On the Genocide Conference in Yerevan, H.Res.252, and the Armenian Government

Originally published in The Armenian Weekly
January 6, 2011
By Houry Mayissian

The Armenian government recently hosted an international conference on genocide prevention, condemnation, and elimination in Yerevan. Genocide scholars from around 20 countries gathered in Yerevan in what could be considered as one of the Armenian government’s rare acts aimed at proactively seeking international acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide. While we can’t but applaud this initiative, we also can’t help but say it was a belated effort and not enough on its own.

The conference was helpful in inviting public attention to the issue not only in Armenia and the diaspora but also internationally, given the level of international participation in it. Once again, it dealt a blow to denialists in Turkey and abroad by providing an opportunity for high caliber genocide scholars of different nationalities to throw their support behind the truthfulness of the Armenian Genocide. It was a slap in Turkey’s face and its attempts to undermine the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide through such attempts as setting up a historians’ commission to discuss historical issues between the two nations.

However, the initiative was belated, because while successive Armenian governments since Robert Kocharian’s presidency at least have declared that recognition of the Armenian Genocide is on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda, this can be considered as the first major proactive (emphasis on the word proactive) initiative of its kind undertaken by Yerevan.

More than coming late, however, this conference is not enough effort on the part of the Armenian government to show that it takes this matter seriously. Notwithstanding public declarations on the importance for international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, little government action has been seen on this front so far. Yes, almost all official dignitaries, diplomats, and foreign government officials who visit Yerevan are taken to the Genocide Memorial in Dzidzernagapert. Yes, the issue has been raised on a few occasions in presidential speeches to the international community, including at the UN. However, little has been seen or at least made public in terms of consistent and serious efforts to pursue genocide recognition.

Robert Kocharian’s administration at least smartly avoided falling in the cunning Turkish trap of “leaving history to the historians” by rejecting a proposal for setting up a commission of historians that first surfaced in a letter by then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in April 2005. It’s silly to say Sarkisian was not smart enough to avoid the trap. By then, the idea had been discussed so much that no one in their right mind could deny its implications on the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Sarkisian did it anyway, though. In 2009, he signed the infamous Turkish-Armenian protocols, one of the stipulations of which was the formation of exactly such a commission. His reasons? Unprecedented international pressure, continued blockade and economic isolation, continued deadlock in the Nagorno-Karabagh peace talks, coupled with intense militarization in Azerbaijan, awareness of growing Turkish influence in the region, and perhaps to some extent a gradual shift in Russia’s attitudes due to military and energy deals with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

With the failure of the protocols in the face of consistent Turkish efforts to tie Armenian-Turkish normalization to the resolution of the Karabagh conflict and what Sarkisian has started to consider as a lack of sincerity towards reconciliation in Turkey, the genocide conference could have signaled renewed effort on behalf of the Armenian government to assure that it stands on moral high ground when it comes to this issue. Could have, but as far as I’m concerned, it did not.

In fact, only a few weeks after the international conference in Yerevan, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) started pushing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on H.Res.252, a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The resolution had previously been adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2010. The ANCA assured that Pelosi had the opportunity and the majority to schedule a vote on the resolution just before the House adjourned its session for the year.

In the final days of the sitting, Washington witnessed one of the most intense confrontations between the Turkish and Armenian lobby groups in history.

On the Armenian side it was the ANCA, the Armenian schools, the church, the individuals in our community, anti-genocide activists, and Armenian celebrities the like of Kim Kardashian and Serj Tankian. Advocating the Turkish “cause,” however, was a state-sponsored lobby machine channeled through such influential mediums as the Congressional Turkish Caucus.

Moreover, Turkish pressure was exercised directly by Turkish government officials. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called his American counterpart Hillary Clinton, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, both with the intention of getting senior U.S. officials to pressure the House Speaker into avoiding a vote on the resolution. The Turkish ambassador in Washington, Namik Tan, used every tool at his disposal, including Twitter, to lobby against H.Res.252. All of this demonstrates the vigilance of the Turkish administration on issues related to the Armenian Genocide, and their preparedness, time and again, to go above and beyond in their efforts to block any measure that might lead to its recognition.

The question that begs itself: Where was the Armenian government? Where was our ambassador in Washington when Armenian students, clergy, community members, and celebrities were working day and night sending emails, calling Pelosi’s office, publicizing the issue to fellow Armenian Americans and American citizens at large? Was a statement of support deemed too much? Where was Eduard Nalbandian? Was he worried that if he were to publicly support the resolution and ask the American administration to take the right stance on this issue normalization efforts with Turkey would go even further downhill? If so, why make declarations on the need to recognize the Armenian Genocide in general? Why organize a conference in Yerevan? Whatever the calculations of the Armenian government were, and it is not too difficult to guess them, the bottom line is it missed yet another perfect opportunity to translate statements into action on the issue of genocide recognition.

That being said, it is never too late. More resolutions dealing with Armenian Genocide recognition will be presented to the U.S. Congress and legislative bodies in countries across the world in the future. It is not unreasonable to expect that while the groundwork is done by Armenian lobbying organizations, the Armenian government should throw its weight behind these efforts even if at the ambassadorial level only. This would provide moral support to our activists. It would demonstrate to foreign governments that this is Yerevan’s fight, too, and not just that of the Armenian people. And by doing so, add a new kind of legitimacy to the struggle for genocide recognition.