Legislating Genocide

Michael  Gunter
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Posted: Apr 08, 2015 10:25 AM
Legislating Genocide

In recent decades, and continuing today, various Armenian groups have made strenuous attempts to have numerous legislatures and various other bodies around the world pass resolutions recognizing the Armenian sufferings during World War I as genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire.

Although most Armenians feel very strongly about these events, why legislate their version of history after so many years? The history of Armenian-backed attempts to legislate genocide in the US has been one of Congress’s willingness to support Armenian contentions as a response to Armenian-American constituents as well as Congress’s piecemeal view towards US foreign policy.

Meanwhile, President Obama, in addition to those US lawmakers who oppose legislating genocide, believe that the proper position for the Congress to take on this and related issues is to encourage full and open access to all historical archives, and not to make charges on historical events before they are fully understood. The history of the Ottoman-Armenians is much debated among scholars, many of whom do not agree with the historical assumptions embodied in attempts to legislate one side or the other into law, a situation which would be analogous to a bill of attainder which is specifically prohibited by the US Constitution.

Legislation based on historically questionable assumptions can only damage the cause of honest historical enquiry, and damage the credibility of the American legislative process.

We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915. However, legislating it as genocide is not the right response to these historic mass fatalities and its passage would do great harm to relations with a key ally in NATO, and thus to US foreign policy. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser in the Carter administration, once sarcastically declared: “As far as a genocide resolution is concerned, I never realized that the House of Representatives was some sort of an academy of learning that passes judgment on historical events…It has nothing to do with passing laws, [and] how to run the United States.” Brzezinski went on to note that even President Carter, whom many would argue takes an idealistic approach to human rights issues, once stated that if he were in Congress he would not vote for such a resolution.

Nevertheless, some Armenian supporters have replied that anyone who denied their position was a party to genocide and became an agent of the Turkish state. Indeed, one pro-Armenian supporter went so far as to argue that supporting the Turkish position constituted hate speech and should be made illegal in the US. Ironically, the Armenian attempt to foreclose debate about what happened to them in World War I amounts to the very prevention of scholarly analysis for which they denounce Turkey.

The UK has also declined to attempt a contemporary hand at legislating accusations of Armenian genocide into history. On behalf of the British government, a deputy minister of foreign affairs stated during a 2007 Parliamentary debate that, “Neither this Government nor previous British Governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorized as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.” Bulgaria, Denmark, Sweden, and Israel, among others, have also explicitly rejected terming the events of 1915 genocide, and agree with Turkey that the question should be left to the historians to settle. Shimon Peres, then foreign minister and later president of Israel, declared in 2001: “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide.”

Previous government administrations in the US and internationally have been careful not to further propagate this century-old, traumatic historical dispute, and with good reason.