Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Malleability of Genocide--Turkey Between Armenia, Israel and China

Genocide has proven to be an elastic concept since the Second World War. It has become a powerful accusation that can serve to de-legitimate regimes who are successfully accused of the practice. Its meaning, once thought to be fairly clear has assumed something of a political overlay as communities of states fight with each other to keep members of their respective camps from being accused of acts of genocide. At the same time, states have been quicker to suggest that virtually any violent conflict in which people die amounts to a genocide like event. The result is an increasing messiness in the precise use of the term, but also a growth in the willingness to use the accusation as a political weapon, or to characterize historical events before the term became current or the practice condemned.

The malleability, anachronistic power and political utility of genocide is nicely evidenced in the multiple approaches to the use term (and the resistance to the use of the term) recently embraced by the Islamist government of the officially secular Republic of Turkey. Two recent stories, substantially ignored in the West, provide a vivid window on the way genocide is being used by Turkey to bring itself closer to Christian Armenia and to provide a basis for destroying its relationship with Jewish Israel. A third story, the Turkish government's accusation that the Chinese government was permitting genocide in Xinjian provides context.

Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement Saturday night establishing diplomatic relations after nearly a century of animosity. The agreement will open their common border within two months after it is ratified by each country's parliament. The border has been closed since 1993. Turkish-Armenian relations are often overshadowed by the dispute over the massacre of ethnic Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, more than 90 years ago. Armenians accuse Ottoman Turks of committing genocide, killing more than a million Armenians beginning in 1915. Turkey vehemently rejects these allegations. Armenia, Turkey Sign Historic Agreement,, October 10, 2009.

The Americans have appeared to tilt toward the Armenian view of things. "During the U.S. presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama called for passage of the Armenian genocide resolution. Since his election, he has stepped back from the issue." Id. Armenia continues to campaign for recognition of a genocide conducted by Muslim Turks against Christian Armenians. "Armenia wants Turkey to recognise the killings as an act of genocide, but successive Turkish governments have refused to do so. The agreement calls for a joint commission, also including international experts, to examine the "historical dimension" of the two countries' relations. " Armenia and Turkey, BBC News Online, Oct. 10, 2009. But Turkey has deployed what it believes to be strong arguments against the charge. "Turkey admits that many Armenians were killed but says the deaths were part of the widespread fighting that took place in World War I." Armenia and Turkey, BBC News Online, supra.

Second, even as Turkey has moved closer to Armenia, it has been seeking to rupture its relations with Israel.
Turkey announced on Sunday the cancellation of an international air force drill at one of the country's air force bases, which was to include Israeli jets. Foreign Ministry sources said that Turkish military officials had approached the Israel Defense Forces recently with a surprising demand that Israel refrain from participating in the drill, due to the IDF's activity in Gaza. Barack David, Israel Hits Back at Turkey Over Scuppered Air Force Drill, Haaretz, Oct. 11, 2009.
The Turkish Prime Minister has carefully chosen the most operatic methods of drawing attention to Turkish abandonment of its relations with Israel. The cancellation of the military operations was one. But there were others. "But ties have cooled sharply over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sharp criticism of Israel's winter war in the Gaza Strip, especially in light of a televised fracas between President Shimon Peres and Erdogan at the Davos Conference this past January. " Barack David, Israel Hits Back at Turkey Over Scuppered Air Force Drill, supra. But most important, and ironic in light of its relationship with Armenia, has been Mr. Erdogan's insistence that Israel has committed genocide in Gaza. "Turkey adopted a critical stance on Israel and Erdogan maintained that Israel was carrying out genocide in the Gaza Strip. Since then, the two states have maintained diplomatic and military contacts but have not had any meetings between high-level officials." Barack David, Israel Hits Back at Turkey Over Scuppered Air Force Drill, supra.

Apparently, there is a difference between the deaths of many Armenians as part of widespread fighting in World War I and the deaths of a smaller number of civilians during the Gaza campaigns of 2008-09, at least in the minds of the Islamist Turkish government. Turkey is now as eager to charge Israel with genocide in its recent military campaigns against Hamas in Gaza, as it is to deny the same charge when asserted against it by Christian Armenia. It is hard to reconcile the two positions except by factoring in the politics of religion. "Almost exactly a year before Erdogan's outburst at Davos, in which he lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel's actions in Gaza, he was literally rolling out the red carpet for Sudan's genocidal president and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir in Ankara." Since when did Erdogan have a problem with leaders who kill people?, FP Passport, Jan. 30, 2009. And, of course, the use of Israel as a whipping boy may have significant domestic benefits--especially in Mr. Erdogan's efforts to marginalize the secular parties and the military in Turkey.
Since Turkey's military has in past years made strategic alliances with Israel, Erdogan is striking a shrewd blow against the generals in rabble-rousing anti-Israeli sentiment. Currently, at the behest of Erdogan's party, Turkey's judiciary is conducting a witch hunt against an ever-growing number of pro-secular journalists, intellectuals and ex-soldiers, who are accused of a highly nebulous "conspiracy" to overthrow the constitution. No doubt, some of them will soon be tarred with evidence of having worked too closely with Israel. Melik Kaylan, The Dangers of Rejectiong Turkey, Forbes.Com, 02-03-2009.

It is possible that the Islamist government believes that the United States will be more tolerant of deterioration in relations with a Jewish state if they substituted better relations with a Christian state. And, at least under the Bush Administration, the Americans had been eager to trumpet the possibility of a nice, safe, well behaved "soft" Islamist government as a role model for Iraq and Afghanistan. See, Larry Catá Backer, Of Political States and "Soft" Religion as the Basis for State Organization Law at the End of the Day, July 16, 2007. Moreover, there may be additional benefits to courting Armenia at the expense of Israel. Thus, it has been suggested that "Turkey and Armenia both have an interest in turning the page - the economy of landlocked Armenia would benefit from access to Turkey. And Ankara's role as a broker and stabilising influence would be boosted in a volatile region." Kim Ghattas, Analysis, Turkey and Armenia, BBC News Online, Oct. 10, 2009. On the other hand, it is likely that the current Turkish government would completely rupture its relations with Israel except for its fear that it might endanger its relationship with the United States. Moving more in line with the positions of Syria and Iran helps boost Turkey's standing in the region, but that enhancement is limited by the toleration of the United States (and to a much lesser extent, the Member States of the European Union). And ironically, the Bush Administration might have been more tolerant, for its own reasons, than the Obama Administration. Yet there was enough ambiguity in Mr. Obama's Cairo speech to give Mr. Erdogan some apparent room for grandstanding in this area without fear of repercussion. See Larry Catá Backer Mr. Obama Speaks in Egypt: "Islam is a Part of America"--The Ummah Wahida, and the State in Two Distinct World Orders Law at the End of the Day, June 5, 2009.

The Israeli reaction might be swift and ironically pointed at the soft underbelly of Mr. Erdogan's freewheeling accusations--again, Armenia. "Enraged by the abrasive tone of Turkey’s condemnation of Israel’s attack on Gaza, Israeli officials and Turkish analysts are now raising the possibility that Tel Aviv may retaliate either by recognizing the Armenian Genocide or refusing to help Turkey to lobby against a congressional resolution on the genocide." Harut Sassounian, Angered by Turkish Criticism over Gaza, Israel May Recognize Armenian Genocide, The California Courier. "It isn't easy to choose a winner in the cynicism stakes here. Here's what one Turkish columnist, Barcin Yinanc, shrewdly wrote: "When April comes, I can imagine the [Turkish] government instructing its Ambassador to Israel to mobilize the Israeli government to stop the Armenian initiatives in the U.S. Congress. I can hear some Israelis telling the Turkish Ambassador to go talk to Hamas to lobby the Congress."" Gerald Caplan, Israel, Turkey and the Politics of Genocide, The Globe & Mail, April 9, 2009.

Still, except with respect to Armenia, Mr. Erdogan has been both consistent and very free in his conception of genocide--as long as it involves violence against Muslim communities. Thus, perhaps, both Mr. Erdogan's silence on Sudan and more "genocide" grounded interest in China. Indeed, recently Mr. Erdogan has suggested that China and Israel may be equally culpable of genocide against Muslims.

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said ethnic violence in China's Xinjiang province "like a genocide.

"We ask the Chinese government not to remain a spectator to these incidents. There is clearly a savagery here", Erdogan said. "We ask the government of China to abandon assimilation, because such assimilation can do you no good," Erdogan added in a speech to his Justice and Development Party broadcast on television. Erdogan strongly criticized Beijing for the recent killing of at least 156 people including Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uighurs. In Ankara and Istanbul, thousands of angry Turkish demonstrators protested the clashes in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi between Han Chinese and minority Uighurs and set Chinese flags on fire. The Han China's ethnic majority have lately been flooding into Xinjiang as the region becomes more developed. Uighurs share ethnic and cultural bonds to Turks. The Chinese government has already imposed curfews and flooded the streets of Urumqi with security forces to avoid a repeat of the running street battles earlier in the week Erdogan is the leader of the Islamic-rooted government and he has spoken up for Uighurs as he did for Palestinians during Israel's offensive on Gaza earlier this year. In late January this year, Erdogan poured his anger on the stage he shared with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He told Peres: "You kill people." Turkey's Erdogan: genocide in Xinjiang against Uighurs, Emirates News Agency, July 11, 2009.
Mr. Erdogan was emphatic on the point. "“I use the term [genocide] consciously and with belief,” Mr Erdogan said when reporters asked him about the discrepancies. “My colleagues in the foreign ministry cannot use other terms than I use.” He said “the pain suffered by the Uighur Turks is our pain”, adding that Turkey would continue to do everything it could “for our relatives, for our brothers over there”." Thomas Seibert, Turkey Walks a Fine Line of Diplomacy, The National, July 12, 2009.

The Chinese response was also swift. "Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun has called remarks made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likening the ethnic violence in China's northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang to genocide an “irresponsible statement,” NTV news reported on Thursday. . . .
“Due to recent statements from Turkey, relations between Ankara and Beijing have been harmed,” Zhai told NTV, emphasizing the need to repair their relations." Beijing Critical Over Erdogan Genocide Description, Today's Zaman, July 24, 2009. But Turkey needs China; Tukey's military is interested in Chinese military hardware and the Turkish government has been hawking its business in China. Turkish PM Erdogan likens Xinjiang violence to 'genocide', France 24, July 10, 2009.

The irony of the Turkish positions on Israel's actions in Gaza and China's in Xinjiang take on added significance when compared to Mr. Erdogan's response to the Armenian genocide charge:

The Turkish Prime Minister reacted to the Armenian President, Kotscharian, who thanked countries that acknowledged the Armenian genocide. Kotscharian stated: “This year we commemorate the 90th anniversary of Armenian genocide. We thank all countries that support us. Our purpose is to make acknowledge this genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey on international platform. Armenians are the most suffered ones at the end of the First World War”, Turkish Cumhuriyet news paper reports.
To that statement, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, retorted claiming that Kotscharian is just looking for popularity. He declared: “To use the expression “genocide” without any fundament, shows no less than the irresponsibility of these politicians. They satisfy themselves, they just look for popularity”. Erdogan: Genocide is a Tool of Populist Politicians, Axis, Global Challenges Research, May 17, 2005
It is, of course, hard to square this explanation of the Armenian issue in 1915 with the Israeli accusations in 2009--unless, of course, Mr, Erdogan believes there is something different between the victims that is fundamental to a determination of genocide. The point here is not to suggest that this or that specific allegation of genocide are or are not valid. Instead, the point is that genocide has has increasingly become debased as a concept as politicians begin to hide behind its charge to cover actions grounded in political expediency, sectarian antipathy and ethnic unity. It is sad to see the Islamic government of Turkey so eager to engage so openly in the somewhat perverse use of the term in its relations with Armenia, Israel and China. And there is a great danger in the gambit. Not only does it debase the concept of genocide, but it opens Turkey to more dangerous reactions--for example from the Kurdish populaiton in the region. Thus, for example, the Kurdish National Assembly in Syria was quick to draw the implications of Mr. Erdogan's free use of the genocide charge--against Mr. Erdogan's own government and its actions against Kurds. Turkish PM Erdogan likens Xinjiang violence to 'genocide', Kurdistan National Assembly--Syria. And, indeed, the deterioration of relationship with Israel and strengthening of Syrian ties may serve Turkey well in its efforts to reach more deeply in the region against Kurds. "Ankara announced earlier this week plans to hold its first military drill with Syria, using ground forces in a border area that has been the focus of a 25-year conflict between Turkey and separatist Kurdish rebels. " 'Syria-Turkey ties tighter because of Gaza war' , Haaretz, Jan. 5, 2009.

Perhaps Gerald Caplan, in a recent article (Gerald Caplan, Israel, Turkey and the Politics of Genocide, The Globe & Mail, April 9, 2009.), described best the sad movement genocide from horrific crime to political curse word: "I'm guessing some readers work on the naïve assumption that an event is deemed genocidal based on the facts of the case. Silly you. In the real world, you call it genocide if it bolsters your interests. If it doesn't, it's not. It's actually the same story as with preventing genocide. . . . . Whatever the outcome, be sure that politics, not genocide, will be the decisive factor." Id. All of this should serve to complicate international efforts to institutionalize a global set of norms. It appears that, in the international stage, politics still has significant effects on the shape and understanding of law. The efforts to fashion genocide as a legal, rather than as a political, concept, still appears to have a long way to go. And perversely enough, genocide as political fetish invocation, may significantly affect the legitimacy of global institutions ultimately charged with investigating and sometimes prosecuting "legal" rather than "political" genocide, formost among them the International Criminal Court. For those interested in strengthening international frameworks for peace and harmonious relations among people and the construciton of institutions that further those aims, the Turkish turn suggests the great difficulties to be overcome.

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