By Emil Danielyan
The controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), meeting in New York last week, asked international law experts to conduct a study to determine whether the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted a genocide, RFE/RL learned Wednesday. It is also understood to have urged Turkey to lift the economic blockade of Armenia.
According to an American scholar who chaired the four-day meeting, ten prominent Turks and Armenians making up the panel requested that the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) “facilitate the provision of an independent third party analysis of the applicability of the 1948 [UN] Genocide Convention to events at the beginning of the 20th century.” David Phillips, who teaches conflict prevention at the Vienna Diplomatic Academy and played a major role in the TARC’s creation, said in a statement on Monday that “this analysis would be made available on a confidential basis.”
Differing interpretations of the bloody events of 1915 are at the heart of a deep divide separating the two nations. The TARC, set up in July with the behind-the-scenes backing of the US State Department, has the stated aim to facilitate normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. Its members, including two former foreign ministers, have insisted until now they will not debate the validity of each other’s position on the Armenian genocide.
But Phillips’s statement, revealed to RFE/RL by a source close to the commission, says they “will consider the result of ICTJ’s independent analysis” of the issue at further gatherings. The Armenian members could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The Turkish government denies that 1.5 million people died as a result of a systematic government effort to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Ankara insists that Armenians were repressed by the Ottoman regime because of their collaboration with advancing Russian troops.
Many Armenian leaders and Diaspora activists view the TARC’s creation as part of a Turkish ploy to scuttle international recognition of the genocide. In particular, they point to the fact that the European Parliament last month refused to mention the Armenian genocide in a resolution on Turkey, citing the TARC’s existence.
Tension ran high at the start of the New York meeting on November 18, with the commission’s four Armenian members threatening to suspend their participation in the reconciliation initiative if it harms the recognition process. One of them, Moscow-based political analyst Andranik Migranian, told RFE/RL that the Turkish commissioners were also warned against making more statements to the effect that Turkey will never condemn the 1915 killings as a genocide. Migranian said subsequent discussions proceeded in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Phillips’s statement says the Turkish and Armenian participants agreed at the end of the meeting that “the existence of TARC should not be used to influence the attitudes of the international community towards its relations with Armenia and Turkey.”
Their call for an independent study on the Armenian massacres is bound to enhance the ICTJ’s role in the Turkish-Armenian dialogue. The New York-based human rights organization was founded last March to help transitional countries develop “effective responses to human rights abuse arising from repressive rule, mass atrocity or armed conflict.” The ICTJ is engaged in post-conflict rehabilitation and reconciliation initiatives across the world. It is headed by Alex Boraine, the former deputy chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and currently an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Law.
The organization became involved in the TARC’s activities this autumn. While in New York, the commission members attended a seminar on “models of reconciliation” organized by the ICTJ.
According to Phillips, the Turkish and Armenian members also acknowledged that their dialogue is “not a substitute” for diplomatic relations between the two neighboring states – a key point made by official Yerevan which is skeptical about the success of the US-backed initiative. They agreed that “normalizing trade and transportation between Armenia and Turkey would advance reconciliation.”
Successive Turkish governments have linked the lifting of the blockade to Armenia’s acceptance of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The TARC also decided to launch a US-based permanent secretariat with “liaison offices” in Turkey and Armenia. Its next meeting is scheduled to take place in New York on January 21-26.