For a century, the United States government refused to recognize the systematic murder and explusion of 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide. This was despite the fact that the Armenian diaspora was the most active group of survivors campaigning for formal recognition around the globe and transformed the debate about the United States’ role in qualifying targeted mass murders as genocide. The case of Armenian non-recognition is not a unique one – past administrations refused to recognize the Cambodian or Rohingya mass murders as genocides despite international agreement on the use of the term.
The case of Armenia was impacted earlier this year when both the House and Senate voted to pass resolutions that officially recognized the genocide in October and December. However, this was not motivated by a desire to vote in accordance with UN Conventions on the definition of genocide, but rather to strike back at Turkey for its invasion of Northern Syria in October. This politicization of the act led Turkish President Erdogan to threaten to recognize the American genocide of Native Americans. President Trump concluded the debacle when he denied that the US position had changed at all.
The United States, as well as the global community, needs to recognize the ways in which current and historic genocide recognition can be used not only as a signal of moral respect for victims, but to give much needed aid to suffering people, and prevent future atrocities through education. Instead of political relationships as the deciding factor when recognizing a genocide, the US should declare genocide whenever a case fits the definitions set out by United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A policy detached from political considerations but focused on the realities of conflicts will lead to more immediate and effective action to prevent more atrocities in the future.
The most obvious argument for a political and consistent genocide recognition is that the United States is morally bound to authentically recognize such horrific acts and in doing so, demonstrate respect for victims. In the case of Armenia, earlier recognition would have affirmed and eased the generational trauma one million Armenian-Americans and 10 million others, continue to suffer. Instead, they received a belated statement that was clearly only made to antagonize Turkey.
However, making the argument that countries should change their policies based on ethical obligations to make victims feel seen is largely inconsequential. Instead, policy makers can be persuaded to make a change based on the concrete benefits that genocide acknowledgement brings.
First, a concise statement from a government on the categorization of mass killings can lead to military intervention to stop a current crime. In past occasions, as a US Holocaust Memorial museum report states: the American government “placed great stock in the possibility that a US acknowledgment […] would force the US government to undertake or press for more forceful efforts to prevent and punish the crimes, and in some cases to put military force behind that effort.” For example, the question of evaluating the Bosnian genocide was strongly tied to questions about whether the US should intervene militarily or lift the arms embargo put in place by the Security Council on Yugoslavia. The US ended up taking two years to reach a consensus on the Bosnian case, making the previous military debates irrelevant as the genocide had ended. However, if they had a more liberal policy at the time, it is likely that airstrikes would have been used to prevent further atrocities. In the case of Darfur, diplomats were so caught up in debating the use of the term genocide and its political implications that they stalled on the “more important questions about how to craft an effective response to mass violence,” leading to delayed action. However, once the State Department did declare that genocide was occuring in 2004, the US assisted the dispatching of 670 African Union troops to the region and 20,000 military personnel from the United Nations’ security force. In addition to financially supporting troops, the US provided bases and equipment to protect civilians in Darfur.
Secondly, when a current genocide is declared or a historical one is recognized, victims and their descendants are also more likely to receive aid. In the three years after the State Department issued a rare genocide declaration in Darfur, they sent over $4 billion in humanitarian, peacekeeping, and development assistance, as well as 40,000 tons of food a month to Sudan. For nearly two decades, sanctions were placed on the assets of Sudanese leaders implicated in the Darfur violence and on companies owned by the government of Sudan. Financial support can also come if a historical genocide is recognized because, as Thomas de Waal writes for Foreign Affairs, descendants of the perpetrators of the genocide “aspire to absolve their ancestors of guilt” after official recognition and seek to remove links between them and past. After the international community recognized the Holocaust, Germany was pressured to make financial reparations to Israel.
Finally, minority groups can gain a global recognition of their struggles and thus tangible political powers following recognition. An internationally recognized genocide is far more likely to end up being taught in school curriculums because the Responsibility to Protect doctrine recommends that “education curriculums should include instructions on past violations and on the causes, dynamics and consequences of atrocity crimes.” Across American states, curriculums generally include the most “well-known” genocides. For example, the Rhode Island Board of Education Act only stipulates that students study the German, Armenian, Cambodian, Iraqi, Rwandan, and Darfur genocides, which are coincidentally six of the ten genocides the US has ever acknowledged. Furthermore, the US has the financial and political capability to help develop genocide education in the countries where it has taken place. As de Waal argues, the US could help Turkey conserve Armenian heritage or “restore the place of Armenians” in Turkish history books. This same process has occurred with UN support in developing genocide studies in Rwandan and Cambodian secondary schools. This educational system transforms into worldwide knowledge and understanding of victim’s suffering, and this can give them a moral and political credit that transfers to the protection of rights in the present day. For example, global recognition of the Holocaust after World War I transfered support to the Jewish political movement of Zionism.
It is important to understand that just recognition is not a solution for ending genocides or a way to satisfy the US’ role in ending crimes against humanity. Recognizing an act with a specific word should certainly not be the most important aspect of American foreign policy, which is a view is backed up by experts like Samantha Powers, who have cautioned against focusing only whether or not to use the “G-Word.” Furthermore, even when the US has made a declaration on genocide and acted, the crime is not always fixed or undone – this is clearly shown in the failures the US made in dealing with the Darfur crisis. However, what is important here is the comparative of not making any effort to pressure an end to mass murders.
The benefits of a country taking the step to put international pressure on perpetrators of crimes using a genocide resolution, as well as pressure upon themselves and other world powers to act, cannot be denied. As a country with immense power to stop mass killing, the US government must be able to issue effective policy and gain insight on the potential of their language in foreign affairs.
Photo: Image via Flickr (John Brighenti)