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100 years later, Obama should formally recognize the Armenian genocide

Armenian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, in what we call Turkey today, were targeted for annihilation by radical ultra-nationalist leaders 100 years ago.

Denial harms all of us.
REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

If you’ve driven on eastbound Interstate 94 near the Lexington Avenue exit in St. Paul lately, on eastbound I-494 in Bloomington near Highway 100, or in other metro areas, you’ve undoubtedly been surprised to see a billboard with a purple flower and the words “The Armenian Genocide. 100 Years of Remembrance.”

author photo
Ellen J. Kennedy

One hundred years ago, Armenian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, in what we call Turkey today, were targeted for annihilation by radical ultra-nationalist leaders. From 1915 to 1923 more than 1.5 million innocent men, women, and children perished through starvation, torture and extermination.

For a hundred years the Turkish government has steadfastly denied the scope and intent of this tragedy. Arguments denying the Armenian genocide take many forms, including that the numbers are inflated; that violence was perpetrated on both sides and were justified by war; and that the Armenians died from conditions of the war and not from any brutality inflicted by the Ottoman government.

No restitution, no acknowledgement

Most of the perpetrators were never brought to justice. The victims and their families never received any restitution for stolen lands, properties, churches, schools, or historic sites. The story of this genocide has never appeared in schoolbooks in Turkey – or, indeed, in most countries in the world.

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When Hitler was preparing plans to exterminate 9 million Jews across the continent of Europe, he was asked how he thought he would be able to accomplish such a feat without world intervention. His reply? “Who, after all, today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

And, indeed, who today does remember them? Reducing the memorialization of a genocide, the loss of almost an entire people and their culture, to a billboard is a tragedy of heartbreaking proportion.

Pope Francis spoke out boldly two weeks ago and called this tragedy ‘genocide.’ In response, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Pope for these words, warned him not to make such a statement again, and recalled the Turkish envoy to the Vatican.

Continued denial

The Turkish government continues to deny that what happened was genocide, despite 126 internationally renowned Holocaust and genocide scholars, including Nobel-Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, affirming in a New York Times ad “the incontestable historical fact of the Armenian genocide … (and we) urge western democracies to officially recognize it.”

Twenty-one countries around the world have called it genocide; 43 states in the U.S, including Minnesota, have done the same. However, the U.S. government has never taken this step.

On March 27, 15 U.S. senators, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren, signed a bipartisan letter urging President Barack Obama to attend the main memorial event in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on April 24 “to send a powerful message that the United States recognizes the magnitude and full meaning of the Armenian Genocide.”

“While the United States Congress has a long history of support for victims and the memory of the Armenian Genocide, the Administration has not formally recognized the atrocities that were perpetrated against the Armenians as ‘genocide,’ ” the senators wrote.

‘The facts are undeniable’

When running for president, then-Sen. Obama said in a 2008 campaign statement that “the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely-documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. [A]s president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” he pledged.

He has not taken action out of concern for reprisals from the Turkish government, a strategic ally in the region since the Cold War era. And neither Sen. Amy Klobuchar nor Sen. Al Franken are signatories to that March 27 bipartisan letter.

Why does this matter?

Elie Wiesel has repeatedly called Turkey’s campaign to cover up the Armenian genocide a double killing, because it strives to kill the memories of the original atrocities as well.

‘Scars harden into hatred’

Denial harms the victims and their survivors. As genocide scholar Gregory Stanton has said, “Around the world, victims of genocide ask first for recognition of the crime committed against them. It is as essential to healing as closing an open wound. Without such healing, scars harden into hatred that cripples the victim in both body and mind.” This hatred can persist across generations.

Denial harms the rescuers and “upstanders.” For those who attempted to stand up and speak out and to rescue those in danger, refusal to recognize atrocity crimes erases their courageous efforts to combat brutality and obliterates the path to future justice and peace. Today, there are many courageous Turks, historians and ordinary citizens alike, who advocate for their government to tell the truth – and, like Turkish scholar Dr. Taner Akcam of Clark University, often do so at continued threat to their own personal safety. Denial invites their stories to be ignored, belittled, or labeled as false.

Earlier this week Richard Hovannisian, Ph.D., from UCLA, a descendant of Armenian survivors, spoke at World Without Genocide about his video documentation of more than 800 survivor testimonies. He affirmed that in at least 600 of those testimonies, archived with Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, survivors mentioned Turkish friends, neighbors and strangers who helped them.

Denial harms the rescuers; it negates their bravery, their humanity, and their heroism.

Denial harms all of us. Studies by genocide scholars illustrate quite conclusively that the single best predictor of future genocides is denial of a past genocide and impunity for its perpetrators. Governments that deny perpetrating mass atrocities are more likely to commit genocide again.

Nearly 100 million people were killed in genocides during the 20th century on nearly every continent and against people of virtually every identity. Unless we acknowledge genocide and end impunity for the perpetrators, we are likely to have a future of “over and over again” for this crime. Today’s challenges of failed states; scarce resources, especially water; the ever-increasing proliferation of deadly weapons; and a ‘youth bulge’ in many of those failed states makes violence, and especially mass atrocity crimes such as genocide, increasingly likely.

That purple flower on those billboards is a forget-me-not. The survivors of the Armenian genocide are nearly all dead. They deserve not to be forgotten. Their descendants deserve recognition for what happened.

We have delivered hundreds of letters to Sens. Klobuchar and Franken, signed by voters throughout the state. We want our senators, too, to join the bipartisan coalition asking President Obama to designate the tragedy by its rightful name: genocide.

Ellen Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide in St. Paul.


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