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The Genocide Debate

Last month, President Barack Obama found himself in a tight spot on the question of whether the mass killings of Armenians in World War I should be called an act of genocide. As a candidate to the presidency, he promised to apply the the term genocide to the Armenian case. Yet as president, he was willing to call these events "one of the worst atrocities" of the 20th century or use a term from the Armenian language, "Meds Yerghen," which means "great crime," but he studiously avoided the term genocide. It can be assumed that Obama's position was influenced by considerations of realpolitik: Turkey serves as vital aerial passage for US troops moving through the whole Middle East. And since Turkey now is a non-permanent member of the US Security Council, the Obama administration needs its support on Iran.

The result of Obama's careful balancing act was that he was criticized by both sides. The Armenian-American community expressed bitter disappointment in his position. As for Turkish government, its foreign minister said that Obama's language was "not acceptable." A month earlier, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives voted 23 to 22 to formally recognize that an Armenian genocide occurred; the Turkish government recalled its ambassador to Washington in protest. While some 20 states recognize the wartime deaths of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire as genocide, the Turks actively oppose the adoption of this term. Last month the Knesset also decided to consider whether an Armenian genocide had occurred, despite Israel's security interests in Turkey.

The 1948 Genocide Convention was drafted after the Holocaust, when the term genocide was first used.  Despite the wide adherence to the convention, there are enormous debates about its application to specific instances.  The Ottoman treatment of the Armenians is not the only case. In 1977, the Carter administration was reluctant to label the mass murder of 2.5 million people in Cambodia as genocide, since its leaders were allies of the Chinese, with whom Washington was trying to improve its relations. 

More recently, Sudan has waged a war against the tribes living in its Darfur district since 2003. Sudanese Janajaweed militias killed nearly 400,000 residents of Darfur. Over a million became refugees.  In 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell explicitly called the Sudanese attacks in Darfur genocide. Yet the UN formally refused to use the same legal terminology as the US government. It avoided calling the war being waged in Darfur a genocide. A UN Security Council Commission of Inquiry asserted in almost Orwellian style in a report from 2005 that "...the policy of attacking, killing, forcibly displacing members of some tribes does not evince a specific intent to annihilate." 

It is a noteworthy irony that the UN commission protecting Sudan from the charge of genocide, included the Pakistani legal expert, Hina Jilani, who years later became a member of the Goldstone Commission charging Israel with war crimes for Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Jilani could establish the intent of Israeli soldiers to deliberately kill Palestinian civilians, which the Goldstone team tried to allege, but she could not read into the intent of the Sudanese regime to commit genocide. Politics appeared to be deciding what was the truth in both cases rather than a consistent application of legal norms. Despite the UN's embarrassing legal decision in 2005, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court ultimately charged the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir with genocide in 2008.

In applying the term genocide, there are always legal loopholes. In Darfur, as just noted, the UN questioned whether there was specific intent behind the killings to commit genocide. In Cambodia, there were those who commented that the mass murder perpetrated by Pol Pot was not against a particular national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as stipulated in the Genocide Convention. On the Armenian question, the argument has been made that since the Genocide Convention was drafted in 1948, it cannot be applied retroactively to events in 1915 and 1916. However, the most important question is not legal, but rather whether states understand the lessons of the past. 

During a visit to London on March 17, 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel 100,000 Armenians from Turkish territory, if parliaments around the world continue to deal with the Armenian question. True, he only spoke about Armenians who were not citizens, but his words were directed at a specific ethnic group and not at guest workers in general. As the commentator, Christopher Hitchens noted, neither the US nor the European Union condemned Erdogan for his threat against the Armenians. The reaction of the international community to statements like that of Erdogan will determine whether genocide can be prevented in the future far more than the narrow legal question of whether mass killings against innocent civilians at any point in history meet the formal definition of genocide or not. 

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