821) Once upon a time: Diplomatic War About Genocide

On the distant matter of Turkey and Armenia there must be some sympathy for the anguish of Bill Graham when he was Canada's foreign minister two years ago. At the time, Canada's parliamentarians were debating whether the mass slaughter of Armenians by Turkey between 1915 and 1923 could legitimately be called genocide.

The Liberal government of the day, like every government for decades before, was trying to duck a decision on the question. As Parliament debated the issue and the minority government wriggled like a worm on a hook, Graham said plaintively, "We'd like our Armenian friends and our Turkish friends to put these issues in the past."

French President Jacques Chirac and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, at a ceremony in Paris last spring deploring the mass slaughter of Christian Armenians by Turkish authorities in the years following 1915. France is leading the fight for Turkey to publicly atone for the atrocity, and Canada now appears to be adding its voice to the fray.

In other words, please don't make us take sides. Let's just all be friends together. How forlorn! How Canadian!

But almost a century after that terrible slaughter, there remains an uncomfortable immediacy. The Turkish government has just recalled its ambassadors to Canada and France over it.

France has offended Turkey by introducing a bill that would make the denial of the Armenian genocide a crime.

In Canada's case, the complaint was that Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month recalled that both the Senate and the House of Commons had adopted resolutions recognizing the slaughter as genocide: "I and my party supported those resolutions and continue to recognize them today."

Does it matter what you call mass slaughter?

In France, parliamentary recognition of the genocide dates back eight years. One difference between France and Canada on the question is that France has an Armenian population of about 300,000. Canada's Armenian population is just 40,000, although individuals like film director Atom Egoyan have given Canadian Armenians an unmistakable visibility.

The Turkish government said the recall of the ambassadors would be for only a short time, yet there could still be serious economic repercussions. Turkey cancelled a multimillion-dollar arms deal with France in 2001, although economic relations appear to have returned to normal in recent years.

Canada has not yet suffered anything more than harsh words from Ankara, but there has been speculation in Turkish newspapers that Canada will be – or perhaps has been – excluded from the bidding to build a nuclear power plant in the Black Sea town of Sinop.

Of the two countries, it is France about which Turkey must be more uneasy. France is one of the most powerful voices in the European Union, which Turkey is desperately eager to join. And former French foreign minister Michel Barnier suggested that Turkish admission to the EU might be conditional on its acknowledgment of the genocide.

"This is an issue that we will raise during the negotiation process," Barnier said. "We will have about 10 years to do so and the Turks will have about 10 years to ponder their answer."

Putting pressure on Turkey

There is a temptation to believe that a dispute about a word is really not much more than a dispute about a word, and that both countries have locked themselves into a position from which they cannot extricate themselves with any dignity.

Everyone agrees that there was a terrible slaughter; what is at issue is the magnitude of the slaughter and the name to apply to it.

The Turks acknowledge that perhaps 300,000 Armenians, as well as many Turks, died as a result of civil disturbances involving the Christian Armenians, who had always lived in Turkey as second-class citizens.

The Armenians say that as a result of a deliberate campaign of genocide, 1.5 million men, women and children were killed or starved to death, and thousands of others were deported.

Historians tend to side with the Armenians. There have even been a few Turkish historians who have called on their fellow citizens to consider the Armenian case, but those are isolated voices in a defiant land.

The United States, Britain, Israel, Georgia and Ukraine do not use the word genocide about the Armenians. But in addition to France and Canada, a score of European and Latin American countries have officially recognized it as such.

It was Barnier, the former French foreign minister, who cast the dispute in a much broader perspective. The parallel he drew was that of the reconciliation of Germany and France after they had fought three unimaginably terrible wars in less than a century:

"If, as I think, the core idea of Europe's project is that all its members should reconcile one with another – like France and Germany, which have put reconciliation at the centre of their project – and that each member state should reconcile with its own past, then I believe that when the time comes Turkey, too, will have to come to terms with its own past and history, and recognize this tragedy."

May 2006,
Resource : CBC News


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