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.