By Emil Danielyan
A retired diplomat who served as America’s first ambassador to Armenia has joined calls for international recognition of the Armenian genocide, echoing surprise statements on the subject made by the current head of the U.S. mission in Yerevan.
In a weekend interview with RFE/RL, Ambassador Harry Gilmore said the extermination of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey fits into the definition of genocide set by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. “There is no doubt that the Armenian events were genocide,” Gilmore said.
“Of course, we have to bear in mind that the Genocide Convention came well after the events in the Ottoman Empire,” he added. “I think legally there is no question of the convention applying retroactively. But the key point is that the convention sets up a standard and the massacres and deportations of the Ottoman Armenians meet that standard fully.”
Gilmore argued that Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish author of the word “genocide,” referred not only to the Jewish Holocaust but also the events of 1915-1918 when he came up with the concept following the Second World War. “In fact, when Mr. Lemkin coined the term genocide the Armenian events were one of the two archetypes he used in his work,” he said.
Gilmore, who served as ambassador to Armenia from 1993-1995, was the first U.S. government official to visit and lay flowers at the genocide memorial in Yerevan. But both he and his two successors consistently avoided calling the Armenian massacres a “genocide” in line with Washington’s policy on the highly sensitive subject.
Successive White House administrations have been anxious not to upset Turkey, a major U.S. ally which strongly denies that the government of the crumbling Ottoman Empire pursued a premeditated policy of exterminating its Armenian population. Ankara also claims that the Armenian death toll is inflated.
John Evans, the current U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, therefore took many observers by surprise when declared at a series of meetings with members of the Armenian-American community last month that the Turks did commit “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The remarks fueled speculation about a pro-Armenian shift in the U.S. government’s position on the issue.
But Evans denied it, saying in a statement last week that he expressed his personal opinion. A senior official from the administration of President George W. Bush told RFE/RL that Evans’s statements “absolutely contradict the policy of the U.S. government.”
Gilmore declined to comment on possible implications of Evans’s extraordinary genocide recognition. “Because I am outside the U.S. government now, I have no insider knowledge of what his communication with the U.S. government might be on the issue,” he said.
“From my thorough study of the events of that period I am persuaded that they do indeed constitute a genocide,” he added.
Evans likewise told the U.S.-Armenian community that he studied the subject in detail and consulted with a State Department lawyer before going on record. Leading Armenian-American organizations were quick to commend him.
One of those groups, the Armenian Assembly of America, has launched a public campaign in support of the envoy, sending letters to members of the U.S. Congress. “The Assembly commends Ambassador Evans for accurately labeling the attempted annihilation of the Armenians as Genocide and urges the President to follow his example and properly characterize the atrocities in his remembrance statement next month,” the chairman of its Board of Trustees, Hirair Hovnanian, said in a statement.
Frank Pallone, the co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, read out a similar statement on the House of Representatives floor last Tuesday. “Ambassador Evans simply assigned the word to the definition that was already provided by President Bush as well as members of his administration,” Pallone said.