Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama Avoids 'Genocide' Term, Sparking More Debate

The Hill
By Bridget Johnson

President Obama avoided using the word "genocide" when addressing "one of the great atrocities of the 20th century" on Armenians' remembrance day for those killed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915."

Just as the terrible events of 1915 remind us of the dark prospect of man’s inhumanity to man, reckoning with the past holds out the powerful promise of reconciliation," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House on Friday afternoon. "I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts."

Obama said the rapprochement announced Thursday between Turkey and Armenia was key to the two countries moving forward. Turkey and Armenia agreed in principle to opening a long-shut border crossing and normalizing relations, but have not said whether they would reach any agreement on genocide recognition.

"I strongly support efforts by the Turkish and Armenian people to work through this painful history in a way that is honest, open and constructive," Obama said. "To that end, there has been courageous and important dialogue among Armenians and Turks, and within Turkey itself."

Obama said he stood with the diaspora "and with Armenians everywhere with a sense of friendship, solidarity and deep respect."

Before the statement had even been issued, Turkish President Abdullah Gul hinted that he knew Obama would avoid the contentious term, telling reporters Friday that Obama had left his early-April Turkey visit "now better informed."

Obama had promised early in his presidential campaign that he would call the mass killings genocide if elected. "The facts are undeniable," Obama said in a Jan. 19, 2008, statement. "An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide."

Obama avoided use of the word genocide when asked about his campaign promise during a press conference in Turkey.

“We applaud President Obama for deferring to historians to settle the longstanding debate over the events of 1915-1918," Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America, said in a statement. "This tragic period in history led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians alike."President Obama has sent a clear message to America and the world that his administration will not sacrifice long-term strategic allies for short-term political gains,” McCurdy said.

Armenian-American organizations saw Friday's statement differently.

“Today’s statement does not reflect the change the president promised,” Armenian Assembly of America Executive Director Bryan Ardouny said in a statement. “His failure to affirm the proud chapter in U.S. history, the American response to the first genocide of the 20th century, has needlessly delayed the cause of genocide affirmation and diminishes U.S. credibility with regard to genocide prevention.

"Empty promises are no change at all," Ardouny said.

Armenian National Committee of America Chairman Ken Hachikian had similarly harsh words for the president's decision.

"I join with all Armenian Americans in voicing our sharp disappointment with President Obama's failure to honor his solemn pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide," Hachikian said in a statement.

"In falling short of his repeated and crystal-clear promises, which reflected a thorough knowledge of the facts, the practical implications, and the profound moral dimension of Armenian Genocide recognition, the president chose, as a matter of policy, to allow our nation's stand against genocide to remain a hostage to Turkey's threats."

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), sponsor of legislation that would recognize the killings as genocide, said he would press forward with his bill, which is still in committee. "Although the president today acknowledged the deaths of a million and a half Armenians during the Armenian Genocide, I am deeply disappointed by his decision not to use the word 'genocide' in his statement," Schiff said in a statement. "Nonetheless, our work will go on undaunted. We will not become complicit in Ankara's campaign of denial."

Armenian and Turkish demonstrators faced off Friday outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, with Turkish demonstrators beginning a 24-hour candlelight vigil Thursday evening on the embassy's Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk.

Gunay Edinch, president-elect of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, told The Hill that the Turks and Azeris were demonstrating "for victims of Armenian terrorism and the 1.1 million Muslims and Jews killed in the 1880-1919 Armenian independence movement."

Edinch said Armenian demonstrators began showing up after the release of Obama's statement. Before 4 p.m., three busloads of Armenians had arrived to join the handful of people demonstrating for Armenia and Greece, he said.

"We expected that the president would not use the word 'genocide' because that is a criminal accusation which carries very important legal and international relations implications," Edinch said, adding that he would have liked to see Obama also recognize the deaths for which the Turkish associations were holding their vigil.

"We would have liked a more well-rounded statement for both communities," Edinch said. "Could that have been done on the 24th of April? Maybe not ... maybe another date."

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