Balakian: Obama’s Approach to Affirming the Genocide Takes Things Further Than Any Other President Has

Peter Baker’s article, “Obama Marks Genocide Without Saying the Word” (New York Times, April 24, 2010), like most of the media’s coverage of President Barack Obama’s April 24 commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, was based on an imprecise reading of the text of the statement. Although the president made the effort to avoid offending Turkey, he found a skillful way of acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of 1915 by stating, “my view of that history has not changed.” That view, which he expressed as a Senator and presidential candidate, was that the Armenian Genocide is “a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.” In this year’s address, Obama also referred to the events of 1915 as “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century,” and used the Armenian term Medz Yeghern twice—angering high-level Turkish officials because, for Armenians, it is synonymous with what Shoah is for the Jews. That Turkey’s foreign minister, for example, said the president’s statement was “not right and not acceptable” speaks to how adroitly Obama made it clear that, as he stated during his candidacy, he continues to accept as valid the designation “Armenian Genocide.”

If at this moment in U.S.-Turkish relations the State Department does not have the ethical courage to stand up to Turkey on the Armenian Genocide, Obama has taken a step forward in affirming it as president. In the future it could not be more appropriate for Obama, a former law professor, to note that Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who created the word “genocide” in 1943, was compelled to pursue the legal concept of genocide as an international crime on the basis of what happened to the Armenians in 1915.

It was Lemkin who first called the Turkish intended group destruction of the Armenians: genocide. Although the Holocaust had a direct and personal bearing on Lemkin, who lost 49 members of his family to the Nazis, he explicitly argued that there is no hierarchical value placed on genocides. In 1948, he wrote: “In 1916 and thereafter, President Wilson took a warm interest in the fate of the Armenians, who fell victims of genocide. More than 1,200,000 men, women, and children were massacred at that time. The USA State Department wrote, ‘This government cannot be a tacit part of an international wrong.’ The genocide convention condemns mass violence as a system of government. This crime did not start with Hitler and did not end with Hitler.”

Following the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in December 1948, Lemkin wrote: “Genocide is defined in this Convention as the intentional destruction of national, racial, ethnical, and religious groups. Examples of genocide are the destruction of the Armenians in the first World War, the destruction of the Jews in the second World War.”

Many of us in the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and the human rights community hope that Obama will openly use the term Armenian Genocide that Raphael Lemkin first did when he coined it in the 1940’s. With Obama, in his way, having taken a significant step toward a full acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide, there is potential for a new atmosphere in this country in which Turkish denial and coercion are no longer tolerated.

Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University and the author of many books including The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the Raphael Lemkin Prize.


  1. As long as President Obama – or any other official of any country in the world – does not use the word Genocide, his words have no legal value. As Armenians, or at least my generation of Armenians, which is a little younger than Mr. Balakian’s generation, we have outgrown the phase of clapping for expressions of sympathy and pain for the “innocent victims of the brutal killings”. As a matter of fact, I am more offended by President Obama than his predecessors, because the other ones were at least blunt in their refusal to use the legal term GENOCIDE that should/would carry consequences. Mr. Obama is not only doing the same, but he is trying to dupe us that he went a step further by words like “my views have not changed” and using the term “medz yeghern”.
    Please – stop insulting our intelligence!

  2. For the record, I have huge respect for Balakian. His “Burning Tigris” book on U.S. response to the Armenian Genocide is a seminal work.  His translations – whether it is of Grigoris Balakian’s “Armenian Golgotha” or Siamanto’s poetry are masterful.  CBS 60 Minutes coverage of the Armenian Genocide? What can we say.

    That is why I was so disappointed to read Balakian’s  misguided defense of Obama’s April 24th statement. 

    Balakian gives Obama credit for stating that his “view of that history has not changed,” then quoting from Obama’s campaign statements on the topic.  What Balakian is NOT quoting is the line where candidate Obama stated the “Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact…”  Apparently the truth got downgraded since Obama’s  election.

    Balakian gives Obama credit for using the term “Medz Yeghern” in his statement.  President Bush tried that trick back in 2005 – translating the Armenian term to “Great Calamity.” So Obama goes more ethnic and keeps the Armenian terminology and says it twice… No cigar, Mr. President.  Using “Medz Yeghern” to avoid using the word Genocide is simply an evasion of truth – denial in a different form – and it’s an insult to Armenian intelligence to think he should be applauded for that.

    And finally – Balakian’s argument that “If at this moment in U.S.-Turkish relations the State Department does not have the ethical courage to stand up to Turkey on the Armenian Genocide, Obama has taken a step forward in affirming it as president….” Memo to Balakian:  Obama is the President of the United States.  He gets to SET State Department policy.  If we, the American people, wanted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to set our foreign policy – we would have elected HER as president.  We didn’t, largely because of the commitments and pledges candidate Obama made – fully expecting for him to meet those obligations.

    And it doesn’t end with the Armenian Genocide.  Obama’s policy on Darfur has been abysmal at best. Ask Nick Kristof… Read the Save Darfur website…  The sham of an election in Sudan has apparently resulted in a Janjaweed fighter representing Darfur.  Seriously?  And Obama’s condemnation of those elections has been pathetic. Where is Obama’s “unstinting resolve” to end the Darfur genocide and bring about positive change in that country?

    Look, I voted for Obama in 2008.  I so wanted him to keep his pledge.  But, he hasn’t.  Half-measures and use of Armenian phrases in his statement don’t cut it.  Strong-arming Armenia to accept those ridiculous Turkey-Armenia protocols simply to get him off the hook from honoring his pledge is shameful.  And using the Protocol’s reference to a “historical commission” as a basis to oppose Armenian Genocide legislation – the same legislation he pledged to support as a candidate – just goes to show that he is not a man of “change” – but the president of “more of the same” bad policies on genocide.

    And Balakian’s endorsement and defense of those antics is terribly unfortunate, to say the least.

  3. I refuse to accept ANY and ALL attributions for Obama’s blatantly cynical betrayal  of his crystal clear promise to Americans about recognizing the Armenian Genocide.  He broke his promise.  And many of us will never forget it. I couldn’t care less about the list of euphemisms he puts forth and why and in what context compared to any of his spineless predecessors, except Regan.  His Holocaust Remembrance statement issued a few weeks before ours not only stated the words Holocaust and genocide but also the words justice and peace. Be my guest and check it out.
    Why won’t Armenians also be treated with the same respect? Our president must refer to the Armenian Genocide in legally accurate English and also speak about the need for justice and then peace. Anything less is disrespectful, hypocritical and unacceptable.

  4. Morality—Mortality in Politics

    In politics, does morality exist?
    I do not know what else persists.
    Alter like waves no one can chase.
    Come and go through foggy shades.
    Morality, if it can’t exist.
    How humans can smell cheers.
    Can any soul walk endlessly
    In muddy crisscross streets!
    Lies exist in their drinks.
    Smirk cunningly as part of gears.
    To say what’s not to be done.
    Is the summit of smiles, seized?
    Morality is like fallen leaves.
    The tree stays to see the deaths.
    The branches weep even in spring.
    When summer dawns, shoots new leaves.
    Politics if diseased means a real cancer.
    Spreads to kill, sound, breeding cells.
    The ailing stays engulfing stem cells,
    Even before they start to breed.
    Honesty if it exists
    Never signs to be politics.
    The skins need false hands to rub
    To weir others, who for truth they carve.

    From the book : Politics Play People Pay Poets Proms Pledging Pray


  5. On the past 2 April 24ths, since his election to office, Obama did reiterate that his opinions were on the record, and used the word Medz Yeghern, referring to the Armenian Genocide.
    A way to interpret this is that President Obama is trying to emphasize the difference between his personal opinion before and after his election to presidency (recognizes the Genocide) and his position as president (doesn’t). The reason being, as covered by the Media,  the importance of Turkey’s role in ushering peace, especially in the Muslim world.
    Why ?

    Restore his image (and /or, consecutively);
    Regain the confidence of the Armenian Americans;
    Give them hope for the near future, especially if he’s reelected;
    Get their votes in the next presidential campaign;
    Convince Armenia to sign the protocols.

    Expressions of discontent about this year’s declaration by President Obama on April 24 from diplomats in Turkey may as well be a façade.
    This interpretation, unfortunately, puts the argument, “Obama’s approach affirming the Genocide takes things further than any president has,” to rest. It gives future candidates (including himself) and presidents a justification to maneuver Armenian American citizens’ votes. In other words, nothing has changed.

  6. Do not completely blame Pres. Obama for sidestepping the use of the word Genocide.  As much as I hate to say this, the Turks have outsmarted us again.   Their timing was perfect and the Armenian Government walk right into the trap.

    Without getting involved in the pros and cons of the debate, the Armenian Government entered into the negotiations to open the border.  Since the negotiations were still ongoing at that time, and, again, at the time, it looked as if there may possibly be some sort of ratification, looking at it from Pres. Obama’s perspective, I would have also sidestepped the issue, hoping that by doing so something positive may come of the negotiations.  

    Still looking at it from his perspective; seeing that the Armenians and the Turks were in the midst of discussions and at that point, appearing that something positive may come of it, to come out and use the term Genocide would have brought everything to an immediate halt.  

    The primary fault, in my humble opinion, lays with the Armenian government for not being astute enough to foresee the ramifications of what they were getting involved in.  Although, I am sure that the pressure on them to enter into the talks, from all sides, was tremendous.

    Unfortunately we are going have to understand the reality of, in one form or other, opening the borders.  Armenia cannot continue to grow and prosper under these circumstances. 

    The methodology shall be left for another discussion. 


  7.  I kneel to Pray

     I kneel to pray
    For who to pray.
    To Mighty in Sky
    Who hears Satan’s barks.
    I kneel to pray
    For who to pray
    To broken phalanges
    And crushed skulls
    They are calling me not to pray
    They said, we prayed in silence
    Scimitars were sharper
    Arrived while we were praying
    To only known theirs and ours god.
    Slayers silenced Gomidas
    Who was Servant’s god
    Who sang to him and keeled till sigh
    Till was insane
    And still he kept his affiliations to god.
    So I kneel to pray to Gomidas
    I can his chorus still singing in my mind.
    With him, sang dressed Armenian girls in white
    All disappeared from that date
    From this world, merciless unkind.
    May be our God was an Armenian, hence kind
    Could not kill all those scavengers—
    Those wanted to drink our blood;
    They drunk, but still stay unsatisfied
    Want to drink more…
    No blood left in us to drink
    Our blood turned to soul
    Can’t satisfy them any more.
    They don’t have kind spirit
    To understand,
    What means a Human Soul.
    May 10, 2010

  8. I have the utmost respect for Mr. Balakian. When he is in Los Angeles, I make every effort to see him, most recently at a book signing in Glendale.  Unfortunately, I disagree with his assessment in this piece, although I believe it to be unique and well argued.
    Nevertheless, the time has long run out…waiting and waiting for post-Reagan recognition from my country, the USA.
    I am not looking for my president to firmly recognize the Genocide on the 150th Anniversary. I was looking forward to it on April 24, 2009.
    The less militant we become on the issue, the longer we will wait for results. By that time, it really will be ancient history and people will laugh at the idea of the return of land.
    I am comfortable in the USA, but not comfortable enough to soften my line against the perpetrators of the Genocide and those who deny it and those who apologize for the perpetrators and deniers.
    I really wish there were fewer Armenian-Americans who have compromised their views on the Genocide, because they want to be invited to wine & cheese receptions at the State Department. Mr. Balakian is not one of them, but I think we know those who are…and they are outcasts, in my mind.

  9. I agree with Peter. Instead of waiting and waiting for recognition from the US government the Diasporan organizations need to employ new tactics. One of the venues might be taking the case to the international judicial institutions and establishing Armenian Studies programs or Genocide Studies projects in as many US universities as possible, not just in CA, NY, MA or MI.
    I know Armenians will never cease their efforts, but becoming less militant is exactly what the US government and their ‘valuable allies’ in Turkey want us to do. How many times were we told defeatist phrases such as ‘move on don’t look back,’ ‘sticking to the issue is a looser mentality,’ ‘you cannot correct the past,’ ‘think of helping modern-day Armenia and forget about genocide recognition,’ ‘Armenia needs open borders and friendly neighbors and it is the genocide issue that prevents it,’ ‘go, buy property in your ancestral lands but live among Kurds and Turks in the country of Turkey,’ and the like?
    No softening of the line until recognition by the international community, the US Congress included, happens and apology by the Turks is extended. Having been in Yerevan on the 24th this year I was overwhelmed to see hundreds of thousands of young people, representing the fourth generation of the genocide survivors, who were so fervent in their passion for recognition.
    I believe that the time will come and new, diversified tactics are needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.