By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, July 10 (Reuters) – A group of prominent Turks and Armenians on Tuesday set up a reconciliation commission to promote dialogue between their peoples divided since mass killings during World War One.
“It is the first time there has been an attempt at structured dialogue between civil society in Turkey and Armenia and the Armenian diaspora,” Ilter Turkmen, a former Turkish diplomat and senior U.N. official, told the news conference. “…It is a turning point in the relations between two peoples.”
A statement issued after three-day talks in Geneva said the 10-member commission hoped to foster better ties between Turkey and Armenia, which have no diplomatic relations.
“The (Turkish-Armenian) Reconciliation Commission hopes, through its efforts, to build on the increasing readiness for reconciliation among Turkish and Armenian civil societies including members of diaspora communities,” it added.
Armenians accuse Turks of genocide by the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million of their ethnic kin as the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1915.
Turkey denies the charges, saying both Turks and Armenians died in inter-ethnic violence as the Empire fought a Russian invasion of its eastern provinces, which had a high concentration of ethnic Armenians.
The issue remains a source of international tension. Ankara reacted angrily when first a U.S. House of Representatives sub-committee and then the French parliament recently recognised that genocide had occurred.
The talks, which follow recent secret meetings in Vienna, come as Turkey tries to advance its European Union candidacy.
“The Reconciliation Commission appreciates that there are serious differences between Armenians and Turks, as well as obstacles to normal relations between Armenia and Turkey,” the two-page statement read.
The Commission aims to support projects in business, tourism and culture and would also make recommendations to the members’ respective governments, according to the statement.
Commission members were at pains to show goodwill after 85 years. But the fault lines became apparent when the genocide issue was raised.
Turkmen said: “The Commission’s task is not to come to a historical judgement. As the dialogue proceeds, we hope to be able to overcome problems, but that does not mean we will come to an exact historical photo of what happened 85 years ago.”
Gunduz Aktan, a former Turkish ambassador who writes for the Radikal newspaper, said: “When it comes to qualifying events 85 years ago in the Ottoman Empire, Turks around the table will not accept them as genocide.
“We certainly consider them terrible tragic events, but they do not fall within the definition of genocide accepted under international humanitarian law.”
Alexander Arzoumanian, a former Armenian foreign minister who chairs the Armenian National Movement based in Yerevan, said: “In Armenia, most of the population and diaspora community consider it as genocide.
“This is one of the issues we are going to address through our work,” he added. “We just made an important historic step, but we have a long way to go.”
Van Krikorian, of the Armenian Assembly of America, said: “The Armenian genocide is very fundamental to who we are.”