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The Politics of Denial - Article by Jamal Dakwar in Al-Ahram Weekly

Both Israel and the US have their reasons for denying the Armenian genocide, writes Jamil Dakwar, a Palestinian lawyer and Israeli citizen, who is currently research fellow at the Centre for Economic & Social Rights, New York.

This article was published in the Al-Ahram Weekly On-line in Issue 651 of August 2003, and offered to CRAG by the author for further dissemination.

Last May an important resolution was passed by the US House Judiciary Committee reaffirming support for the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention, which was adopted in 1948 in the wake of the horrors of World War II, defines the crime of genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group".

The US House of Representatives is expected to vote in November on a resolution marking the 15th anniversary of the enactment of the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987, one of the rare US laws that incorporated an international human rights convention into binding domestic law. The resolution adopted states that "the enactment of the Genocide Convention Act marked a principled stand by the United States against the crime of genocide and an important step towards ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, among others, will be used to help prevent future genocides."

The coming resolution is of particular political significance for two main reasons. First, this resolution comes at time when the US is taking every conceivable step to undermine international law in general, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in particular. As a punitive measure, the Bush administration has suspended all American military assistance to 35 countries, totalling some $47.6 million in aid along with $613,000 in military education programmes, because they have failed to sign an agreement with the US which would provide American citizens with immunity before the International Criminal Court. No members of NATO were included in the list of countries thus sanctioned, and nor were Turkey or a number of other major American allies, including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Japan and South Korea. It is reported that 50 states among those who have already either signed or ratified the ICC have entered into an impunity agreement with the US. Under this agreement, a government undertakes not to surrender or transfer US nationals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes to the ICC. These agreements are widely considered to be in breach of international law and of the Rome Statute, which governs the functioning of the ICC.

The resolution's second kind of political significance stems from the politics of genocide denial. The Bush administration has expressed its opposition to the way in which the resolution refers to the "Armenian Genocide", claiming that these words will hinder rather than help Turkish- Armenian dialogue and reconciliation. There is nothing new about the administration's position: both Presidents Bush and Clinton have in the past declined to use the term "genocide" to describe the mass killings of more than 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish Empire between 1915 and 1923. While a growing number of democratic institutions, including the European Parliament, and respected research centres around the world, such as the Association of Genocide Scholars, have recognised and reaffirmed the Armenian Genocide as a historical fact, the Turkish government continues to deny that these events did indeed constitute genocide, and persists in accusing the Armenians of distorting the historical record by exaggerating the numbers and the facts. Instead, the Turkish government has argued that many of the casualties were victims of war, not genocide.

The Bush administration's opposition to the use of the term genocide to describe the crimes committed against the Armenians is obviously of a piece with its foreign policy priority of maintaining the Republic of Turkey as a close ally in the Middle East. This priority remains in place today, despite the recent decision by the Turkish parliament to deny American troops access to Turkish airbases prior to the occupation of Iraq.

Nor is the US administration alone in its opposition to the use of the term genocide to categorise the crimes against the Armenian people. In 1996 Israel signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey that gives both countries the right to use each other's airspace for airforce training, and which, indirectly, provides Israel with access to the borders of Iran. Israel has declined to recognise the Armenian Genocide, preferring to keep Turkey as a close military and economic ally in the region. In April 2001, Nobel Peace Prize winner and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres stated in an interview with the Anatolia news agency that the claims of an Armenian Genocide were "meaningless", adding that, "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." The Israeli expert on Holocaust and Genocide studies, Israel Charny, condemned Peres in a public letter of protest, stating that by making these shameful remarks he had entered "into the range of actual denial of the Armenian Genocide, comparable to denials of the Holocaust."

More recently, Israeli Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin provided another episode in this saga, when in response to Turkish diplomatic pressure he requested that any reference to the genocide of the Armenians be removed from Israel's 55th Independence Day ceremony. Naomi Nalbandian, an Armenian Israeli citizen, had already been selected as one of 12 people to light torches at the ceremony, where she was to appear as a representative of the marginalised Armenian minority in Israel. Initially, she was to have presented herself as a "third-generation survivor of the Armenian genocide carried out in 1915", but under pressure reluctantly agreed that the reference to the genocide be dropped.

Israel's official denial of the Armenian Genocide for the sake of maintaining strong political and military ties with Turkey exposes the moral bankruptcy and political hypocrisy of the state apparatus. To call upon the international community to remember and learn the lessons of the Holocaust, whilst at the same time expressing only contempt and denial for the first genocide of the 20th century, may be politically expedient, but it is morally unforgivable.

What is even more striking is that some Jewish organisations outside Israel have both directly and indirectly joined Israel in its support of Turkey, stating that it should be left to historians to determine whether or not the Armenian Genocide ever took place at all. One example of this is the refusal by the Tolerance Museum in Los Angeles (the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre) to establish a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide, despite a long campaign by the American-Armenian community, including a six-day hunger strike in April. The only concession museum officials were prepared to offer was to promise that they would include the Armenian Genocide in a new timeline on crimes against humanity in the 20th century.

Last month, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported on the close ties which exist between the Turkish government and a number of important Jewish organisations. According to this article, over the past year Prime Minister Erdogan and Deputy Foreign Minister Ziyal found time for closed meetings with Jewish representatives, in the hope of influencing the US Congress to back off from recognising the Armenian Genocide. Similarly, in a one-hour closed meeting in Ankara, the Turkish prime minister hosted a Jewish- American delegation headed by Chairman of the American-Jewish Committee Harold Tanner and attended by the US ambassador to Turkey. Turkey needs the support of the Jewish lobby in Europe for its bid to join the EU, and it needs the support of the Jewish lobby in the US in order to reinforce its ties with the Bush administration. This is even more true since the occupation of Iraq, now that the Kurdish people are desperately seeking to realise their right to self-determination. The right- wing Jewish lobby in return hopes to build up ties between Turkey and Israel as the "region's only two democracies".

This global landscape in which the political ends of selected states and governments are allowed to justify the sidelining of international norms and principles is the greatest threat to peace and stability in the world today. In the recent past, the international community has failed to intervene in many internal conflicts which have led to mass killings and untold devastation, such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia. Now, apparently, it does not even have the nerve to prevent those who would deny the proven fact of genocide from peddling their convenient lies.

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