What is the UN asking of Turkey?

In a letter of inquiry to Turkey’s Ambassador, Sadık Arslan, three groups tied to the UN Human Rights Council posed critical questions concerning what Armenians experienced in 1915 and the years that followed. Edvin Minassian, who lives in the United States, wrote about the importance of the letter and how the Armenian community has responded to it.

On March 25, three groups under the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council sent a joint letter to the Republic of  Turkey that contained detailed and specific questions concerning what Armenians experienced in 1915 unlike any others that have been posed before. Turkey was asked to respond within 60 days. Bernard Duhaime, chair of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, David Kaye, special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and Fabian Slavioli, special rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, all signed the letter of inquiry . The letter was sent to Turkey’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Sadık Arslan. On May 17, in the name of the Turkish Republic, Sadık Arslan replied, “We will be unable to provide the requested responses.” 

Foundations thanked the UN
This letter and “response” hadn't been in the news months following its issuance , until it was addressed in a recent article written by Harut Sassounian, an eminent veteran journalist in the Armenian diaspora. Other than a few short pieces and articles that reiterated Sassounian’s analysis, there haven’t been many responses to his work. The only exception to this was a  joint statement released by some Armenian institutions  on June 27. Catholicosates of Etchmiadzin  and Cilicia/ Sis , the Armenian Protestant Church, and the AGBU which thanked the UN organizations for “working to mend a wound that humanity still suffers from,” while raising reservations that  the letter did not properly acknowledge the genocide or  comprehensively address the need for justice and  reparations.  Aside from the AGBU the only  other powerful and influential organization in the Diaspora : the Armenian Revolutionary Federation ( Dashnaktsutyun  Party ) , along with the other two traditional political parties Social Democrat Hunchak and Democratic Liberal Ramgavar  organization have so far remained silent and did not issue any statements.

Why now?
The first question many of us must be  asking ourselves about the letter is  : “Why now?”  These commissions in recent times have of course  sent  similar letters of inquiry  to countries accused of violating human rights . Some examples are Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, Israel, Burundi, Rwanda, and Macedonia. The only time such an inquiry concerned  Turkey was when they investigated the situation in Southeastern Anatolia from 1992 to 1996.However, they had never reached far back in time as in this case.  Suddenly , it appears that they decided to launch a joint inquiry into the the century-old Armenian Genocide ( or the 1915  time period matter as some refer to it )  and the condition of millions of Armenians as its consequential victims  . Arslan criticized the letter in his response, underscoring that the UN typically avoided conducting investigative  researching of events that took place before its founding in 1948 . He highlighted a statement from the previous General Secretary of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, that supported this notion. However, Sassounian has established that this is not the case, citing as proof a report on genocides released by the UN in 1985 where the Armenian Genocide was listed. Furthermore, the Human Rights Council, which determines the responsibilities and limitations of the three commissions that sent the joint letter , per its founding charter and resolutions  does not have a time limitation as to its scope of mission and zone of jurisdiction . The Council’s mission is very broad and not limited to only to investigate human rights violations and determine the perpetrators of massacres, but also to determine the identities of individuals who were forcibly removed/ relocated  and extra-judicially executed,   in order to restore their and their descendants' honor as well as  to preserve  and protect collective societal  memory.  

‘Denial is troubling'
It is very important to note that the letter of inquiry avoided the use of the term " Genocide" in an accusatory fashion.  However, it did include the following text: “while we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we wish to express our concern at the reported denial, and ensuing lack of progress in establishing the truth and ensuring justice....” The demands made  are specific and clear. The UN wants Turkey to conduct a very detailed investigation and report back to it regarding  the state initiated acts against its Armenian citizens, starting with the full elimination of the elite and intellectual members of society in Istanbul, , the relocation orders as to the entire Armenian population in Anatolia to the Syrian Desert  and the resultant effects of these orders on the fate or whereabouts of Armenians who were subjected to forced internal displacement, detention, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during the period of 1915-1923. The letter also explained how these actions were carried out by officials of government,  and various branches and parts of the state. This formed the basis for its question as to why it was that to this day, Republic of Turkey, as the successor state to  the Ottoman Empire, had not conducted research into and issued any statements  in regards to the determination as to the fate of its own victimized citizens. 

How is limiting freedom of expression justified?
Touching on the present as well, the letter demanded justification for laws that placed limitations on freedom of expression about the Armenian Genocide. Asking how this legislation was consistent with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,  the letter clearly indicated that this constituted a violation of international human rights laws. The letter also requested more detailed information concerning the enforcement of the Turkish Penal Code Section 301 against individuals who voice their thoughts about crimes committed against Armenians, and cases in progress against the same . In his response, which essentially declared that there would be no direct answer to the questions,  rather than addressing the specific questions posed, Arslan engaging in a non sequitur "responded"  that Turkey asked Armenia if it would be willing “to establish a joint commission consisting of historians and other experts to study the events of 1915.” Arslan claimed that Turkey has yet to hear back from Armenia about this matter.

This isn’t about Armenia
While it would not be useful to even address  the unfortunate  generic " it was war times " justification , the reference to Armenia does call for comment .  The letter of inquiry isn’t about the Republic of Armenia; in fact, the letter doesn’t even mention Armenia. These commissions are international  entities that investigate and seek justice for misconduct individual  countries have engaged against their own citizens, especially against hose belonging minority groups. They seek justice. The commissions are asking Turkey for an account of the actions carried out by the state against its own citizens. Ironically, it should have been the Republic of Turkey who  needed to ask itself these questions, and preferably much earlier in time . Turkey should have conducted this research internally, transparently sought out the truth, and worked towards justice. The victims weren't  citizens of Armenia. The actions of the state which is the subject of the inquiry took place internally within the borders of the Ottoman Empire/ Turkey . The victims were and  are   citizens of Turkey or they were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, which preceded Turkey. Of course, given the damage done to their ancestors, and as implicitly recognized in the inquiry as present day victims ,    the members of the Armenian Diaspora and people in Armenia today, along with the Armenian State  must be included in this process.  
Questions like “why was this letter written at this point?” and “who is behind this?” may likely  be addressed in the future, but the real substantive question right now is whether or not Turkey will do anything about fundamental underlying facts and concerns  addressed in the letter. Will there be any positive developments if they are answered ? The other area of interest  is how these UN commissions will respond if Turkey does nothing , as made apparent,  and what additional steps they will take . They aren't simply expected to wash their hands or just say , “We made a mistake. We apologize profusely . We will close the case.” !! We do know that they do not likely possess judicial enforcement powers to order or compel  Turkey to do anything, but they certainly have resources to work on their own to find answers. Turkey’s current approach of maintaining the same path of denialism and obstructionism as in the past ,  unfortunately  can only  result in Turkey losing further  international respectability and make unnecessary/costly  concessions to maintain tacit support .  On the other hand, confronting and reconciling with the past and acknowledging these truths , while it may be politically difficult in the short term , would greatly increase self-confidence, lift respectability and in the long run elevate Turkey's international standing to much greater heights . At the present time, only one thing is certain, that these files and investigations that have reached the increased  level of the area of inquiry for the  United Nations Human Rights Council, will not cease or be closed down.