The “G-word”: The Fundamental Role of Legislators in Defending Liberal Democracy

Recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not just about Armenians or the anger of Turks. The “G-word” concerns the fundamental role of parliaments and legislators in protecting liberal democracy.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide in Article II as acts committed with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group “. If the recognition of the genocide is a political, diplomatic and legal framework, it is also academic and normative. The 107th Armenian Genocide Memorial Day is approaching on April 24. According to the United Nations Convention, the 1915 Genocide affected the lives of not only Armenians, but also Assyrians and Greeks under Ottoman rule. Over 1.5 million of the historic Christian population of the declining Ottoman Empire were murdered.

During the current war in Ukraine, Russia has committed crimes against humanity. President Joe Biden has called for a war crimes trial and has even gone so far as to call the crimes “genocide”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky makes frequent references to the Holocaust and draws similarities between current atrocities against the Ukrainian people and European Jews. Meanwhile, public statements by some observers, such as European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, have claimed that the war in Ukraine is “among Europe’s darkest hours since World War II”. . This shows that the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims is still largely denied or dismissed from Western public memory. It also shows how partisan positions on genocide recognition are driven by ethnic/religious identity politics.

Too often, the lines between governments and parliaments are blurred. They are ultimately separate agencies within each country’s state apparatus. Thus, governments generally take a more pragmatic approach to normative issues, namely the commemoration and recognition of genocide. It’s not a huge surprise. Governments must conduct foreign relations, which sometimes involves doing business with authoritarian rulers while safeguarding national security interests.

Rather unexpectedly, parliaments and legislators generally mirror and adopt the pragmatic approach of the executive branches and miss important opportunities to make a difference. Yet parliaments and legislators should implement a more prescriptive approach to these issues. Such recognition reinforces the importance of the protection of minorities and promotes human rights. It strengthens democracy and stabilizes checks and balances. More importantly, recognition of genocides should not be all or nothing. Governments and foreign ministries can say ‘no’, while parliaments and legislators can say ‘yes, this is genocide’.

Since 1975, many efforts have been made in the US Congress to pass an Armenian Genocide bill. In a landmark vote in late 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate defied Turkish pressure and passed a bill declaring that the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was, in fact, , genocide.

Protesters march towards the Turkish Consulate during a rally commemorating the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As expected, the Trump administration rejected Congress’s vote on the Armenian Genocide. “The administration’s position has not changed,” then-State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in December 2019. “Our views are reflected in the President’s definitive statement. on this issue last April.” As a reminder, in April 2018, on the occasion of the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Donald Trump noted that the United States paid tribute to the victims of “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century”. The word genocide was not mentioned by Trump in 2018 and 2019. Like previous presidents, he too omitted the G-word.

In 2021, on the 106th anniversary of the genocide, Joe Biden embraced the decision of the United States Congress and said, “Over the decades, Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they don’t have never forgotten the tragic story that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores. We honor their history. Biden provided Armenian survivors with not only recognition of the 1915 genocide, but also publicly acknowledged an important component of Armenian immigrant identity.

The UK’s long-standing stance of successive governments backing Turkey’s denial account is yet another prominent example. Since 2021, the British Parliament has challenged this long-held position by passing the Armenian Genocide Bill, which will have a second reading on May 6, 2022 in the House of Commons. Certainly, the path to final recognition has some important steps, but every step counts. As an important normative step, the UK should take a balanced position on this issue.

If the British parliament recognizes the Armenian Genocide in May, it could be a wake-up call for the parliaments of New Zealand and Australia (the former dominions of the UK) which have, unsurprisingly, aligned themselves with the policy of no- recognition from the UK for many years.

Ultimately, it is imperative that public debate focus on the normative domain and parliaments, as they are major players in the genocide debate. The new world order imposed by the war in Ukraine emphasizes the deterioration of liberal democracies, as well as the emergence of a new bipolar order. Parliaments in the liberal camp should use their authority more often when it comes to the G-word. Legislators also have a fundamental responsibility to uphold liberal democracy by promoting its normative voice of the term genocide. Given the current state of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and crimes against humanity, it is recommended that no further delay should be made in the normative recognition of war crimes as genocide.

Dr. Eldad Ben-Aharon is a specialist in international relations. He is a lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Groningen and a Minerva postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Research Frankfurt (PRIF). Dr. Ben-Aharon’s first book Israeli-Turkish Relations at the End of the Cold War: The Geopolitics of Armenian Genocide Denial will be published in 2023 by the University of Edinburgh. His Twitter is: @EldadBenAharon.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.