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The Trouble With the 'Genocide' Label

The Current Discussion: Today is "Genocide Remembrance Day "in the Armenian community, a particularly strained time of year for Turkey and Armenia. What's a realistic first step forward toward reconciliation for each of these countries?

By Salil Tripathi

Turkey and Armenia have begun the slow, tentative waltz of rebuilding relations, after President Obama spoke in Istanbul, but did not use the G-word.

That was perhaps a wise decision, notwithstanding the strong emotive reason that propelled many to call a spade a spade, a machete a machete, and a genocide a genocide, leading to the Congressional Resolution. The truth is that ultimately only communities themselves can make the decision to leave the past behind. International leaders - even one as gifted as Barack Obama - can only play a limited role. (Sudan's conflict didn't stop when Colin Powell called the killings in Darfur a genocide, and few countries joined him in condemning the Sudanese leadership.)

This is a peculiar period in the world annals of our coming to terms with genocide. Cambodia is trying to account for genocide and killing fields by indicting Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch. India's ruling party withdrew a candidate for Parliament, partially in response to a shoe-throwing incident. (Credible human rights groups allege that the candidate was involved in the 1984 Sikh massacre, after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.) Tamils in Britain accuse the Sri Lankan army of committing genocide in Sri Lanka. Bangladesh's newly-elected government sets its sights on bringing to justice those accountable for the Pakistani Army's widespread killings of Bangladeshis in 1971.

And then there is Rwanda. This month is the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In a recent issue of Paris Review, the French writer Jean Hatzfeld recalls the uneasy aftermath of dealing with released prisoners who had at one time massacred a community's loved ones. Hatzfeld's books - The Machete Season (2005), Life Laid Bare (2007), and The Antelope's Strategy (2009) -- are required reading for anyone who wants to understand the psyche of the perpetrator and the victim, of what makes a killer, and, as Hannah Arendt observed in the context of Eichmann, the banality of evil.

The fixation with the word 'genocide' comes from its emotive power. Among human rights abuses, genocide is arguably the worst, which is why governments fight tooth and nail to prevent others from calling their heinous acts as genocidal. The definition, developed after we discovered the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, is written bearing in mind the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish community. Those abuses made every preceding abuse seem less significant. With the definition was so precisely drafted, what were we to call Stalin's purges - or even Pol Pot's bloody rule - where a single ethnic group wasn't targeted, and where the masterminds of those genocides did not always get around to implementing policies that would prevent future generations from being born? These were mass killings, massacres, crimes against humanity. But they weren't quite like the Holocaust - just as the Holocaust wasn't quite like what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity are extremely powerful terms, which is why governments resent such characterization. The sad consequence is that diplomats then perform the delicate dance of defining the term more precisely, and argue whether a particularly horrendous abuse was genocide. Lost, amidst all this, are human impulses - of ethics, morality, revenge, justice, redemption, and compassion.

What happened in Turkey nearly a century ago - as indeed in Rwanda, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Sudan - must never happen again. And yet Obama and other world leaders can only nudge governments to do the right thing. Ultimately communities and nations must develop the confidence and face the past, apologize where necessary, and forgive as appropriate. That requires a moral core, not legalism alone. The law helps and is of course necessary. But genocide is wrong not because the law says so, but because it is against our conscience.

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Comments (20)

rlsrd Author Profile Page:

It's amazing how the Turkish lies are spreading. Reading comments about the jews never took up arms against Germany? The Armenians didn't either. Never recognize Turkey's border's occupying Azerbaji land? Eastern Turkey is Armenian ancestral land. The Azeri land was given to them by the Soviets but it was Armenian land originally.
Serbs killing Muslims. Those Muslims are ancestral Turks who slaughter the Serbs 600 years earlier to take over Kosovo. So all of you so called experts need to do more research or maybe your all closet Turks spreading more lies.

rlsrd Author Profile Page:


You obviously don't know what your talking about. It is well documented what happened and as for charging anyone with a crime. The three Turkish leaders that ordered and carried out the Genecide were hunted down and put to death by Armenians.

Zareh Author Profile Page:

The problem is not just Turkey not recognizing a genocide that was committed against the Armenians by the Ottoman State, today when Turks say "NO" to Genocide they in fact are saying "NO" to the sufferings of the Armenians, period. Sure, you hear officials and commentators here and there mumble something about, "suffering of Armenians", and this after many years of saying "no such thing happened" and even negating the fact of Armenians ever having a homeland in Anatolia. Ruined Armenian churches were presented simply as "ruins of christian ancestors of Turks".

Today there are just under 30 000 signatories in an internet campaign by Turkish individuals to apologies for the suffering of the Armenians, the text does not even mention "genocide". There are over a million signatories to an opposite internet campaign that negates those who genuinely want to express the suffering of the Armenians.

All this to say that the carefully planned and executed genocide must be acknowledged if Turks want a genuine peace and friendship. What is now happening is nothing but forcing Armenia to abandon genuine claims of injustice and also importantly, any future material compensations. Lands were stolen, properties were confiscated, inhabitants were annihilated now they expect Armenians to forget all that and "look to the future".
No apology without redress and compensation can be meaningful and the Turks know this, hence the denial of the genocide.

If the Turks today accuse the Armenians of of wanting to create an independent homeland out of Ottoman territories, then what do you call Turks carving a homeland for themselves out of the same Ottpman territories? Ottoman territories were not exclusively Turkish. The Turks killed off Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, then brutally subdued the Kurds, then declared Republic of Turkey for themselves, now they say forget all that and "look to the future".

All "futures" are based on the past, without fixing the past there can be no genuine future, because its foundations remain rotten.

Zareh Sahakian

The son of Armenian genocide survivor.

cyberfool Author Profile Page:

A truth and reconciliation commission, composed of both Armenian & Turkish historians, looking at the record and issuing a comprehensive report on what went on.

A comprehensive report documenting what occurred would be like the 9/11 report - while some people might disagree, the burden of proof would be on those that disagree to prove their point.

This issue is old enough that there is no one that can be charged with a crime, so only how history is written really matters. Lets find the truth so that we can move on.

markboyadjian Author Profile Page:

Armenians all over Anatolia, not just on the eastern war front, were wiped out. The cities of Yozgad, Sivas, Caeserea, Hadjin, Marash, Adana, and Ankara -- just to name a few -- are hardly in the east. One needs but to look at a map of Turkey to see this. Turkish apologists depend on American ignorance of geography to make such foolish claims

markboyadjian Author Profile Page:

When the armed government of 25 million people turns on and attempts to exterminate an unarmed minority of three million old men, women, and children, it is hardly an "intercommunal struggle," "an ethnic feud," or "civil war"; it is nothing more or less than genocide. The Turkish government had a bureaucracy, tax money, an army, irregular troops, the local police, and special killing squads to carry out its mission. What did the Armenians have?

If it was a feud between Turks and Armenians, what explains the genocide carried out by Turkey against the Christian Assyrians at the same time?

Furthermore, Turkish armies invaded the fledging Armenian Republic in the Caucasus inhabited by indigenous Armenians in order to wipe out not only Armenians in the Ottoman Empire but also Armenians who lived elsewhere.

nyoped Author Profile Page:

Armenia has NOT recognized the borders of Turkey and is occupying a piece of Azerbaijan, an aggression that forced almost 500.000 people out of their homes (ironic is not it?) according to Wall Street Journal.

However, regardless of the ultra-nationlist attitude of Armenian government and lobbies, Turkey should do whatever is deemed to be the right thing to do, by whatever moral system .

If we Turks decide to call it genocide we should do it regardless of the negative consequences (decades of legal battles). And similarly we are convinced it was a civil war we should keep our stance regardless of the insincere feel-good grandstanding of American and European politicians.

myporche Author Profile Page:

Truth, nothing but the truth about so called Armenian genocide. You can read all about it in details at this link....


salil61 Author Profile Page:

Thank you for the responses so far. To Harisw, Sdealwis, and Gazpacho: it is not my intention to allege that the Sri Lankan army is committing a genocide in Sri Lanka. But it is what some Tamil groups have alleged. As you can see from the piece above, an allegation does not make the charge right, and those being accused will do their best to deny that charge. Thank you, Gazpacho, for your kind words in your later posts.

To Dan25: When I use the term Genocide, I am referring to the 1948 definition, from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Please see here for further details: http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html. The definition there, under Art. 2, is, as you will see, developed to prevent the recurrence of atrocities that can be compared to the Holocaust.


Salil Tripathi

threeoaksgone Author Profile Page:

It's an extremely important point that the involved parties in such an argument over history must reach accommodation on their own terms and on their own initiative. The U.S. and other "outsiders" will be most effective by refusing to play the name game; Armenians and Turks alike hope to be able to point to the "support" of the superpower for "their side." Only when it's clear that won't be forthcoming can they make progress in reaching their own solution.

Second, let's let the terminology fit the event. Genocide is overused because it's so powerful. But it requires a finding of willful and organized effort to wipe out an ethnic group based on that ethnicity (or religion, which is often a marker of ethnicity). There are few such cases: the Holocaust was one, Serb killings of Muslims in Bosnia was another, and as Americans, let's not forget that our effort to eradicate the "Indians" might fit the definition too.

Most evidence suggests that the Armenian case was more an issue of ethnic hatreds blossoming in a time of upheaval and tension; things got out of hand but until further historical evidence comes to light, there's really not much indication of a government-run "campaign" of killing. In fact at the time, the situation in the area was more one of anarchy, similar perhaps to Somalia today. Unfortunately we have lots of terms we can apply to such acts of violence (since they are not uncommon) - mass murder, massacre, and on and on.

gazpacho Author Profile Page:

I think Salil's connection of the 'inter-ethnic' strife in Sri Lanka with the term 'genocide' was incorrect. However the Tamils are generally a discriminated minority with restricted rights for even limited self-determination or legal recourse. I cant blame some of them for drastic action in certain cases, but for the few that resort to terrorism in order to ethnically and regionally separate themselves from a well established nation state are just sadistic fascists. Of course past Sri Lankan gov. policies, the brutality of the armed forces, and civic and social discrimination in general is largely responsible for any past or present Tamil support of the LTTE. The Sri Lankan armed forces have jailed,tortured and/or killed thousands of unarmed Tamils, at least half were innocent civilians and not in the heat of battle,however I would'nt classify government or LTTE policy as 'Genocide', mass murder maybe.

MoneyLender Author Profile Page:

One and one half million dead is probably not an accident.It does take courage to talk about genocide. It takes courage to talk frankly about torture, but it must be done. Jews have been guilty of torture, Israel is in the process of tormenting and abusing Palestine, and possibly a genocide. We are all guilty if we do not denounce it. The first part of stopping it it to call it what it is.

gazpacho Author Profile Page:

The insistence of some for formal recognition of the term 'genocide', as far as the Ottoman governments' sanctioned ethnic cleansing of Armenians, is really not that important. What is important is that the present day Turkish government recognize and apologize for the actions of others whose legacy they (modern Turkish gov.) are the unfortunate inheritors of. Not only should they formally recognize the ********* of the Armenians, but the ******** of ALL ethnic groups under the Ottoman Empire that were 'cleansed' or massacred according to gov. sanctioned policies. I can perfectly understand why this might seem hypocritical to some, its not as if the U.S.,Russia,Serbia,Bulgaria,Italy,Mexico,Indonesia,Israel,Algeria or whoever, have gone out of their way to do the same when it comes to ALL their own past domestic and foreign policies that aided, led or contributed to mass murder since 1800. The fact that Armenians have a biased agenda to further their own self-interests...what self proclaimed or designated group does'nt? For the completely innocent people of Turkey who deny the evil doings of other people from the distant past, they are sowing the seeds for more hatred. However, for the completely innocent people of Turkey who point out that other people or the other 'side' wont admit to their governments' past failings or murders so why should we, a pox on both houses.

harisW Author Profile Page:

We are treading on thin ice here.

Are we committing GENOCIDE by targetting TALIBAN?

Did we commit GENOCIDE with the killings of Koreans, Vietnamese, Germans, and Iraqies?

The Jewish issue is different. They never took to arms against the Germans. This was based on religeon.

The Sri Lankan LTTE terror group resolved to armed aggression against a democratically elected government. 99% of LTTE members happen to be Tamil. The govenment had not been targeting Tamils, but the LTTE terrorists. 70% of the Tamils live in harmony with the other citizen of various ethnicity outside the area controlled by the terrorists.

Just like the Japanese were sent to the internment camps and all Muslims are treated with suspicion after 9/11, Tamils in Sri Lanka are at times invenienced due to extra security measures enforced with good reason.

Each case here would have to be evaluated separately. Please refrain from stereotyping for the mere fact that you are ignorent of the issue.

gazpacho Author Profile Page:

In response to DAN25's response(below), considering that half the human race is basically bigoted and ignorant, sometimes being sensitive to these said bigots can actually have a positive effect. However, that said, in laying the groundwork for diplomacy timing is vital and Obama's diplomacy with Turkey is correct, however at some point this year he needs to repeat his statement about the "Armenian Genocide". If I were him I would first talk about the American Genocide of Native Americans,West Africans and the slavery genocide, then repeat Turkey's need to face up to reality too.

Usama1 Author Profile Page:

Unlike Cambodia, the Ottoman officials found guilty of orchestrating massacres were tried, convicted, and executed. The Ottoman empire was dismantled. The Armenian nation was formed. Essentially, all that can be done was done, except financial compensation aka reparations.

Im in favor of Armenians who live in Turkey be granted legal avenues to have justice to properties lost illegally. If an Armenian Turk has a legal claim to property in Eastern Turkey but was refused it because of some arcane regulations, serious efforts should be made for him. Armenians should be allowed to repatriot to Turkey and as citizens pursue their legal claims.

However, I suspect the Armenian Diaspora calling for genocide have financial motivations as well as an Armenian nationalist agenda which they are pursuing. They would like to expand Armenia westward, claiming mt. Ararat and related lands under the Armenian flag. The Armenian govt did not recognize the eastern border of Turkey for several decades. They would like to revert Hague Sophia to an Catholic church eventhough its a museum today. They would like to change the name Istanbul back to Constantinople eventhough it was liberated by the Ottomans in 1492. And most importantly, its likely that if the genocide label was used, it would open Turkey to liability for Ottoman govt actions. Armenians could initiate lawsuits in Europe to extract reparations and compensation which include inflation amounting to 100s of millions. The EU would extract that from Turkish govt investments within the EU. And it would go to Armenians anywhere in the world, such as Los Angeles.

There is more to this matter than just remembrance of the dead.

Mindie Author Profile Page:

Yes, a spade is a spade, a machete a machete, and a genocide a genocide. A civil war is a civil war, as well. Millions of civilians have died alongside the military throughout history, and not all of these deaths can be characterized as genocide.

The dictionary defines "civil war" to be: "A war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country". Why is it necessary to hide the fact that the Armenians revolted against the Ottoman Government, demanding territory on which they were not the majority, and the fact that they had an army of over a 100,000 well-armed militia that attacked their neighbors?

The Armenians, unlike the Jews, were not unarmed civilians as they claim. The tragedies of the Turco-Armenian conflict affected hundreds of thousands of Turks and other Moslems as well. Why is their suffering ignored?

No media outlet, parliament or the Congress of any country, nor President Obama alone is authorized to pass judgement on the nature of historical tragedies. A historical and judicial examination of the facts by an International Court, and not political pontifications, is necessary before our leaders pander to the relentless insistence of the Armenians who would, along with a recognition of genocide from the Republic of Turkey, also plan to ask for territory and compensation from the Turks, almost a century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Let's not be naive. Whosoever thinks that the Turks are going to roll over and consent to the Armenians' demands is sorely mistaken.


sddealwis Author Profile Page:

It is unfortunate that Salis Tripathi talks on Sri Lanka without knowing proper facts. Liberating its' own citizens by the democratically elected government from ruthless terrorist LTTE rebels who killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi, Sri Lankan President Premadasa and more than 100,000 innocent civilians cannot be called as GENOCIDE. It is an action against terrorism.

gazpacho Author Profile Page:

Salil's analysis is generally correct. In an ideal world, which does'nt exist, every consciencious human individual would get their way. However if that really occured the whole world would be in a state of continual mass murder. Compromise is the true definition of peace, and yes that includes compromise with mass murderers. Naturally whenever possible mass murder or the threat of it should be stopped(e.g.Rwanda;Hitler in 1935),or at least intensily punished(e.g.Sudan). Idealism is vital, but it should never be mistaken for reality. Half of all human activity is basically evil, always, but according to whose definition?

Dan25 Author Profile Page:

In response to Mr. Tripathi's article on the Armenian genocide, I would point out a few things.

One, Tripathi writes that: "The definition, developed after we discovered the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, is written bearing in mind the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish community."

This is incorrect. Raphael Lemkin coined the term in response to the massacre of Assyrians in Iraq and the massacre of Armenians in Turkey. See a citation here: http://www.europaworld.org/issue40/raphaellemkin22601.htm

Second, the point of recognizing the Armenian genocide is not to nudge Turkey to do the right thing, but to recognize it. Not to leave history behind, as Mr. Tripathi claims, but to acknowledge the lives of those who were exterminated.

Since the last of the Armenian genocide survivors are dying out in the USA, it seems this issue will now lose its force. By the time our President gets around to recognizing the genocide officially, the last survivors will be dead, knowing that there was no official recognition.

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