The tragic event became almost as famous for the world’s failure to intervene as it did for the killings. As with many countries, the U.S. response hinged largely on whether or not one word could be employed: Genocide. It is reported that a Pentagon official urged caution in declaring the Rwandan massacre as genocide since that carried with it an international obligation to take action. When help did finally arrive, it was far too late.
Given the loaded nature of the word “genocide,” world leaders and academics alike have attempted to come to a consensus on how the term should be employed. Yet there is often disagreement, resulting in the dangerous use and abuse of the word which commonly finds itself the victim of political gamesmanship.
This is the argument the Turkish government is making in light of the passage of a bill in France outlawing the denial of any historic act it considers to have been genocide. This includes the Holocaust, but more importantly, the Armenian massacre of 1915, at which some 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered at the hands of Ottoman Turks.
The bill, which was passed by France’s Senate on Monday, makes denial of such events punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of around $59,000. The decision has outraged Turkey, which itself has legislation outlawing the use of the word genocide in relation to the massacre. In response, Turkey has promised “permanent sanctions” against France, as well as a threat to recall its ambassadors, cease military cooperation and end numerous political and economic agreements.
The debate has been a topic of contention for decades as nations have sought clarification of historical accounts as well as the proper definition and appropriate use of the word genocide. To date, only 21 countries officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, a list which does not include the United Kingdom, Israel or seven of the states in the U.S.
Cynics are emphasizing the convenient timing of the bill for French President Nicolas Sarkozy who faces an uncertain re-election bid in April and has been accused of attempting to secure the votes of ethnic Armenians living in France, of which there are around half-a-million. Others suggest this is the latest attempt to hamper Turkey’s bid to join the European Union whereby drawing them into a dispute and uncovering support of mass killing would likely hurt such chances. France has made no secret of its opposition to Turkey joining the EU, largely because its size and population would afford it power roughly equal to that of France.
Without doubt, genocide is abhorrent and should not be merely consigned to the annals of history. Adolf Hitler, speaking in 1939, used the Armenian case to support his own genocide, arguing that few gave much attention to the massacre, and likewise his own campaign would soon be forgotten by the world.
Acts of horror on such grand scales must be remembered by future generations to prevent them from happening again. This may in turn perpetuate ethnic cleavages such as is likely in Turkey. Governments, while promoting lessons from history, simply must work to reconcile competing groups in society. Such issues, however, should not become pieces in a political game, nor should they be used to generate support for an election.
The French government will likely remain divided over the issue for some time to come. Should relations with Turkey continue to sour, major economic hindrances will come to both countries, as well as damage to a relationship that would otherwise promise to yield key benefits to Europe regarding the Middle East.
Sarkozy may lose out after all is said and done should the bill backfire and reduce his support. Yet the biggest loss will ultimately fall on the economies and people of both countries, and will further highlight the sad inability of nations to agree on such issues as genocide after almost a century.
(Editor’s Note: Timothy J.A. Passmore is a visiting lecturer of political science at Lee University. His “Your World Today” column is published weekly in the Wednesday edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.)