Former Chairman, Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission

U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in the White House on November 13, 2019. During their joint press conference, Trump was uncharacteristically silent as Erdogan went on a diatribe concerning Armenian Genocide, condemning the near unanimous Resolution in the US House of Representatives reaffirming the US record on the Genocide. Erdogan also dredged up the debunked proposal for a joint historical commission on Armenian issues.

Erdogan is an established denier of the Armenian Genocide, where 1.5 million Armenian Christians were slaughtered by his predecessors. His ties to ISIS and other enemies of the US should have disqualified him from the White House visit to begin with.

In the press conference, paradoxically, Erdogan both denied the Genocide and invited a “dialogue and debate” about Armenian issues. Dialogue sounds like a positive and worthwhile step. In this instance, however, it is another component of Turkey’s denial campaign. The purpose of dialogue cannot be to explore the truth of the Armenian Genocide. That fact is beyond question.

I chaired the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) from 2001 to 2004. TARC included former foreign ministers and prominent Turks and Armenians from around the world. It worked with the International Center for Transitional Justice to produce a legal opinion in 2003, which concluded that the events in the early Twentieth Century met the definition of Genocide: (i) More than one person died; (ii) Those who died represented a distinct ethnic, cultural or religious group; (iii) There was a pattern to events resulting in their deaths; (iv) The perpetrators knew that Armenians would die and therefore possessed the requisite genocidal intent. The genocide finding was confirmed by the Elie Wiesel Foundation and scores of Nobel laureates.

In 2009, Armenia and Turkey agreed to Protocols which would have normalized relations and established a joint committee to work on all historical and legal issues, aimed at normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey. Erdogan scuttled those agreements, casting doubt on his sincerity.

The Armenian Genocide was confirmed by sources of unquestioned integrity and credibility, including official dispatches from Ambassador Henry M. Morgenthau and cables from consular offices. Morgenthau reported, “When the Turkish authorities gave the order for these deportations, they were giving a death warrant to the whole race”. Raphael Lemkin, author of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, described genocide as “what happened to the Armenians.”

Erdogan wants a “constructive dialogue with the United States Congress.” However, Congress has already reacted to Turkey’s denial campaign by overwhelmingly approving House Resolution 296, which affirms the US record of the Genocide. HR 296 passed by a vote of 405 in favor and 11 against.

Dialogue does not mean denial, and there is no reason for another history commission when the results have been confirmed and reconfirmed many times over. Even President Trump has given a dictionary definition of the genocide and used the Armenian term for Genocide in his annual Remembrance Day statements on April 24.

Erdogan said that Turks were “hurt” by the passage of HR 296, while censoring and prosecuting Turks who take steps to come to terms with Turkey’s past. He has found that racism makes good politics. In 2007, the leading Turkish Armenian journalist working for reconciliation in Turkey was assassinated, in an unresolved murder with clear government and mafia connections.

There was nothing new in Erdogan’s recent remarks. Once again, he offered to open up the Ottoman archives and endorsed an academic debate between experts and historians. Proposing to open the archives is a ruse aimed at sewing doubt as to whether 1.5 million Armenians were actually killed. The main perpetrator’s own journal, as well as other documents, have been published, confirming the Turkish campaign to exterminate Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Instead of giving Erdogan a platform for disinformation, Trump should have spoken forthrightly about the Armenian Genocide. The more Turks hear the mention of the Genocide, the closer they will come to accepting the Truth.


David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He was Chairman of TARC from 2001 to 2004. His book, Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation,(2005) is an account of TARC’s work. Phillips is also author of Diplomatic History: The Turkey Armenian Protocols (2012).

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