It is worth noting how close US President Obama came to using the term genocide when making his annual April 24th statement on the commemoration of the Turkish extermination of the Armenians. He used an Armenian word, Mets Yeghern, meaning Great Catastrophe, similar to the Hebrew “Shoah.” He heavily implies that the fate of the Armenians was a genocide, uncharacteristically approaching his personal position on the subject, which views it a clear case of genocide.
Contrast this verbal sidestepping with a statement the US government made in a document submitted to the International Court of Justice in 1951:
The practice of genocide has occurred throughout human history. The Roman persecution of the Christians, the Turkish massacres of Armenians, the extermination of millions of Jews and Poles by the Nazis are outstanding examples of the crime of genocide.
This is unequivocal official recognition by the US government that the Turkish extermination of the Armenians was genocide. Why the discrepancy between the unambiguous 1951 statement and US rhetoric since? One might innocently argue that it’s not in the interest of the US to create “unnecessary” problems for its NATO partner Turkey, which denies ever having committed genocide not only against Armenians, but also Assyrians and Greeks. However, there may be more to this issue, considering the US has never changed its 1951 statement and almost thirty countries since have recognized this genocide. Explanations tend to center on Turkish lobbying, whether of US lawmakers and the State Department, US defense contractors, or oil and gas interests associated with Azerbaijani and Iraqi reserves transported in pipelines across Turkey, etc.
Another leading hypothesis is that such re-recognition would spark a slew of genocide claims internationally, many, perhaps, against the US. Turkish efforts to forge relations with Native American tribes and institutions tends to support the hypothesis that Turks can threaten to ratchet up pressure on the US government by encouraging Native American genocide and reparation claims if the US breaks stride and officially re-recognizes the Armenian genocide.
As with most policy decisions, there are dilemmas. Has the US closed the door on suits against its own actions in the past, justified or not, while perhaps encouraging genocidal acts by not calling crimes against humanity by their accurate names? The answer depends on what end of the sword one stands. Ironically less than two months ago, the US State Department clearly labeled the barbarism exhibited by ISIS as genocide. US Secretary of State Kerry and others must have calculated the chances of ISIS leaders and infrastructure surviving long enough for a war crimes tribunal at nearly zero, making such an unencumbered statement politically convenient.
When Obama does not explicitly refer to the 1915 genocide of the Armenians, a Turkish leader like Erdogan or his ethnic allies could infer that violence or other harmful measures against Armenians are likely to be tolerated. This is significant because the Republic of Turkey under the rule of President Erdogan has been in the habit of making unilateral moves without first obtaining international backing. In the past Turkey took pains to line up international support (e.g. obtaining French backing to annex the Syrian province of Alexendretta prior to WWII and US and other support ahead of the 1974 occupation of northern Cyprus). Under Erdogan, since the strengthening of the Islamist AKP party, Turkey has flown solo, from being Gaza’s savior, to supporting Azerbaijan in its claim on Nagorno-Karabakh, and shooting down a Russian SU-24 last fall. This makes what US presidents don’t quite say very significant.
When the US and some of its allies were busy dismembering Yugoslavia in the the early 1990s, a genocide was taking place in Rwanda. US President Bill Clinton knew in April 1994 that events in Rwanda had reached genocidal scale. But it was not until the end of May that the US government began using the term genocide to describe the systematic murder of Tutsis by Rwandan Hutus. US footdragging had consequences: It took only three months for the Hutu to exterminate almost a million Tutsi.
US President Roosevelt ignored, some say willfully, the plight of European Jews under Nazi rule. Perhaps it was militarily expedient to have the Nazis expend energy exterminating millions of innocents rather than fighting Allied armies.
Not calling something for what it is still has deadly consequences.
David Davidian is an Adjunct Lecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms.