1915 Armenian Genocide — The “G” Word as a Huge Landmine, and Diplomatic Equities

Posted: 4:29 pm EDT
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The internal debate is not new.  A good reading would probably be the oral history interview with Ambassador John M. Evans who was ambassador to Armenia from 2004-2006. He lost his job during the Bush II administration after calling the Armenian killings a genocide.  See Country Reader Armenia via ADST. Excerpt below on how the “g” word has become a bureaucratic landmine.

Q: Did you, while you were getting ready, did you touch into the Turkish desk?

EVANS: No, I did not. I had, during my Cox Fellowship, done a lot of reading on Ottoman history. I knew people who had been involved in Turkish affairs, of course; I’d known people all along but at that point I did not make a formal appointment at the Turkish desk.

Q: Well then, did-

EVANS: I should add to that, though, that my old friend Eric Edelman, who had succeeded me as DCM in Prague, was then ambassador in Turkey, and in a very casual encounter we had in the lobby of the State Department he said “John, don’t forget our position on the Genocide is that it was the chaos and fog of war.”

Q: So- Because the genocide or the “g” word was a huge landmine; anybody dealing-

EVANS: It was, first of all, taboo. It was not something we were to discuss. We just learned that; we weren’t told it precisely. I knew from my previous study of Ottoman history that there was a problem around this question. I didn’t know much about the facts of it and I didn’t know much about the definition of genocide, either. But I did start reading about it in the weeks leading up to my departure for Yerevan and I read more about it when I got to Yerevan. I also, before leaving, made a point of calling on the expert in our legal advisor’s office who has the unenviable job of thinking about genocide full time, and I asked him point blank, I said “had it been the case that the Genocide Convention of 1948 was in effect in 1915 would not the events of 1915 have been characterized as genocide?” And he said, “yes, of course. It’s a matter of policy, not fact; it’s a matter of policy that we do not refer to it as genocide.”

Q: Okay, why don’t we take it why? I mean, at the time, we’re talking about 2004, was it? Why was this, I mean, what was the rationale for having a policy not to call it genocide?

EVANS: I was never given a point-by-point rationale for why we did not refer to it as genocide. What I clearly understood, and I think most other people understood, was that it was Turkish official policy to deny that there had been a genocide. Turkey was our good ally, our faithful ally in NATO, had fought with us side by side in the Korean War and so on and so forth. We had big — enormous — strategic interests in Turkey and therefore in deference to Turkish policy we simply did not talk about those times or events.

Q: Did you- still talking about the early days when you were getting ready to go out there- did you chat with anybody else of your colleagues in various positions; did they bring this up or was this sort of-? You know, when you say “Armenia” it sort of- it’s hard almost not to think about the…

EVANS: Well, I did not discuss it with very many people but I did discuss the question with a couple. One was a State Department employee of the Historian’s Office, a man of Armenian background. We had a furtive lunch one day in which he told me what he knew about the question. He told me about Rafael Lemkin, the Polish legal scholar who lost 49 members of his own family in World War II in the Holocaust but who had been led to the study of atrocities and mass crimes by his hearing of the Armenian massacres in his law school days in Krakow and who had asked his professor at that time why was it that if a man commits murder and he is sent to jail whereas if a government murders a million men, women and children there’s no retribution? And his law professor had no answer and so Rafael Lemkin went out to try to find a way to make a crime of these things.

The other person I spoke to before going was, of course, Elizabeth Jones, the assistant secretary. I called on her along with the Armenia desk officer, Eugenia Sidereas. I had noticed that the Background Notes that the State Department furnishes for the use of mostly schools about each country that we have diplomatic relations with said nothing whatsoever about the events of 1915 or massacres of Armenians or anything of the sort, not to mention using the “g” word, but there was absolutely no mention of that period of history, no mention of the fact that millions of Armenians had — or at least some number of Armenians had — fled Ottoman territory and ended up in what was then Russian Armenia. There was no mention of it, whereas our President,  several presidents, had made veiled and euphemistic mentions that went quite far. President Bush had talked about “massacres,” “forced deportations” and used quite…and there was even… the word “murder” had been used in a presidential statement. But the State Department’s Background Notes glossed over it entirely. And I pointed this out to Beth Jones, who’s a very smart and sensible person, and I said “don’t you think that we ought to revise the Background Notes so they at least convey as much knowledge and sympathy as the White House statements that have been made do?” And she said, “yes, I think any issue that’s of interest to our clients,” — meaning the people who read the Background Notes — “ought to be addressed.” At that point the telephone rang and we weren’t able to continue our discussion and we had worked so much together that I felt I had a very good understanding of what she wanted and how she expected her ambassadors to conduct themselves.

Q: Well in a way, when you’re looking at it, you’re trying to have relations with an important country and what’s the point in pulling the scab off, you know? Now, there are reasons for it but you know, we kind of let the Japanese get almost a free ride on World War II, on the rape of Nanking and its behavior in China.

EVANS: Yes. No, I am fully aware of the dilemma that this issue poses and you’ve put your finger on it; it is a dilemma. The dilemma is between the truth of the issue, which is now virtually unassailable when you look at what has been done in the last 20 years by historians and not all of them Armenian-American or Armenian. There are some very distinguished historians, such as Donald Bloxham in the UK (United Kingdom) and others who have made it clear that yes, what happened in 1915 did fit the definition of genocide, whatever the…I mean, it was done against the background of World War I, yes, there had been rebellions by some Armenian armed groups, yes, but if you look at that definition, the shoe fits. The dilemma for us is precisely as you said; we have a loyal NATO ally, a good ally, although in 2003 Turkey’s parliament did vote against our troops going into Iraq through Turkey and that enraged a lot of people on Capital Hill as well as in the Executive Branch. But still, the dilemma here is between historical truth, which is still disputed by Turkey but by no one else, and our diplomatic equities.

Q: First place, with Armenia, how close is- is Armenia really the- sort of the center of Armenians or is this sort of an offshoot or what? Because you’ve got Armenians in Lebanon and Syria and other parts of Turkey and all.

EVANS: Of course the Armenians as a group go way back for thousands of years, probably 3,000 or more years. They’re mentioned in the Bible, they consider themselves to be descendants of Noah’s — one of Noah’s sons — and the real…they were all over the Middle East; in various times they had had their own kingdoms but by the 19th and early 20th century the largest number of Armenians were in the Ottoman realms. The historic dividing line was between those who were in the Persian world, and that included most of the Caucasus and those that were in the Ottoman domains. So when one talks about today’s Armenia it is really on the land that way back in the 18th century was under the Persian shah, but then when the Russians moved into the Caucasus it became Russian Armenia. The genocide struck at the community of the Ottoman Empire but about 60 percent of today’s population of Armenia is descended from, or related to, those Ottoman Armenians who either fell victim to the genocide or escaped it. So in today’s worldwide Armenian community, which is about 10 million, most of those people are descendants of the Ottoman community that was so decimated: they fled to France and the United States and other places.

Q: Did you have a city full of visitors from Armenian communities in the States or elsewhere, like, you know, in France there’s a big Armenian community.

EVANS: We did have visitors from America, not from France, but we…I remember one of the big Armenian community groups, the Armenian Assembly, sent a large contingent through Armenia, through Yerevan, in the fall, it would have been in October or November of 2004, and I addressed them. And I might mention that that was the only time, in all the time I was in Armenia, that the question of the Armenian genocide arose. It never…I was never asked by an Armenian journalist about the genocide but I was asked a question by a member of this traveling group from the Armenian-American Assembly. The man got up and said, “I know what the State Department position is, that there was no genocide, but then how can you explain to me that I had no aunts, no uncles and never knew any grandparents?” And I explained to him that the United States Government had never denied the facts of what had happened in 1915, and to my knowledge we have not denied the facts, but what is at issue is the characterization of those events. And I probably at that time said that there was a question of whether there was “intent” on the part of the Ottoman officials.

Now, I should say a word about the Genocide Convention, if I may, because it was during this time that I became better educated on what the Genocide Convention really says. And what I discovered is that most of us Foreign Service officers are woefully ignorant about what the Genocide Convention says is genocide. There are basically four conditions that have to be met. First of all, “one or more persons” needs to have been killed. Now, that’s not very many: “one or more.” The group must be a “national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” It says nothing about political groups. There must be “intent” on the part of the perpetrators to do away with the group “as such,” to eliminate the group “in whole or in part”; that’s the terminology: “in whole or in part.” And the fourth condition is that these actions must take place in the context of a “manifest pattern of such actions in the past,” of discrimination against the group in the past. So all those conditions need to be met for it to be considered genocide and what had seemed to be missing was the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” members of the group.

Now, we have never found and probably nobody ever will find, a firman signed by the sultan or orders in cabinet saying, “destroy the Armenians.” In the case of the Holocaust we still have no written order by Hitler to destroy the Jews and we probably never will find that, although we do have Hitler’s signature on the Nuremburg Laws. That’s not the way these things happen. The word gets out there what’s to be done but it’s not…there’s no good paper trail because in the case of such a crime one would be a fool to leave such a paper trail.

But in 2003 and 2004, under the leadership of Marc Grossman, who had been Under Secretary of state for political affairs, there was organized something called the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission, and that group was an independent, track-two kind of group composed of some well-known Turks and Armenians and it was called the TARC. David Phillips was the executive director of if and this Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission looked at the events of 1915, looked at the Genocide Convention, and came to the conclusion that at least some of the perpetrators of those events did know that their actions would lead to the destruction of the Armenians of Anatolia and therefore to refer to those events as genocide was fully justified, and that journalists and historians and others would be fully justified to continue to use that term. But, at the same time, the Genocide Convention could not be invoked ex post facto to — in a legal sense — bring anyone to justice. So, in short, what this commission basically decided was that historically it was a genocide but in legal terms to press that claim against the government of Turkey would be unsuccessful. And I think that was a fairly wise way of splitting the difference. All the perpetrators of those events are now, by definition, gone, most of the victims are gone. There are only…there are fewer than a hundred very old people now who were small children in 1915 and so it seems to me that’s a fair way of splitting the difference, to let the Armenians call it genocide in a historical sense but not to try to pin that crime on the Turkish state or the Turkish people today. And I was…I made myself familiar with those findings, they were brought to my attention; I met with one of the people who had worked on that and I must say I thought this was a very reasonable way forward.

Q: Well then, was sort of the bureau pushing on all this or was this something that you all thought should be done?

EVANS: Well, neither. I mean, the EUR Bureau was just carrying on its daily business as it does every day, driven by the news on the front page primarily. There was no desire to unearth old history. But it was around this time that I was asked to make a speaking tour through the United States, particularly to communities where there was a dense population of Armenian-Americans. So I was scheduled to make a tour, a speaking tour, in February 2005, starting in New York, moving up to Boston and then going to the West Coast to Los Angeles, which is the biggest concentration of Armenians in the United States, and then to San Francisco. And it was right about this time in the beginning of late January of 2005 that my wife flew back to the United States to be with our daughter, who had discovered that she needed to get a divorce from her then-husband and she was emotionally a wreck. So my wife came back to the United States, leaving me in Yerevan with a lot of books to read, and one of those books was the very fine Pulitzer Prize winning book called “Genocide: A Problem from”– no, it’s called “A Problem from Hell: America and Genocide” by Samantha Power. And so I had time to read that. And I also read a compendium of essays edited by Jay Winter of Yale University; I think it’s called “America in the Age of Genocide.” In the same period I read Peter Balakian’s prize winning book called “The Burning Tigris,” which was also about America’s response to the Armenian genocide. So whereas most ambassadors don’t have much time to read, the absence of my wife and a fairly quiet winter social season left me in my library consuming these books and becoming more and more disturbed about the dissonance between established historical fact about what happened in 1915 and U.S. policy, which seemed to me to be very much propping up the Turkish official denial of what had happened in 1915. So I became more and more, as the date for beginning my speaking tour in America came closer and closer, I realized that I was facing a huge dilemma here. I knew that I was expected to repeat the tired old message that we didn’t take a position on the genocide, that we questioned whether there had been “intent” and so on, and yet I had read enough by this time to realize that the great preponderance of historical opinion was that indeed, there was no question about it, yes, there was a genocide of the Armenians that took place 1915 through ’18. So I set off for the United States not knowing how I was in the end going to respond to questions about the Armenian Genocide.

There’s something else I ought to add at this point, Stu, about the period we were living in, and that is that our Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who I had huge admiration for, had in September of 2004, after a State Department study of the matter, Colin Powell had come out and said that he thought that what was happening in Darfur in the Sudan did constitute genocide. That was a very brave thing for him to have done. I agreed with him from what I knew of that situation and his action emboldened me to endeavor not simply to be a bystander on a question of genocide but to stand up and say something about it. Even though it was 90 years in the past I felt that someone needed to take a stand on this issue and call it what it was. I knew that this would cause difficulty for me, I knew that it was contrary to the policy of the State Department and yet I felt that I was caught in a terrible dilemma between knowingly distorting the facts of history or coming clean and trying to deal with the facts while explaining the reasons for our policy, and that was the trap that I — or those were the horns of the dilemma — that I faced. And I must say that I really didn’t know when I set out on that speaking trip which course I would take.

We will post separately the lead up to Ambassador Evan’s dismissal and eventual retirement after he used the word “genocide” during a speaking tour in California.

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