David Phillips dicusses his book `Unsilencing The Past’ on NJ Armenian
`TARC broke the ice, it broke a serious taboo in Turkey’
On Sunday Feb.20, 2005 Vartan Abdo, director of the Armenian Radio Hour of New Jersey had a live on-air phone interview with author David Phillips about his new book `Unsilencing The Past – Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation’.
David Phillips is a senior fellow and Deputy Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He chaired the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission – TARC.
The following is a transcript of the interview:
What did you expect to achieve and actually did achieve through TARC?
Our goals were always to use the civil society contacts as a way of building momentum towards opening the border between Turkey and Armenia. That would be the first step in a process culminating in a diplomatic relation between the two countries. It was also clear from discussions that TARC had, as well as my extensive interaction with Turks and Armenians, if you wanted to have discussions about the Armenian genocide the only way to do that was to increase the level of contacts between Turks and Armenians, where there will be more mutual understanding and ultimately a recognition of historical facts.
Why were you tough on the Armenian Government in an op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal?
When I was in Yerevan meeting with different political figures as well as with government officials, the day that I left was the day that the security forces came and forcibly removed pro-democracy demonstrators from the public square. That kind of heavy handed tactic in suppressing dissent isn’t what the United States expects from its good friends and allies around the world, nor is it in the interest of Armenia. If the country is going to be a strong democracy and collaborate effectively with its partners and friends aroundthe world as well as its neighbors, it needs to abide by international democratic and human rights norms. Clearly the behavior of forcibly clearing the square, cracking down on dissent was an aberration from what we expect from Armenia.
How could the governments of Turkey and Armenia have helped you in your work with TARC?
If the goal is to open the border, the Turkish government first and foremost needed to have the maturity and the foresight to recognize that the economic interest of Turks and North East Anatolia would be served by opening the border and increasing travel and trade; and its interest in accelerating EC accession talks will also be well served, consistent with European Parliament resolutions calling for normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. If in fact this was the goal -and my discussions with Armenian officials suggested it was the intent of all parties to open the border; a clear and an unambiguous statement from the Armenian Government that they were not seeking Turkish territory would have created conditions for Ankara to move forward with opening the border. I know from my own face-to-face contacts with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, when I pressed him on opening the border he said that mixed signals coming from Yerevan were providing justification for not moving ahead. If it is in Armenia’s interest to get that border open, as I think itis abundantly clear it is, then the government is responsible for sending a clear message. It failed to do so.
Georgia has open border with Turkey and Georgia’s economy hasn’t benefited from open borders, why will open borders be in Armenia’s interest?
We live in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world and the notion of closed borders is really archaic and the thing of the past. Right now Armenia suffers a terrible embargo on both its eastern and western borders and as a result many young Armenian feel that they do not have the opportunities in the country, and are leaving. That’s not in the interest of a strong and thriving Armenia in the future.
Can we move forward without addressing the big issue of Genocide?
The only way you are going to address it is if you talk to Turks and you have a chance to share information with them. One of the things that shocked me in my visits to Turkey was the complete taboo on Armenian issues and the absolute lack of understanding about events surrounding the Armenian Genocide, in the early 20th century. Because TARC announced its work it created a safe space for Turks and Armenians to get together, it also served as a lightening rod attracting a lot of criticism, but enabling other civil society groupsto expand the broad portfolio of dialogue, contact and cooperation. Those TRACK TWO contacts are going on today.
How would you expect Armenians to react to a comment made by a Turkish member of TARC, `..the purpose of TARC is to block the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide..’?
Angrily. And justifiably Armenians did respond angrily. The purpose of TARC was not to bloc progress of international recognition. The purpose was to promote mutual understanding through normal travel and trade and ultimately normalized diplomatic relations. It was clear that some members of TARC were operating with their own agendas or instructions from their own government and weren’t entirely constructive. That’s the difficulties of this kind of process. You have a group assembled that represent different constituencies.
What’s important for the group is to achieve coherence and to work constructively together. Have there been more support both from the Armenian government and some elements of the Armenian community and from Turkish national elementsand opposition party, I think TARC would have been able to make more progress than it did. I was also disappointed repeatedly by the Bush Administration. At critical moments it failed to stand and support this reconciliation effort. We always said that TRACK TWO is a substitute for official diplomacy but clearly the events of September 11 and then the Iraq War affected the context in which we were working.
At the time of the Iraq War, Ankara did not allow its bases to be used by US military. At that same time, in a resolution passed in the US Congress the Armenian Genocide was mentioned. How fair is it to use this question of Genocide when it serves the national interests of a country?
One thing about TRACK TWO is that it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. During the negotiations leading to the Turkish government’s decision of the transit of the 4th Infantry Division , it was extremely difficult for US officials to raise Armenian issues in their discussions with their Turkish counterparts. But then when the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted against the transit ofthe 4th Infantry Division, US officials were angered and Armenian issues suddenly resurfaced on the list of talking points. A few months later when Turkey’s participation in stabilizing Iraq, when the insurgency started to spread, became more important, once again Armenian issues receded into the background. That’s why it is important for TRACK TWO to maintain a consistent approach and to fill the gaps when governments are unable to do so. That was one of the successes of TARC. The milestone that we thought to accomplish haven’t been achieved yet, but I am confident they will be in the future.
Are Armenians ignorant of how sensitive Turks are to the Genocide issue,` .acknowledging the genocide contradicts their noble-self-image..’?
Well, mutual understanding is a two-way street. The Turks bring their own baggage and their own history to the table and one of the things we had to deal with TARC was to actually listen to each other and to respond to each others concerns There was never any negotiation about whether the Armenian Genocide did or did not occur. What TARC did do is to listen to all the members. Each of them had their own views about those events and the historical context in which they occurred and the effect of those events on the present and the future. It’s a difficult task to get people together and to forge acommon vision. Because TARC announced its work and felt it is important to be transparent about its intentions, it allowed itself to be turned into a little bit of a punching bag. That probably also enabled other groups to go forward andto be exempt of similar kind of treatment. But the reality is that TARC broke the ice, it broke a serious taboo in Turkey. Right now there is an industry of Turkish and Armenian contacts and cooperation not only among civil society groups but also at the business level, and all that speaks well of future prospects, concerning both countries and of course the agenda of Armenianswhich is to impress upon Turks facts concerning the Armenian Genocide so that there can be an acknowledgement and move on.
How realistic is Van Krikorian’s position. `.TARC’s purpose was not to explore the truth of the Armenian Genocide. That fact is beyond question’?
You will note that the title of TARC doesn’t include truth in its name. In fact when I was first introduced to Mr. Krikorian I described to him the work that I had done with Greek-Turkish rapprochement; one of the activities involved the shared history between Greek and Turkish scholars on the `Fire of Izmir ‘ or `The Burning of Smyrna’ depending on your perspective. Mr. Krikorian listened patiently and appreciated the process but he made clear to me then, and was clear throughout that from the Armenian perspective there were no two versions of history. There was only one version and that was the version that affirms veracity of the Armenian Genocide. The question was how do we address that, how do we focus on issues in the present tense. How do we build a brighter future for Armenians in cooperation with Turkey and ultimately with Azerbaijan, so the whole region can move forward.
The international Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has qualified the events of 1915 as genocide. Why was the wording of TARC to ICTJ so strict?
The initiative to seek international legal advice came from Gunduz Aktan, on the Turkish side. When he proposed this at one of our TARC meetings, the term he used was the `applicability’ of the Genocide Convention. The Armenians immediately understood that because he used the term `applicability’ rather than `application’, legal analysts could interpret that language broadly. The finding of ICTJ confirmed that no treaty had been applied retroactively. Therefore, any effort by any party to use the Genocide Convention to secure reparations or territories would be null and void. Full stop! It also found in the context of the applicability that based on the four criteria defining genocide that at least some of the Ottoman rulers knew, when they issued the deportations orders, that it would result in the mass deaths of Armenians. So the prerequisite genocidal intent’ exists and therefore journalists and historians and scholars would be justified by using the term `genocide’. The Turks realized they had made a mistake in the choice of words that were agreed to. The reason why we surrounded the strategy for distributing the ICTJ findings with ironclad language was because we didn’t want anybody to walk away from the study once it was completed, or somehow try to disavow themselves of the responsibility for conducting the study. It took us a year-and-a-half to agree on the language, to request the study, to negotiate the terms of reference, to move forward with the execution of the study and then to release it. I think that the findings of ICTJ will exist in history as an extremely important document concerning Turkish Armenian relationship.
There are experts of international law who claim that there is no statute of limitations on genocide and it could be applied retroactively?
I am not aware of any qualified international legal experts who make that claim. There has never been a treaty that was applied retroactively. Any intent to do so in the context of the Genocide Convention has no basis in International Law. I knew that all along . The reason why I was pleased with the ICTJ finding is because I felt it was a win-win outcome. It gave something to both sides and ultimately rapprochement and reconciliation needs to make allowances to both sides to move forward from a stalemate and undertake some progress.
You mention that Armenians attack TARC in public but support it in private?
One of the things that surprised me after my many trips to Armenia and discussions with senior government officials and religious figures and civil society leaders, was their strong support for reconciliation and their endorsement of TARC’s efforts. As soon as the announcement about TARC was made, Armenian nationalists jumped on it and started making false accusations about TARC’s agenda and intent. Instead of standing firm behind TARC which was the commitment that had been secured from these persons all along they got wobbly under the pressure. Had the government and others stood behind TARC it would have made TARC’s work more successful and certainly much easier, but they withered under the political pressure from coalition partners, and that was unfortunate.
What is your comment to your critics who say that TARC is all about silencing the truth to accommodate the government of Turkey and TARC’s funding and resources were not transparent?
Read the book! It describes in full detail the multiple sources of funding, the extensive consultation, the constructive efforts that TARC made. We are not holding any punches back here. It is completely transparent accountingand it’s my belief that the Tashnag criticize the efforts for one reason only – because they were not part of that. Had they been included, I think they would have blown it up at the beginning. But their criticism stems solely from the fact that they had tried to own this issue and as a result there is little progress made internationally and because of that scant progress work of groups like TARC become all the more important.?
You say you have neglected to develop a strategy to neutralize hard-line opponents? What strategy could you have applied?
Well there are hard-liners -opponents – on both sides and I feel asmy role as a facilitator I had to work more closely with the communities and shared more information earlier about TARC’s agenda., In retrospect spending more time in Armenia, spending more time working with different Armenian groups, so they felt better informed, probably would have been to everyone’s interest. Hindsight is easy. But there clearly were mistakes made. This was not a perfect endeavor. It fell short of perfection, but it was still a pretty good try in moving this agenda forward.
You say you underestimated the bitterness that exists between Turks and Armenians. Where do we go from here?
The only way to decrease that level of bitterness is through contact.
If people have interaction with each other, no matter how bitterly they may disagree, it will change the dynamics of their interaction in the future. TARC was the first effort of its kind and I think that the historical effect of TARC and of the ICTJ findings is yet to be fully manifested over time – particularly as Turkey moves forward with its EU talks and recognizes that it needs to make good on its pledge of Turkey as a gateway to the Caucasus. There is going to be progress on opening the border, on normalizing travel and trade, on diplomatic relations. And the more contacts the Turks and Armenians have, the more there is going to be understanding about the Armenian Genocide and the tragic events in the beginning of the 20th century.
You were asked if YOU believe if there was Genocide. What is your answer?
What I do or don’t believe is not important. What is important is that all the participants in TRACK TWO endeavor have confidence in my capacity, my commitment. My interest in this was inspired by my affection for Armenians and Turks alike. This was hard work but it was gratifying work and it was particularly gratifying because of the honorable way which some of the TARC members conducted their affairs. I hope the `Unsilencing the Past’ provides an important historical record of their efforts and can be used as a road map for similar kinds of TRACK TWO activities in the future.
Anything in closing?
It was an honor for me to be able to work with Turks and Armenians on this TRACK TWO endeavor. It was a privilege to make TRACK TWO more central part of the US government’s diplomatic toolbox. It takes time before you realize tangible benefits, but I am very confident that we will see in the near future measurable progress and the TARC’s efforts will be seen in a different light, once those milestones are achieved