Campus & Community

Belfer Center associate holds ground in genocide debate

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It was labeled “the greatest, most pathetic, and most arbitrary tragedy in history” in a statement published in the New York Times on Nov. 1, 1915. The American Committee on Armenian Atrocities cited “authentic reports” of a “war of extermination being waged by the Turks against the Armenians.” As many as a million people had either been killed, relocated, or forced to renounce Christianity, the committee said.

It was horrific yes, but was it a case of genocide?

Helen Fein, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Genocide and associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), believes it is. She included the event in a 1996 article on genocide she wrote for the online encyclopedia Encarta, which is published by Microsoft.

Four years later, in June of this year, Encarta editors asked Fein to revise her entry around the same time another author, Ronald Grigor Suny, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, was asked to revise his entry on Armenia.

“They said they had customer complaints about the references to the Armenian genocide, and had conducted an internal review and had decided there were two sides [to the story],” Fein says. They asked her to make “certain changes” in her article to downplay the historical significance of the event, she explains, but she refused, believing the editors were simply carrying out marching orders being dictated by their bosses at Microsoft, who were, in turn, being influenced by certain power brokers in Turkey.

“It was obvious to me that [the government in] Turkey was pressuring [Microsoft] quite directly,” Fein explains. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, she says, the Turkish government continues to deny the Ottomon government’s responsibility for the Armenian deaths.

“I think that when you get tied up in a lie, you spend a great deal more energy defending it than acknowledging it,” Fein states emphatically. “Some say it’s because [Turkish government leaders] fear land claims and demands for restitution. Others say it’s because of their self-image…Nobody is accusing the present government of Turkey for the genocide, but they are responsible for the denial.”

Fein held her ground long enough to achieve a suitable agreement with Encarta editors. Her entry would remain as is, with the addition of wording that referenced both the Turkish government’s denial and the international community’s support of the genocide claims. The revised text reads, “The government of Turkey denies Ottoman government responsibility for the deaths of the Armenians and disputes the labeling of these events as genocide. However, the events have been affirmed as genocide by the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and the legislative bodies of Belgium, Canada, France, the United States, and other nations, as well as by independent genocide scholars.”

“Much to my surprise they accepted my changes and said that I had convinced them,” she says. “I had been concerned about my own integrity and about the truth of the matter, but I think Ron and I convinced them that denying the genocide was wrong, and in terms of the integrity of Encarta, they had a lot to lose by yielding to pressure.”

The U.S. Congress is learning a similar lesson now, as it debates a nonbinding resolution recognizing the role of the Ottoman Empire in the Armenian genocide. Published reports indicate the Turkish government has threatened to prevent U.S. and British pilots from utilizing its air base for patrol flights over northern Iraq if the resolution passes.

Fein isn’t shocked by the tactics, calling it a “good thing” that the debate is out in the open, although she admits she’s upset that the Turkish government is now twisting the facts, claiming that “the Armenians committed genocide against them.”

Helen Fein is the featured guest at a brown-bag lunch seminar at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs library at noon, Friday, Oct. 13. The seminar, titled “No Brave New World: Life, Integrity, Rights, and Freedom in the World, 1997 and 1987” is free and open to the public.