Why the US Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Matters
Vahagn Avedian explores the significance of Biden's recent use of the 'G' word.
Does it really matter to recognize a century old “historical” event such as the Armenian Genocide during WWI in the Ottoman Empire? The answer is, yes! The recognition has bearings on several different levels, moral and psychological as well as political and legal.
The historic recognition by President Joe Biden on April 24, 2021 is seen foremost as a symbolic gesture towards the victim groups of the genocide, mainly Armenians. It finally ended decades of US kindling of Turkish state’s genocide denial as numerous past presidential candidates promised to use the “g-word” when elected, only to break that promise once in the Oval Office. Turkey answers as it always does, namely by condemning the recognition as “misrepresentation of history,” and perhaps recalling its ambassador. But, as all previous cases of international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the relations will most certainly soon return to the normal.
The recognition, however, is not only about setting the records straight. It is not only about moral issues but has also other tangible implications: it confronts the Turkish genocide denial and the history revisionism which has profoundly contributed to the molding of the Turkish national narrative, setting the norms for how to identify the “enemy within” and how to deal with them. From the Armenians during WWI, the Kurds in the 1930s and onwards, to the more recent nationwide hunt for the “Gülenists” as “the enemy within.” If justice and rule of law are pillars of modern democracy, then the omission of them through denial and revisionism will surely undermine the democracy they are supposed to uphold. This relation is without a doubt observable throughout the history of modern Republic of Turkey.
In addition, the recognition has legal implications too, both nationally as well as internationally. In fact, the perceived threat of legal consequences has been one of the main reasons for Turkey’s ardent denial. The legal aspects are, however, not exclusive for Turkey, but quite topical in other countries as well, including USA. The US Supreme Court, in its 2013 dismissal of an insurance claim case from California, referred to the Federal Government’s standpoint in the matter of not calling the events “genocide” and hinted that any change in that policy would have bearing on future similar cases.
The recognition has international significance too. In its 2013 judgement regarding Perincek vs Switzerland, one of the arguments mentioned by the lower instance of the European Court of Human Rights in defending Perincek’s freedom of speech to deny the Armenian genocide was actually that “only about twenty States (out of more than 190 in the world) have officially recognised the Armenian genocide.” Thus, even though international law should be universal and politically agnostic, a highly respectful international court had based its argument, at least partly, on decisions made by political instances such as the White House.
The US recognition of the Armenian Genocide is thereby significant for several reasons. It not only sets the records right, politically acknowledging the scholarly community’s consensus, but it also helps Turkey to become a better and stronger democracy by facing its bitter past. This is exactly what happened in post-WWII Germany, where the Ally’s policy of “denazification” was really not about catching and punishing every Nazi, but to stigmatize Nazism as the flawed identity towards which the Germans were supposed to build their new, democratically sound, identity upon. Unfortunately, by not confronting Turkish genocide denial and revisionism, the world community has not only failed the victims, but also the Turkish nation in aiding them to face and reject the wrongful past and using its lessons to form its sound democracy. The Kurdish problem, the Gülenists and the treatment of every dissident throughout Turkey’s history is thereby partly due to this failure and disservice.
Thus, the recognition is not only a moral issue, but it has substantial impact on molding national identities and narratives and in nurturing democratic values by upholding law and justice. These are but few of the most obvious benefits of Biden’s historical recognition of the Armenian Genocide. It has undoubtedly signaled US recommitment to heralding human rights on the international arena and hopefully other states will follow suit. After all, the fact is that we do not talk about “crimes against Armenians” or even “crimes against Christians,” but crimes against humanity. As such, the universal inclusive tenor of the term should affect all those who count themselves as part of that humanity, in cherishing it and condemning any violations against it.
Vahagn Avedian, PhD, specializes in research concerning the fields of genocide, human rights, peace and conflict and democracy. Author of Knowledge and Acknowledgment in the Politics of Memory of the Armenian Genocide (Routledge, 2019).