Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sense & nonsense, honesty & hypocrisy, about the Armenian genocide (Norman Geras & Geoffrey Robertson)

Norman Geras's recent post headed "Don't mention the genocide" is worth reading in full, but for the moment I will just quote part of it:
Last week the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives resolved by a narrow margin to condemn the massacres of the Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. This has led to a certain amount of negative press comment. If I didn't already have a view about whether or not those killings constituted a genocide - my view being that they did - the general tenor of this negative comment would sway me strongly towards the suspicion that that is indeed what they were. Why? Because so much of the comment is so poor. People with good arguments generally make them. If they don't, you begin to wonder.

In today's Times, Norman Stone writes: 'But genocide? No, if by that you mean the sort of thing Hitler did.' This is a useless, question-begging assertion. [....] So, yes, the Armenian genocide was different from the Holocaust in certain ways, but this doesn't mean it wasn't a genocide under the prevailing definition of that term, the one embodied in the UN genocide convention.

Stephen Kinzer and Marcel Berlins don't declare themselves on whether the Turks committed a genocide or not. Kinzer asks whether it's 'the responsibility of the US Congress to make sensitive judgments about events that unfolded long ago' and says it has 'neither the capacity nor the moral authority' to do so. Berlins, who doesn't know if there was a genocide, says it's no business of a congressional committee; it is 'a matter for courts'.
Anyone who knows anything at all about this whole subject will recognize that there is something strikingly, almost grotesquely, absurd about Berlins's formulations. I see from a later post of Norm's that a letter to the Guardian by Geoffrey Robertson QC, responding to that piece by Berlins, brought out the absurdity and hypocrisy of his position sharply and effectively:
What business is it of theirs?" asks Mr Berlins of the US congressional committee. At a time when Turkish writers are prosecuted under section 301 of the penal code for alleging the Armenian genocide, its recognition might be thought to be the business of all who care for freedom of speech.
When the Turkish government stops outlawing any honest discussion of the Armenian genocide, then that government (and its foreign sympathizers) might have some moral and intellectual basis for complaining when other governments--wisely or not--take positions on this historical event. Until then, such complaints are laughably and offensively hypocritical, to put it mildly. And as Robertson also points out:
Marcel Berlins (Writ large: Genocide vote is an ignorant stunt, 9 March), in criticising the US foreign relations committee vote to recognise the Armenian genocide, says the word and its definition were crafted by Raphael Lemkin in 1944: in fact Lemkin began his campaign to criminalise the murderous repression of racial and religious groups much earlier, in 1933, always by reference to the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians which he regarded, until the Holocaust, as the clearest and most recent historical example of genocide. [....]

[Berlins] begins his column by admitting that he "does not know enough" to decide whether the US decision was right, but goes on illogically to assert that it is "open to debate". No serious genocide scholar doubts it, and nor did the Human Rights Commission's special rapporteur on genocide (Ben Whittaker) in his 1985 report. My own opinion, published last year, may be found at www.geoffreyrobertson.com.
Yours for reality-based (& morally serious) discourse,
Jeff Weintraub