BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
President Serzh Sarkisian’s comments generated much controversy last week when he reportedly stated at a campaign stop in Yerevan on Feb. 5 that “tseghasbanoutyoun” (genocide) and “yeghern” (atrocity) are synonymous. He asserted that President Obama, without uttering the word “genocide,” had said “everything.” The Armenian head of state was referring to President Obama’s use of the term ‘Medz Yeghern’ (Great Atrocity) rather than ‘Armenian Genocide’ in his annual April 24 commemorative statements.
The words Yeghern or 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 to convince the world that they were the victims of genocide and are now seeking justice from Turkey under international law. This is fundamental reason why Armenians demand genocide recognition, not massacres, atrocities or deportations!
The only reason President Obama has used the term Medz Yeghern in his annual statements is to avoid the words Armenian Genocide, in acquiescence to Turkish pressures. If Medz Yeghern and genocide have the same meaning, why doesn’t President Obama use the term genocide instead of Medz Yeghern? After all, 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 President 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 in 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 in order to claim success on genocide recognition is a futile exercise. It is really unnecessary to twist the meaning of President Obama’s words. The United States recognized the Armenian Genocide as far back as 1951, when the US 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 US President, Ronald Reagan, issued a Presidential Proclamation on April 22, 1981, where 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 President Obama utter the words Armenian Genocide. Nor is there a need to reinterpret President Obama’s statements, claiming that by using the term Medz Yeghern he has automatically acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. The only reason President Obama should recognize the Armenian 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 Armenian 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 United States 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!