Using the Nobel Prize to leverage reforms in Turkey
Friday, November 3, 2006
Rather than being a rebuke, the decision to award Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize in Literature was an opportunity for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to press ahead with needed reforms.
DAVID PHILLIPS *
TDN Guest Writer
Rather than being a rebuke, the decision to award Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize in Literature was an opportunity for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan to press ahead with needed reforms. Pamuk gained celebrity status when Turkey’s hard-line judiciary prosecuted him for “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). His crime : speaking about the Armenian genocide and the murder of Turkish Kurds.
Pamuk’s trial was a lightning rod for those opposed to Turkey’s membership in the European Union. Last month Austria insisted that Turkey will never meet the criteria for membership. France’s President Jacques Chirac recently ignited a storm of controversy when he called on Turkey to acknowledge the mass deaths of Armenians as “genocide.”
Last week, France’s parliament passed a bill criminalizing denial of the “genocide.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry was indignant in response, with officials threatening reprisals against Turkish-French relations.
If Erdogan is smart, he will let career diplomats do the complaining. As the point man on Turkey’s EU bid, Erdogan can leverage Pamuk’s Nobel to press the Turkish Parliament to reform Article 301. Erdogan could also assuage critics by encouraging Turks and Armenians to discuss their shared history and explore practical strategies fostering contact and cooperation.
To this end, important lessons can be learned from the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), which was established five years ago by prominent Turks and Armenians to develop a road map for Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
TARC accomplished three goals. When it was announced, Turkish media called the commission a “historic step” ; the mere mention of Armenian issues had previously been entirely taboo. After the announcement, Turkish-Armenian issues became widely discussed.
Many joint civil society endeavors were spawned by TARC. Despite logistical challenges arising from Turkey’s blockade of Armenia, a wide spectrum of civil society groups — business leaders, women’s associations, youth groups, cultural activities, parliamentarians and local government officials — were able to get together and launch collaborative projects.
The thorny issue of addressing the “applicability of the Genocide Convention to events in the early 20th century” was also tackled by TARC. Legal advisers provided a non-binding opinion that gave some satisfaction to both sides and concluded : “The Genocide Convention contains no provisions mandating its retroactive application. Therefore, no legal, financial or territorial claim arising out of the events could successfully be made against any individual or state under the convention.”
The brief also examined the definition of genocide in international law with regards to the Armenians : It found that one or more persons were killed ; such persons belonged to a particular ethnic, racial or religious group ; the action took place as part of a pattern of conduct against the group ; and at least some of the Ottoman rulers knew the consequence of their deportation orders would result in many deaths. Therefore, the events included all the elements of the crime of genocide.
TARC was a classic exercise in what is called track-two diplomacy. Private citizens took the lead to develop joint actions that informed official diplomacy and built grass-roots support for policy initiatives. By establishing partnerships to creatively explore the underlying conditions that gave rise to conflict, their efforts also caused the conflict to be seen as a shared problem requiring the cooperation of both sides.
Turkey’s EU prospects have proven to be a major motivation to press ahead with domestic constitutional and legal reforms. Since TARC suspended its efforts, Turkey has been declared an EU candidate and started formal accession talks. Despite progress, many European countries are still wary of Turkey’s membership. It is important to be steely eyed. Turkey is still far away from recognizing the Armenian deaths as genocide. However, progress on Turkish-Armenian relations would be possible if Turkey lifted its embargo of Armenia, opening its border to normal travel and trade. Doing so is clearly in Turkey’s national interest. The resulting commerce would have a huge economic impact on the Turkish provinces bordering Armenia while reducing the transportation cost of Turkish goods to Central Asia and beyond.
Opening the border between Turkey and Armenia would also be a step towards establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. People-to-people contact would also diminish the degree of dehumanization and distrust that currently exists between many Turks and Armenians. Contact would enable Turks and Armenians to share their personal stories. Turks would thereby gradually come to recognize the suffering wrought on Armenians by the alleged genocide and Armenians would better understand the suffering of Turks during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan should embrace the Nobel Committee’s decision to recognize Orhan Pamuk. Instead of a stain on Turkey’s reputation, the award could be a meaningful catalyst mobilizing support for further reforms that would strengthen democracy in Turkey and address European concerns.
* David L. Phillips is executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
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