by Michael M. Gunter . . .
Definitional Ambiguity Of Genocide: Its Implications For The Armenian Tragedy
Michael M. Gunter,
April 23, 2015
Much confusion exists about what is meant by the term "genocide," because the word has come to have at least two different meanings, a precise, international, legal one and a non-legal, popular one. The two different meanings have been conflated by some, either by mistake or on purpose, to confuse the world and accuse Turkey of being legally guilty of genocide for the Armenian massacres that occurred 100 years ago in 1915. Given this confusing situation, a brief analysis of these two different meanings of the term genocide is in order.
Legally, genocide is defined by the Genocide Convention that was signed in 1948 and then ratified in 1951 when it went into effect. The Genocide Treaty, in part, legally defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Therefore, for genocide to have legally occurred, there must have been intent on the part of the perpetrators to wipe out an entire ethnic group or a part of it, and this act must have been committed since 1951 after the Genocide Treaty went into effect. Neither requirement is fulfilled in regard to Ottoman Armenians.
Despite what many Armenians and their supporters claim, there is no authentic document that proves that the Ottoman authorities intended to wipe out the Armenians. Indeed, many Armenians living in western Anatolia who were deemed no threat to Ottoman supply lines and security were not relocated in 1915. Is it possible to imagine Hitler sparing any Jews from his genocidal rampage because they were not threatening his supply lines or security? In view of this fact, without proven intent, legally there can be no genocide.
In addition, of course, even if intent could be demonstrated, which it has not, genocide legally could not have occurred before the Genocide Treaty was ratified and went into effect in 1951, because it would constitute an ex post facto law expressly prohibited by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article One, Section Nine of the U.S. constitution. An ex post facto law of course makes some actions a crime, which when it was originally committed, was not a crime.
Furthermore, for the U.S. Congress to pass any resolution declaring that the Armenian tragedy was genocide would be analogous to a bill of attainder – a legislative act that punishes somebody without a fair judicial trail – which is also specifically prohibited by Article One, Section Nine of the U.S. constitution. Therefore, applying the Genocide Treaty to the Armenian tragedy by using an ex post facto law or bill of attainder would be a clear violation of due process of law, which is specifically prohibited by the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S constitution, as well as through implication by Article Seven of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 14 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Armenians and their supporters are trying to get around these major international legal and U.S. constitutional safeguards by confusingly conflating the legal definition of genocide with the more general popular one that equates genocide loosely with any large-scale killings that has occurred, either before 1951 or after that date when the Genocide Treaty went into effect. By this second, non-legal definition of genocide, of course, Armenians suffered from large-scale killings or "genocide. However, so did Turks and other Muslims who were killed as a result of inter-ethnic violence during World War I. By this non-legal definition of genocide, both Muslims and Armenians committed genocide against each other. To accuse only one side of this situation ignores what happened to the other and is patently unfair.
However, the many Armenians and their supporters who accuse Turkey of genocide, either through simple lack of the complete facts or on purpose in order to malign Turkey for their own reasons, continue to try to piggyback these two definitions of genocide. It is time for governments, scholars and the intelligent lay public to stop conflating these two different definitions of genocide and get their facts straight, so we will not continue to dishonor the memory of those who so tragically died on both sides during World War I.
*Professor at Tennessee Technological University and advisory board member at Turkish Institute for Progress
Michael Gunter | Apr 08, 2015
In recent decades, and continuing today, various Armenian groups have made strenuous attempts to have numerous legislatures and various other bodies around the world pass resolutions recognizing the Armenian sufferings during World War I as genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire.
Although most Armenians feel very strongly about these events, why legislate their version of history after so many years? The history of Armenian-backed attempts to legislate genocide in the US has been one of Congress’s willingness to support Armenian contentions as a response to Armenian-American constituents as well as Congress’s piecemeal view towards US foreign policy.
Meanwhile, President Obama, in addition to those US lawmakers who oppose legislating genocide, believe that the proper position for the Congress to take on this and related issues is to encourage full and open access to all historical archives, and not to make charges on historical events before they are fully understood. The history of the Ottoman-Armenians is much debated among scholars, many of whom do not agree with the historical assumptions embodied in attempts to legislate one side or the other into law, a situation which would be analogous to a bill of attainder which is specifically prohibited by the US Constitution.
Legislation based on historically questionable assumptions can only damage the cause of honest historical enquiry, and damage the credibility of the American legislative process.
We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915. However, legislating it as genocide is not the right response to these historic mass fatalities and its passage would do great harm to relations with a key ally in NATO, and thus to US foreign policy. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser in the Carter administration, once sarcastically declared: “As far as a genocide resolution is concerned, I never realized that the House of Representatives was some sort of an academy of learning that passes judgment on historical events…It has nothing to do with passing laws, [and] how to run the United States.” Brzezinski went on to note that even President Carter, whom many would argue takes an idealistic approach to human rights issues, once stated that if he were in Congress he would not vote for such a resolution.
Nevertheless, some Armenian supporters have replied that anyone who denied their position was a party to genocide and became an agent of the Turkish state. Indeed, one pro-Armenian supporter went so far as to argue that supporting the Turkish position constituted hate speech and should be made illegal in the US. Ironically, the Armenian attempt to foreclose debate about what happened to them in World War I amounts to the very prevention of scholarly analysis for which they denounce Turkey.
The UK has also declined to attempt a contemporary hand at legislating accusations of Armenian genocide into history. On behalf of the British government, a deputy minister of foreign affairs stated during a 2007 Parliamentary debate that, “Neither this Government nor previous British Governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorized as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.” Bulgaria, Denmark, Sweden, and Israel, among others, have also explicitly rejected terming the events of 1915 genocide, and agree with Turkey that the question should be left to the historians to settle. Shimon Peres, then foreign minister and later president of Israel, declared in 2001: “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.”
Previous government administrations in the US and internationally have been careful not to further propagate this century-old, traumatic historical dispute, and with good reason.