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Unsilencing the Past: A book on Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts

Monday, March 28, 2005

Book Review

ANKARA – Turkish Daily News

Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation by David L. Phillips (Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford) describes efforts to promote contact, dialogue, and cooperation between Turks and Armenians. Established in 2001, the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) broke a taboo about Armenian issues in Turkey and spawned many civil society projects involving business leaders, women’s associations, youth groups, cultural activities, parliamentarians, and local government officials.

Track two diplomacy brings together non-governmental representatives to develop ideas informing official diplomacy and building grass-roots support for policy initiatives. The goal is to creatively explore the underlying conditions that give rise to conflict and develop joint strategies for addressing shared problems through reciprocal efforts. As a result, conflict comes to be seen as a shared problem requiring cooperation of both sides. Track Two is not a substitute for official diplomatic efforts. However, its flexibility helps compensate for the inherent constraints on officials.

According to Phillips, TARC’s primary goal was to open the border between Turkey and Armenia as a first step towards establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The initiative faced serious problems.

Before TARC was established, Turkish-Armenian relations were marred by deep distrust, a closed border and dramatically different perceptions of history. Phillips explains that Armenians and many international historians describe pogroms in the late 19th century that killed one quarter million ethnic Armenians in eastern Anatolia. On April 24, 1915, 800 Armenian community leaders were executed and the subsequent deportation of Armenians resulted in massive sufferings by Armenians (1915-23). Many Turks emphasize the war context in which the events occurred. The deportation of Armenians was in response to security concerns arising from the rebellion of Armenians during which hundreds of thousands of Turks died in the Caucasus as well as the Balkans and the Black Sea region. Turkey rejects use of the term genocide and resents efforts by Armenians to gain international recognition. Reconciliation is further complicated by Armenian Diaspora politics and the occupation of Azeri territories by Armenians.

Unsilencing the Past describes in vivid detail the exchange of views between Turks and Armenians. It brings the reader behind the scenes giving a glimpse of the difficult and sometimes acrimonious discussions. The genocide issue cast a long shadow over TARC’s efforts.

To address this problem, Turks and Armenians jointly agreed to seek a non-binding legal opinion facilitated by the well-respected International Center for Transitional Justice on the “applicability of the Genocide Convention to events in the early Twentieth Century.”

To the satisfaction of the Turks, the analysis concluded: “The Genocide Convention contains no provisions mandating its retroactive application. Therefore, no legal, financial or territorial claim arising out of the events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the Convention.” It also examined the definition of genocide in international law and found that (i) one or more persons were killed, (ii) such persons belonged to a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group, (iii) the action took place as part of a pattern of conduct against the group, and, (iv) no matter how many Armenians died, at least some of the Ottoman rulers knew that the consequence of the deportation orders would result in many deaths. To the satisfaction of Armenians, it concluded that the events include all the elements of the crime of genocide.

Though the legal analysis offered something to both sides, Phillips acknowledges that it did little to advance the practical goal of opening the Turkish-Armenian border. In this regard, he is critical of the Armenian government for failing to clearly state that it has no claim on Turkey’s territory. He criticizes the Turkish government for not acting in its own national interest to open the border, which would have a huge economic impact on the Turkish provinces bordering Armenia while reducing the transportation cost of Turkish goods to Central Asia and beyond. He is also critical of the Bush administration for shifting its priorities and neglecting Turkish-Armenian issues after September 11 and with the Iraq War.

In conclusion, Phillips asks “Was the effort worthwhile?” He laments that TARC’s goals were not met. He notes, however, that TARC did succeed in establishing a structured dialogue and opening the door for civil society contacts; helping catalyze diplomatic activity; laying the foundation for addressing the genocide issue; and bringing a principled treaty based approach to opening the border. Though TARC was established for one year, it worked for three. Pointing out that reconciliation is a process not an event, Phillips concludes optimistically stating his belief that the border will open someday soon. (Note: The Armenian government has publicly recognized the 1921 Kars Treaty demarcating today’s border between Turkey and Armenia.)

Phillips is director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at American University. He is also a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations of New York.

(For more information see www.berghahnbooks.com).

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