History at the forefront of current US foreign policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"Recognition of the Armenian genocide by the full Congress and [US] President [Barack] Obama's administration would pave the way for Turkey's eventual acknowledgement of these events," writes Harout Harry Semerdjian, a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C. and currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, in an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV.

The following op-ed was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Harout Harry Semerdjian.

"It is an unlikely phenomenon that a historical issue from nearly a century ago would affect modern-day relations between nations and have far-reaching political implications on them. Last month the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives voted in favour of recognising the Turkish killings of some 1,500,000 Armenians in 1915 as genocide – a term initially coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer in 1943 after a thorough study of the Armenian case. As a consequence, Turkey recalled its ambassador back to Ankara for  'consultations' and threatened US-Turkey ties.

Some of our elected leaders and average citizens may question the rationale behind such resolutions in the US House of Representatives. The answer is quite clear, however, and begs for explication. It is a little known fact that American diplomats and Christian missionaries posted in Turkey in 1915 were among the  most vocal decriers of the massacre of Armenians.

As the wholesale killings and deportations of Armenians were being unleashed, Leslie A. Davis, the US Consul posted in the remote Turkish town of Harput, sent a US diplomatic dispatch to Washington, D.C. dated July 24, 1915 stating: 'I do not believe there has ever been a massacre in the history of the world so general and thorough as that which is now being perpetrated in this region.' While the word 'genocide' was not in existence in 1915, Consul Davis called the killings a 'general massacre' and American Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau labeled the events 'murder of a nation'.

With global developments after WWI, Turkey's importance for the United States increased particularly in light of expansionist Soviet policies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and US military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan helped fuel Turkey's geopolitical prominence in the region. In  past assessments of regional strategic interests, consecutive US governments have been reluctant to label the killings by the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who affirmatively supported the recognition of the genocide as senators and later as presidential candidates, have so far displayed a similar reluctance to change our assessment of regional strategic interests.

Ironically, the US archives contain thousands of documents recording the facts of the Armenian genocide. These documents include eye-witness accounts by our own American diplomats – the most powerful form of evidence in light of persistent denial. For example, upon visiting a lake near his post in Harput, Consul Davis witnessed the thousands of massacred Armenians along its shores and labeled this part of Turkey 'The Slaughterhouse Province'.

He wrote: 'What the order is officially and nominally to exile the Armenians from these Vilayets [Provinces] may mislead the outside world for a time, but the measure is nothing but a massacre of the most atrocious nature. The shooting and killing of people a few hours after their departure from here is barbarous and shows that the real intension of the government is not to exile them but to kill them'.

Realism in the assessment of our regional interests requires sober consideration of such powerful evidence  offered by our diplomats. It is consistent with transparent democratic debate of our values and interests that the US House of Representatives brings up this relevant issue for a vote given our own diplomatic observations of events in Turkey at that time.

Sound foreign policy is built on realism, and genocide recognises no statute of limitations. Our lawmakers are merely setting the record straight given our own values of democracy and commitment to human rights.

Today, 95 years after the killings, the Cold War era is over and new global developments have changed the world order. France, Belgium and Switzerland were among the first nations to recognise the Armenian genocide after re-assessing their Cold War strategies. As the world's only superpower, we can find the political courage to discuss the wrongs of our friends openly and not help conceal them.

April 24, the anniversary date of the killings, should be a day that matters to all Americans who value human rights, transparency, accountability and clear-eyed assessment of our strategic partnerships in southwest Asia. Recognition of the Armenian genocide by the full Congress and President Obama's administration would pave the way for Turkey's eventual acknowledgement of these events – which will not only help bring about a closure to this tragic chapter in world history but also bring long-term peace and security in the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Turkish acknowledgement of the genocide would also further Turkey's aspirations to join the EU and place the country one step closer to the European family of nations as well as to the modern values they uphold. Turkey would thus set a serious foundation for reconciliation, peace and cooperation with its Armenian neighbour."

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