Monday, 9 March 2009
When looking ahead is hard, look back and look busy
For 5 points, political science:
What is the function of the US Congress?
If you answered ‘legislation’ you get 5 points. But if you answered ‘to serve as the forum in which political vendettas and ideological politics are all played out’ you also get 5 points. Because debate within Congress is partly about making laws and partly about making a point. And I can’t help thinking that the latest push towards passing a resolution that describes the Ottoman massacres of the Armenians on the run-up to and during the First World War as ‘genocide’ is little more than that. I am just not sure what the point is.
Despite placating the Armenian lobby.
Despite giving the beleaguered Armenian nation a belated moral victory.
Despite looking back and nodding wisely.
Despite all this, I fear that this gesture is just that – a gesture – a symbolic pat on the head and not the start of a global preventative initiative.
Almost a century has gone by since the Armenian massacres the proposed Congress resolution is dealing with occurred. And although the memory of the pain and the horror remains, none of the political players do.
At the time, Armenia was not yet a state.
The state that perpetrated the crimes (the Ottoman Empire) no longer exists.
The state that replaced it (Turkey) came into being partly by rebelling against and rejecting the Ottoman Empire. It has a new polity, new legal system, new language and script, new capital and no state religion. It is in all ways different to the Ottoman Empire, difference compounded by rejection when the nationalists rebelled against the Ottomans. This is not our crime, say the Turks. And nobody is actually accusing the Republic of a crime that was perpetrated before it existed. But the ‘Armenian question’ makes Turks feel put on the spot, accused, provoked to respond. And respond they do. Most vociferously. And then of course the world thinks ‘the lady doth protest too much’. And Turkey is looked at suspiciously. And the cycle continues.
So if the resolution passes, it will be castigating a country that no longer exists. It will be offending a country that is only linked to the horrors perpetrated by history and association but not institutional continuity and ‘national’ collective responsibility. And it will be giving the Armenians a nod. Nothing more. The resolution is offering no reparations, no redress and no promise that we have learnt from this particular horror, as a species. All that is offered is a piece of paper saying that the horrors endured by the Armenians a century ago were comparable to the horrors endured by the Jews during World War II.
Because that’s what the term ‘genocide’ boils down to.
Of course, it has been used since and for other cases but when Raphael Lemkin first wrote of genocide in 1944 he only had one thing in mind: to build legislation that would punish the perpetrators and avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust.
It didn’t work.
Genocide predated its name and outlived Lemkin.
But what we have had since Lemkin is a body of international law and the right language to understand, isolate, describe and – on few occasions – punish the crime that is genocide.
But this being a body of law, it all gets technical, as one of the criteria for proving a massacre constitutes genocide is that specific intent needs to be proved. The letter of the law requires a paper trail or suchlike proving that the killings are part of a sustained policy to annihilate an ethnic group as such, people being killed because they belong to that ethnic group.
Rwanda – with the extensive incendiary media coverage exhorting members of one group to kill members of another, qualifies.
The Armenian case is more complicated.
The Armenian massacres occurred before the information age. There were no media campaigns. The dissolution of the Ottoman state means that even if paper trails existed then, they no longer do. And chances are they never did as high levels of illiteracy meant that orders had to be given orally in the most part.
It was a different time. The definition does not apply. Still, the deaths occurred and the legal assessment makes them no more and no less real.
The resolution may ignore all this and call it a genocide regardless.
And yet this will offer little comfort to Armenians – only the bittersweet aftertaste of a minor and long overdue moral victory. If giving a title to suffering can be counted as a victory. Meanwhile the Turks will feel slighted and wronged. A minor diplomatic episode might ensue. But they too will get over it.
And then what?
Then we all go back home.
And if new atrocities occur, we make sure we wait a good hundred years before assessing exactly what is going on, why it is happening and just how horrible it is.
Of course time gives us perspective.
Time also ensures we don’t have to get our hands dirty in the messy business of saving lives and preventing slaughter before it becomes genocide.
Time allows for taxonomy.
Time is the enemy of survival.
I do not object to the sentiment behind this resolution.
I also appreciate the technical debate around this. I am quite fond of taxonomy. I like legal definitions and pedantic arguments.
But the US Congress is not a historical society.
For Congress this is not about a moral choice. This is a choice between looking back, looking busy or looking straight ahead.
The victim often has no choice but to look back.
The law-maker always has a choice.
Call me pedantic, but given the choice, I’d rather law-makers opted for looking ahead rather than looking back and looking busy.
Because that’s as bad as looking the other way as things actually occur.