Commentary | The politics of recognition

Moral decisions should not be made based on expediency

On March 4, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that pressed the Obama administration to recognize the Armenian massacres of the early 20th century as genocide. While one would hope that the nuances of semantics would be secondary when discussing the deaths of approximately a million people, in politics such distinctions are highly charged.

Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman government that ruled what is now Turkey massacred between 300,000 and 1.5 million Armenian civilians. Many perished in forced labour camps in the Syrian Desert where Ottoman authorities had deported them. The Treaty of Sèvres, which dismembered the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, clearly states that the Turkish government must acknowledge and take legal responsibility for these crimes. The term “genocide” did not yet exist – but these stipulations fall within the parameters of genocide as it’s defined today. Indeed, when the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” as a defined legal concept in 1943, he had this case in mind: he used the Armenian massacres as an example to broaden his thesis on the Axis powers’ activities during World War II.

However, the politicized nature of genocide recognition today means that it cannot be understood from within a moralizing vacuum. At present, more than 20 countries worldwide, including Canada, officially recognize the Armenian genocide under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. The Turkish government, though a signatory, still virulently denies these allegations. The U.S. has always avoided weighing in on the subject for strategic reasons.

While the congressional panel’s resolution appears to be a strong moral stance, the likelihood that the administration will allow it to pass to a general vote in the House, much less uphold it should the resolution go through, is low. Turkey is a key American ally in the Middle East. It is stable, secular, and generally pro-Western. The military base at Incirlik is a major hub for U.S. operations in Iraq. In addition, the U.S.’s desire to place more stringent sanctions on Iran will require Turkish cooperation.

Clearly, an angry Turkish government runs counter to U.S. interests. However, the precedent of making genocide recognition a purely pragmatic calculation is worrisome. It helps normalize the use of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable as just another card in the political game. What will happen, for instance, when it comes time to label the events in Darfur of the past decade as genocide? Western oil interests in the region might make their governments hesitant to anger the Sudanese state.

Genocide recognition is characterized as an emotional issue. And while it is emotionally charged, in foreign policy it is a technical and legal term that defines a certain set of relevant historical circumstances. It should be treated as such.

Turkey is still in denial of a significant portion of its political heritage. Though the House’s decision is a noteworthy one, the U.S., through policy errors of its own, has placed itself in a position in the Middle East which makes alienating Turkey, even in an attempt to be morally upright, politically unfeasible. While distance in time by no means diminishes the irreparable damage these crimes wreaked on the Armenian people, we can perhaps be slightly less disturbed by this outcome due to the fact that these atrocities were committed nearly a century ago: the direct perpetrators and victims are mostly long dead.

But in other cases, like in Sudan, categorizing events as genocide or not could have real legal and political impact for people alive today. The precedent set by the debate on Armenia does not bode well for them.

Adrienne Klasa is a U3 Honours student in political science and philosophy, as well as the editor of the McGill Foreign Affairs Review. Write her at