President Serge Sarkisian’s comments on Feb. 5 generated much controversy when he reportedly stated at a campaign stop in Yerevan that “tseghasbanoutyoun” (genocide) and “yeghern” (atrocity) are synonymous. He asserted that President Barack Obama, without uttering the word “genocide,” had said “everything.” The Armenian head of state was referring to Obama’s use of the term “Medz Yeghern” (Great Atrocity) rather than “Armenian Genocide” in his annual April 24 commemorative statements.
The words yeghern and Medz Yeghern were used by Armenians mostly before Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1943 to describe the organized mass killings of Armenians during the 1915-23 period. Before 1943, Armenians used various expressions to refer to those killings, such as chart (massacre), medz vojir (great crime), aghed (disaster), deghahanoutyoun (deportation), and aksor (exile). However, none of these words have the legal connotation of tseghasbanoutyoun or genocide under international law.
Since 1943, Armenians have spent much time and effort convincing the world that they were the victims of genocide, and are now seeking justice from Turkey under international law. This is the fundamental reason why Armenians demand genocide recognition, not massacres, atrocities, or deportations.
The only reason Obama has used the term Medz Yeghern in his annual statements is to avoid the words Armenian Genocide, in acquiescence to Turkish pressure. If Medz Yeghern and genocide have the same meaning, why doesn’t Obama use the term genocide instead of Medz Yeghern? After all, then-presidential candidate Obama did not promise Armenian-American voters that, if elected, he would recognize the Medz Yeghern; he pledged to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Thus, all who allege that Medz Yeghern and genocide are synonymous are simply giving Obama a free pass and allowing him not to keep his solemn pledge. They are also undermining several decades of extensive lobbying efforts for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide!
Those who claim equivalence between Medz Yeghern and genocide do it not out of ignorance of Armenian terminology. They know full well that the two words don’t have the same meaning. Their real reason is to declare victory by making people believe that the president of the United States did after all acknowledge the validity of the Armenian Genocide.
There are a couple of fallacies in this approach. First, regardless of what Medz Yeghern means to Armenians, it is a meaningless term to all those who do not speak Armenian. Second, equating Medz Yeghern and genocide to claim success on genocide recognition is a futile exercise. It is really unnecessary to twist the meaning of Obama’s words. The United States recognized the Armenian Genocide as far back as 1951, when the government submitted an official document to the International Court of Justice (World Court) acknowledging the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide as examples of genocide. Another U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, issued a Presidential Proclamation on April 22, 1981, in which he mentioned the Armenian Genocide. Moreover, the House of Representatives acknowledged the Armenian Genocide by adopting two resolutions in 1975 and 1984.
Consequently, there is no longer a pressing need to pursue further acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide by passing repeated congressional resolutions or demanding that Obama utter the words Armenian Genocide. Nor is there a need to reinterpret Obama’s statements, claiming that by using the term Medz Yeghern he has automatically acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. The only reason Obama should recognize the genocide is to be a man of his word.
It is imperative for Armenians and their supporters to concentrate their efforts on the eve of the centennial of the genocide not on gaining further recognition—an already accomplished fact—but on securing justice for the massive crimes committed against their ancestors a hundred years ago.
Rather than demanding that the U.S. or even Turkey acknowledge the genocide, which would not result in any concrete benefit, Armenians should focus their energies on more meaningful steps, such as filing lawsuits against the Turkish government in national and international courts.
Once Armenians regain their territories and properties from Turkey through legal action or as a result of unexpected geopolitical developments, the Turkish government can go on denying the genocide as long as it wants!