WASHINGTON, DC – Senators George Allen (R-VA) and Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) questioned U.S. Ambassador to Turkey nominee Ross Wilson, during his confirmation hearing earlier today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on U.S. policy toward Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and a host of other human rights issues, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
“We want to thank both Senators Sarbanes and Allen for pressing for answers about U.S. policy on the Armenian Genocide during today’s confirmation hearing,” said Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the ANCA. “We look to them – and their colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – to continue in the coming months to exercise oversight of how the incoming Ambassador and our diplomats in Ankara address this critical issue.”
Amb. Wilson, who served previously as the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, took part in the confirmation hearing along with several other ambassadorial nominees, including the incoming ambassadors to Cyprus, Finland, and Iceland. Final Committee approval and confirmation by the full Senate are expected before Thanksgiving.
Sen. Allen, who chaired the hearing, began his questioning of Amb. Wilson by stressing that the Armenian Genocide remains a significant factor in U.S.-Turkey relations, reminding him to “be aware that [recognition of the Armenian Genocide] will come up. I speak only for myself as Chairman, I do believe that one needs to remember history, so that it is not repeated. Maybe not against Armenians, but against others in the future.” The Virginia Senator followed up by stressing his concern regarding actions taken by the Turkish government against the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Senator Sarbanes, during this questioning of Amb. Wilson, raised a series of issues of special concern to Armenian Americans. He first turned his attention to Turkey’s blockade of Armenia, noting that “For over decade Turkey has kept a blockade of its border with Armenia in violation of international law and this has caused serious economic harm on Armenia. They couldn’t even send in humanitarian aid at one point. What steps would you take to persuade Turkey to lift its blockade of Armenia?”
In response, Amb. Wilson explained that, “It has been long-standing U.S. policy in this Administration, and I believe the one before it, to encourage Turkey and Armenia to engage in process of reconciliation and mutual understanding. It has specifically been the policy to encourage Turkey to consider opening the border with Armenia. That I think is a policy I would support. The central challenge is dealing with historical legacies, with moving both countries [in a direction] frankly that recognizes what happened but also recognizes the need that they have to work together, the money they can make, the prosperity they could build for their peoples if that border is opened.”
Senator Sarbanes followed by noting his interest in discussing the Armenian Genocide. He said that, “Turkey’s world famous author Orhan Pamuk has now been charged and faces going to prison for telling a Swiss Newspaper in February that ‘30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed and no one dares to talk about it.’ Furthermore, they recently sentenced the Armenian writer Hrant Dink to a suspended jail sentence for writing a newspaper column about the same subject. This raises important human rights questions. How important is this human rights dimension of Turkish performance and how important will it be in the work of our embassy in addressing our relationship with Turkey?”
Amb. Wilson responded by noting, “First, on the broader historical issue, the President of the United Sttes annually makes a point of describing what is U.S. policy in respect to the events that took place in Eastern Anatolia at the end of World War I, with respect to the ethnic Armenian population there. The statements have varied over the years, but the central elements are: an acknowledgment that a terrible tragedy occurred, encouragement to the parties to engage in a discussion about those events, a characterization of those events should form from that discussion, encouragement of the two countries to engage in a process of reconciliation. I think that is an important policy and one that I would support.”
Amb. Wilson went on to explain that, “The specific issue that you raised Senator – ironically, the fact that it comes up derives from the reality that the events that took place in World War I are being discussed in Turkey. I think that is somewhat encouraging. Many in Turkey viewed the charges against Mr. Pamuk as difficult to reconcile with Turkey’s democratic ideals.”
At this point, Sen. Sarbanes asked if the State Department had “expressed a concern about these charges against Pamuk.” Amb. Wilson answered that he “believes that we have expressed the view, and certainly I would express it here, that these charges are difficult to reconcile with Turkey’s democratic ideals and ambitions. And I believe that we have urged, as the European Union has urged, another look at the penal code under which Mr. Pamuk was charged.”
Continuing the exchange, Sen. Sarbanes said, “I thought, actually, that the Prime Minister of Turkey and the Foreign Minister expressed concerns about this action by the prosecutor that are stronger than the concern you just expressed. I would have to double-check that, but if that is the case, I am somewhat taken aback that our concern about this important human rights question with respect to this very distinguished author is lagging behind, so to speak.” Amb. Wilson answered this concern by stating, “Senator, with all due respect, I don’t believe our concern with respect to Mr. Pamuk lags behind others. The charges brought, I believe, were brought by a local prosecutor. As you noted, there has been some criticism about this by a range of figures within Turkey. It is clearly an important issue of freedom of speech. It relates to Turkey’s international obligations and provisions in its constitution. We need to defend freedom of speech in that country.”
Senator Sarbanes then raised a number of issues related to the Turkish government’s occupation of Cyprus and ongoing persecution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, leader of the worldwide Greek Orthodox Church. He noted that the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report was very critical of the Patriarch issue in Turkey. “What can we do? We have this historic denomination of Christianity and it is increasingly more difficult for it to function.” Amb. Wilson responded by noting that the U.S. should continue to show support for the Patriarch and should work to ensure that the Halki Seminary is opened.