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Hopeful signs for Turkey, Armenia

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
April 19, 2005
The Boston Globe

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AS ARMENIANS gather worldwide this weekend to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, they are debating Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. The nationalist fringe believes there should be no contact between Turks and Armenians until Turkey stops denying the genocide, pays reparations, and returns territory. Most Armenians support dialogue and cooperation. They endorse opening the border in order to end Armenia's isolation and impoverishment.

For 90 years, Turkish-Armenian relations have been defined by enmity and distrust. Misunderstandings are compounded by dramatically different versions of history. Armenians and most international historians describe pogroms in the late 19th century that killed one quarter million Armenians in eastern Anatolia. On April 24, 1915, some 800 Armenian community leaders were executed and the deportation of Armenians resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million between 1915 and 1923.

The Turkish government emphasizes the war context in which events occurred. It points out that the deportation was in response to security concerns arising from the Armenian rebellion during which hundreds of thousands of Turks died. Turkey rejects use of the term genocide and resents efforts by Armenians to gain international recognition. Progress is further complicated by diaspora politics and the occupation of territories in Azerbaijan by Armenians.

In 2001, a heroic group of Turks and Armenians decided it was time to talk. They established the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission, which broke a taboo about Armenian issues in Turkey and spawned civil society projects involving business leaders, women's associations, youth groups, cultural activities, parliamentarians, and local government officials.

This is not a substitute for official diplomacy. The goal is to explore the underlying conditions that gave rise to conflict and develop strategies. As a result, the conflict comes to be seen as a shared problem.

The commission's primary goal was to encourage Turkey and Armenian to open the Kars-Gyumri border gate as a first step toward establishing diplomatic relations. But the genocide issue cast a long shadow over discussions.

To address this problem, Turks and Armenians agreed to seek a non-binding legal opinion facilitated by the well-respected International Center for Transitional Justice on the ''applicability of the Genocide Convention to events in the early Twentieth Century."

To the satisfaction of the Turks, the analysis concluded: ''The Genocide Convention contains no provisions mandating its retroactive application. Therefore, no legal, financial, or territorial claim arising out of the events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the Convention." This determination was important to Turks who believe that, from the 1920 Sevres Treaty to today, great powers misunderstand Turkey and seek to diminish or dismember their country.

The legal analysis also examined the events in the context of international law. To the satisfaction of Armenians, it concluded that one or more persons were killed; such persons belonged to a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group; the action took place as part of a pattern of conduct against the group; and at least some of the Ottoman rulers knew that the consequence of the deportation orders would result in many deaths. Therefore, their actions possessed the prerequisite genocidal intent.

Though the win-win analysis could be used by governments of Turkey and Armenia to break the impasse, it is clear that Ankara is a long way from recognizing the genocide. Armenians are just as resolute in continuing their efforts to gain recognition.

At this juncture, Turkey and Armenia should broaden the discussion. The Armenian government can create conditions conducive to Turkey opening the border by reaffirming its commitment to the 1921 Kars Treaty that demarcated the boundary between modern-day Turkey and Armenia.

Turkish officials should recognize that Turkey has nothing to fear and lots to gain from opening the border. Normal travel and trade would have a huge economic impact on the provinces bordering Armenia while reducing the transportation cost of Turkish goods to Central Asia and beyond.

Though the Bush administration has neglected Turkish-Armenian issues since Sept. 11 and the Iraq War, the United States can play an indispensable role. It should encourage Armenia to reach out and point out to Turkey that good neighborly relations would enhance its prospects of joining the European Union.


David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is author of "Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation."

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