US and other Western states finally recognise the genocide is deeply rooted in our psyche. There is a great deal of hurt that comes with living in adoptive states who do not recognise the heinous crimes that have forced our families to their shores in the first place. To receive recognition by these states contributes to a feeling of finally arriving and being accepted by them.
The virtue of finally being seen, especially in our adoptive states, is valuable insofar as it contributes to strengthening diaspora communities. But what about Armenians in their homeland? What about Assyrians and Greeks in theirs? Unlike Armenians and Greeks, Assyrians did not even emerge with a state after being nearly exterminated. What does recognition do for them — since that question must be, and should be, on the tip of everyone’s tongue?
There is a palpable belief that recognition represents something of a first step to deliver justice and perhaps create a pathway to acquire reparations. However, as demonstrated above, there is no necessary intersection between politics and law in this context, especially when genocide is rendered merely as an event that has come and gone, rather than something which continues to shape the world as we know it today. The campaigns around genocide recognition proceed in earnest with the very best of intentions, but difficult questions need to be asked of their strategies, demands and outcomes.
The fact is that we are still living in the “Ottoman-era”, and the Biden Administration’s attempt to dislocate modern-day Turkey from its own past in order to satisfy the yearnings of the US’ Armenian community fall flat from achieving the impact real conciliation should make. Far different to representing an exercise in accountability, commentators who say it provides Erdogan’s regime a useful and noble “way out” — by way of rendering genocide seemingly inconsequential — seem wilfully ignorant of the fact that Turkey has consistently sought “ways in” to recreate its imperial past by staging various military campaigns and proxy wars on multiple fronts, not learn lessons from it. There remains no political will to stop this trend and it is set to continue.
The Armenian Genocide recognition by the US on 24th April 2021 will go down in modern history as the only genocide without a perpetrator.