The 'G-word': Legislators' Fundamental Role to Defend Liberal Democracy | Opinion

Recognition of the Armenian genocide is not only about the Armenians or upsetting the Turks. The "G-word" is about the fundamental role of parliaments and legislators to protect 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." While genocide recognition is a political, diplomatic and legal framework, it is also an academic and normative one. The 107th Armenian genocide Memorial Day is approaching on April 24. According to the U.N. Convention, the genocide of 1915 affected the lives of not only Armenians but also Assyrians and Greeks under Ottoman rule. Over 1.5 million of the declining Ottoman Empire's historic Christian population were murdered.

During the current war in Ukraine, Russia has committed crimes against humanity. President Joe Biden called for a war-crimes trial, and even went as far as labeling those crimes as "genocide." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky makes frequent references to the Holocaust and draws similarities between the current atrocities against the Ukrainian people and the European Jews. Meanwhile, the public statements of some observants, such as Josep Borrell, European Union foreign affairs chief, asserted that the war in Ukraine is "among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War." It goes to show that the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims is still largely denied or dismissed from the West's public memory. This also shows the extent to which partisan positions on genocide recognition are driven by ethnic/religious identity politics.

Too often, the lines between governments and parliaments are blurred. They ultimately are separate agencies within the state apparatus of each country. As such, governments usually adopt a more pragmatic approach to normative issues, namely the commemoration and recognition of a genocide. This is not a huge surprise. Governments have to conduct foreign relations, which sometimes involves doing business with authoritarian leaders while maintaining national security interests.

Rather unexpectedly, parliaments and legislators usually 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 normative approach to these issues. Such recognition enhances the importance of protecting minorities and promotes human rights. It bolsters democracy and stabilizes checks and balances. More importantly, recognition of genocides does not have to be all or nothing. Governments and ministries of foreign affairs can say "no," while parliaments and legislators can say "yes, it's a genocide."

Since 1975, numerous efforts were made in the U.S. Congress to pass an Armenian genocide bill. In a milestone vote in late 2019, both the U.S. House and Senate defied pressure from Turkey and passed a bill declaring that the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was, in fact, a genocide.

Demonstrators march
Demonstrators march toward the Turkish Consulate during a rally commemorating the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 2018, in Los Angeles, Calif. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As expected, the Trump administration rejected Congress' vote on the Armenian genocide. "The position of the administration has not changed," said then-State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus in December 2019. "Our views are reflected in the president's definitive statement on this issue from last April." To recap, in April 2018, on the 103th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Donald Trump noted that the U.S. 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, during the 106th anniversary of the genocide, Joe Biden adopted the United States' Congress decision and stated, "Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores. We honor their story." Biden has provided Armenian survivors not only recognition of the 1915 genocide but also publicly acknowledged an important identity component of Armenian immigrants.

The U.K.'s longstanding position of successive governments supporting the denial account of Turkey is yet another important example. Since 2021, the British Parliament has been challenging this long-held position by passing the Armenian genocide bill, which will be read a second time on May 6, 2022, in the House of Commons. Certainly, the road to final recognition has a few important steps, but every step counts. As an important normative step, the U.K. should adopt a balanced stance on this issue.

If the U.K. parliament recognizes the Armenian genocide in May, it could be a wake-up call for New Zealand and Australian parliaments (the U.K.'s former dominions) that have not surprisingly aligned with the U.K.'s non-recognition policy for many years.

Ultimately, it is imperative that public debate focuses on the normative realm and parliaments, as they are major players in the genocide debate. The new global 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 defend liberal democracy by highlighting its normative voice of the term genocide. Given the current state of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the crimes against humanity, it is recommended that normative recognition of war crimes as genocide should not be delayed any further.

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

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.