A group of academics and human rights lawyers penned a public response to the think tank Carnegie Europe after the publication of an article by the British journalist and writer Thomas de Waal on 30 April 2021 entitled “What Next After the US Recognition of the Armenian Genocide?”
The text undersigned by fourteen scholars including Henry Theriault, Bedross Der Matossian, Elyse Semerdjian, and Marc A. Mamigonian, argues that de Waal's article, with its "inaccuracies and minimizations have (...) contributed to denial of the Armenian Genocide":
June 14, 2021
Think-Tank Tribalism, Historical Revisionism, and Immunity to Criticism
Think tanks impact human lives by shaping public opinion and influencing policy. When think tanks publish work that distorts facts and neglects to name the beneficiaries of violence and dispossession, however, they abuse their power and undermine efforts that advocate for truth and human life. Think tanks should be held accountable for disseminating falsehoods that have real-world ramifications.
It is in this spirit of accountability that we, a group of academics and practitioners, initially contacted the influential think tank Carnegie Europe after the publication of a problematic article by Thomas de Waal on 30 April 2021 entitled “What Next After the US Recognition of the Armenian Genocide?”
On 18 May 2021, some of the signatories of this letter sent a protest letter requesting a retraction or a published response from our group of signatories to Thomas de Waal’s article. While de Waal’s article had already been corrected by Carnegie Europe three times for its inaccuracies, we pointed out that it still contained falsehoods and a minimization of the intentional, centrally planned, and organized genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. We affirmed that these inaccuracies and minimizations have, in essence, contributed to denial of the Armenian Genocide, and could be used to do so in the future.
This is not an abstract intellectual debate. Think tanks that cannot admit mistakes perpetuate the oppression of the very people who are the subjects of their articles. Currently, Azerbaijan is engaging in ethnic cleansing, the destruction of millennia-old monuments, a gradual invasion of Armenia, and the torture and execution of illegally held POWs. At a time when denialists, propagandists, and governments are waging a literal war, think tank pundits who gloss over and distort facts are complicit in the enactment of real violence.
Carnegie Europe’s Director, Dr. Rosa Balfour, responded to our cordial, well-reasoned, and research-backed letter by defending the institution through trivializing our criticisms as "emotional.” She opened her letter by thanking us for "deciding to write to [her] politely," in effect ascribing incivility to our group before she even read our letter.
In discounting our legitimate criticisms as “emotional” because of who we are—a group of largely Armenian scholars, lawyers, and journalists—Carnegie's response to our protest letter is emblematic of Western Orientalist bias. Orientalists objectify and deny indigenous peoples a role in their own portrayal, resulting in political and epistemic subjugation. The condescension of Balfour’s communication is characteristic of the lack of diversity among those in decision-making positions in such institutions in the West, unchecked biases, and an unwillingness among higher-level staff to acknowledge, let alone learn from, expertise outside of their in-group. What Balfour’s letter affirms is think-tank tribalism.
In her response, Balfour asserted that de Waal writes with empathy––empathy that is perhaps best illustrated by his claim that genocide is a "badge of honor" in a retracted section of the article. This cynical phrasing implies that the descendants of genocide are using the murder and violent dispossession of their ancestors for political aims. This is a common genocide denialist propaganda point. Our letter clearly highlighted that de Waal’s piece had offended those whom it described. In asserting that de Waal’s article was “sensitive” and written with “empathy,” Balfour casts herself as the expert of our own experience. She insists on the empathetic character of her institution while simultaneously ignoring our legitimate objections.
Our experience with Carnegie Europe suggests that some think tanks swiftly respond to challenges to their authority by reproducing power dynamics that affirm their privileged positions.
A Pattern of Historical Revisionism and Denialism
Balfour’s reference to empathy in her response was a dodge to avoid the substance of our scholarly critiques regarding the inaccuracy of the claims de Waal presented and the methodology he followed in asserting them. De Waal’s response to our letter similarly evades our legitimate objections by doubling down on his flawed methodology while reasserting his authority to make errors of argumentation in chronology, historiography, and context.
De Waal confirms that he chooses chronologies and sources only when they suit him. According to him, the valid dates of the Armenian Genocide are not 1915-1923 as most scholars assert, but rather 1915-1916 (although in his response he cites Ronald Suny to claim the dates of 1915-1917; where the missing year went, he does not say). The timeframe de Waal chose for overall losses in the Ottoman Empire—in which he seeks to contextualize, and therefore dilute, the annihilation of the Armenians—is 1914-1922. Thus, de Waal selected the narrowest possible window for the Armenian Genocide (1915-1916) and the widest possible one for Ottoman population losses (1914–1922). Unmentioned by de Waal was that his number for losses includes influenza, the Turkish civil war, the forced removal of Greeks, and the Armenian Genocide. Most disingenuously, de Waal falsely claimed that these losses were deaths, while his source, the Schuman Centre, is clear that the number includes migration. His entire premise is deceitful. Further, the Schuman Centre is not a specialized research center for genocide nor for history. The Centre's focus is European policy issues—it is an inappropriate source for historical data. De Waal’s selective use of dates and disuse of evidence equivocates Armenian suffering.
Not only does de Waal make errors of chronology and evidence, he also ignores the historiography of Armenian Genocide scholarship. When he calls for "more historical research" regarding the Armenian Genocide, de Waal is not only devaluing the substantial body of research done before, especially prior to the mid-2000s, he is failing to disclose that this is the official position of the denialist state of Turkey. Vaguely calling for "more research" serves to shift attention from what has been said on the record––another denialist position. Scholarship on the Armenian Genocide has reached a level of proof rare for any historical event—calls for more research are evasion.
Elsewhere, de Waal ignores context. He cites the importance of "Armenian-Turkish dialogue" without acknowledging Turkey's well-known instrumentalization of the term or the reality of the intense anti-Armenian sentiment and legal penalties that preclude honest dialogue today. In addition to ignoring the fact that "dialogue" has resulted in imprisonment and death in Turkey, de Waal omits the extensive literature on dialogue between victim and perpetrator groups. Including this would be a responsible way to introduce the topic rather than implying a Turkish talking point: "Armenians will not talk to us."
Most egregiously, de Waal asserts that Raphael Lemkin, the coiner of the term “genocide,” did not believe that recognition of and prosecution for genocide can be retroactive. To reveal the inaccuracy of his assertion, we need only to point to the fact that Lemkin built the Armenian Genocide into his very definition of the term genocide.
De Waal reaches his conclusions and assessments through out-of-date or uncritically analyzed evidence, but when confronted with his mistakes, he does not admit any wrongdoing.
Immunity to Criticism and Refusal of Accountability
Why does this matter? There is a great deal more at stake than the pride of a marginalized group. Overworked journalists, editors, policymakers, and members of the general public do not have time to study complex issues in depth. These groups often turn to recognized experts at think tanks for accurate and substantive coverage to inform their opinions and actions.
When otherwise credible entities such as Carnegie Europe use their authority to elevate inaccurate, harmful analyses and brush off valid critiques, these organizations become tools of oppression and violence and encourage public indifference and ignorance. Truth, clarity, and nuance are critical for those facing a resurgence of eliminationist mass violence and a global propaganda attack funded by oil money.
Karena Avedissian, Ph.D., Fellow, Royal Society of Arts
Bedross Der Matossian, PhD, Hymen Rosenberg Associate Professor of Judaic Studies
and History, University of Nebraska
Elyse Semerdjian, Ph.D., Professor of History, Whitman College
Marc A. Mamigonian, Director of Academic Affairs, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research
Lisa Gulesserian, Ph.D., Preceptor on Armenian, Harvard University
Harout Ekmanian, Esq., LL.M., Harvard Law School
Alison Tahmizian Meuse, Senior Fellow, Regional Studies Center
Carina Karapetian Giorgi, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, Antelope Valley College
Philipp Lottholz, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Giessen
Polina Manolova, Ph.D., Research Associate, University of Tuebingen
Judith Saryan, Member of the Board, National Association for Armenian Studies and Research
Mark Youngman, Ph.D. Lecturer, University of Portsmouth
Hourig Attarian, Ph.D., Associate Professor, American University of Armenia
Laurent Leylekian, General Secretary of the France-Artsakh Friendship Circle