Sunday, 7 March 2010

Saying Sorry in Turkey and Armenia

Apologies have become a popular way of addressing historical wrongs in Australia and in other places. It's just over two years since the Australian Prime Minister issued his formal apology to the stolen generation, those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Since then there's been an apology to people brought up in State institutions. The British government recently apologised to people forced to emigrate to Australia as children and live in awful, exploitative "orphanages" even though most weren't orphans. These apologies don't necessarily change people's situation, but they make them feel vindicated, acknowledging publicly the wrong they knew had been done to them.

Apparently apologies aren't so popular in Turkey. A festering sore in that part of the world has been publicised this week, bizarrely, by a resolution of the US Congress Committee on Foreign Affairs, calling on the US President to recognise as genocide the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish soldiers in 1915.

This resolution hasn't gone down too well in Turkey, which has recalled its US ambassador and angrily denied that any genocide took place. Nor has it been warmly received by the Obama administration, which relies heavily on Turkey as its strongest Islamic ally in the war in Afghanistan.

I'm hardly the person to untangle the complexities of Turkish and Armenian history. It seems that all sides agree there was large scale killing of Armenians by Turkish soldiers in the early years of the First World War. How many were killed, and whether this killing was genocide (eg part of an official policy to wipe out Armenians as a race) or part of a very brutal civil war (harsh Turkish response to Armenians taking advantage of the war to persue their desire for an independent homeland) are the questions in dispute.

What I'm interested in is why this is so important. Nearly a century has passed. Few, if any, survivors of these incidents (victims or perpetrators) will still be alive. Why not just let the past be the past and get on with the present and the future?

I think there are a few answers to this question.

  1. The past is always with us. What happened in the past shapes the present. In Australia, the dispossession of Aboriginal people happened long ago, but its effects linger on in the poverty and dislocation of Aboriginal communities. I guess there must be something similar between Turkey and Armenia - if people were killed and property stolen, who has this property now?
  2. Racial tension is always with us. That particular massacre may be behind us, but there's always another one around the corner, like the one still going on in Darfur. The more open we are about past ones, the more clearly we say that they were wrong, the harder we make it for present ones to continue. By contrast, the more we deny and defend, the more we lay the groundwork for the same to happen again.
  3. If people feel there's a problem, there is. Since Armenia gained its independence from the USSR in 1992, its been plain that tensions between it and Turkey have not gone away. Even though they share a border, they still don't have ambassadors in each others capitals, and Turkey has never formally recognised Armenia's nationhood. This disputed history is part of the reason. The other part is the ongoing nationalist aspirations of Armenians still living on the Turkish side of the border. Settling this issue can help build peace in our time, not settling it makes war more likely.

An apology doesn't necessarily change things. Australia's apology to the Stolen Generations hasn't solved Aboriginal disadvantage, and it hasn't even stopped the occasional historian from denying that there ever was a stolen generation. Yet the apology was a necessary precondition for other actions. Turkey could apologise to Armenia for 1915 and still invade (or be invaded) next year. It would just make it less likely, and be one more step on the road to peace and reconciliation.