New York, NY — David Phillips spoke at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs on February 4 at a seminar entitled, “Turkey and its Neighbors: Current Political Overview and Forecast for 2005 and Beyond.” Phillips used the opportunity to discuss his yet-to-be released book, Unsilencing the Truth, about the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC). Phillips was the architect and moderator of TARC, which he claims was meant to foster dialogue between Armenians and Turks. TARC was disbanded in September 2002, when worldwide Armenian opposition arose when it became clear that hindering international recognition of the Armenian Genocide was one of its main purposes.
Another result of TARC, which some believe was not accidental, was to create a false impression of Armenian-American community division regarding the Armenian Genocide. TARC excluded one of Armenia’s traditional political parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and mischaracterized the party as extremist due to its criticism of TARC. TARC’s exclusionary practices continued at New York University, when Armenian students at NYU were turned away from attending the event by the Global Affairs Department. “Many Armenians on campus would have really wanted to attend this seminar had it not been kept secret from them. The organizers are using NYU’s name, but then excluded very relevant segments of NYU’s community,” said Veronica Siranosian, a graduate student at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Affairs. Siranosian and other NYU students were told by the Center for Global Affairs that they would not be allowed into the seminar.
Ms. Vera Jelinek, assistant dean at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and Director of the Center for Global Affairs, introduced Phillips and described the event as partly a discussion of “the Turkish-Armenian crisis of the past.” During his presentation, Phillips discussed his work dealing with some of Turkey’s most significant problems regarding democracy and human rights. Former US Ambassador to Turkey Marc Grossman of the U.S. State Department had asked Phillips to approach the Turko-Armenian conflict, using the “track two diplomacy” method he had employed to bring together Kurds and Turks, as well as Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Phillips explained that this method attempts to establish a space that is “low-key, non-judgmental, and non-coercive” so that participants are willing “to explore ideas for resolution, free of the constraints of government positions.” After he agreed to Grossman’s request, he soon learned how much he “had underestimated the bitterness which Turks and Armenians hold for each other.”
Provided with three million dollars, Phillips said that the U.S. government “wrote a blank check to do this work, which is highly unusual for U.S. government officials to do.” This led to the formation of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission. Once talks began, Phillips said the issue of the Armenian Genocide continued to arise. Moving forward did not seem possible without addressing it. Therefore Phillips approached the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) for it to study the Armenian Genocide and issue a legal opinion on the applicability of the Genocide Convention to it. Phillips said, “that the U.S. government knows that Turkey will never return land nor pay reparations.” He said that, “I have nothing against historians, but often they can’t agree on what the facts are. The Turks and Armenians each have its group of historians with volumes and volumes claiming their own side of the story.”
Phillips went on to explain that, “the reason I use the word genocide has to do with the working through the International Center for Transitional Justice, which determined that the Armenian Genocide did not apply to the Genocide Convention.” According to Phillips, the ICTJ explained that no treaty had ever been applied retroactively so no reparations could be expected from Turkey. Phillips closed his comments by saying that the September 11th terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq increased Turkey’s strategic value to the United States and thus interfered in TARC’s work because it was more difficult to pressure Turkey to make concessions. He had hoped that Turkey’s border with Armenia would be opened, but the relaxing of visa regimes was the only progress made.
Phillips also discussed what he saw as the great geopolitical advantages if Turkey was allowed to join the European Union. He briefly reviewed Turkey’s modern history, mentioning that the Republic of Turkey emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire when Kemal Ataturk set out “to build a truly modern state on a par with its European neighbors.” Phillips went to say that, “Turkey’s founding constitution enshrined the country’s commitment to secularism and republicanism.”
Phillips explained that the role of the military and national security apparatus in the years following the founding of the Turkish Republic has been to preserve the secular principles of Kemalism and guard against tendencies to return to Islamic rule. Phillips said, “Turkish officers see their task extending beyond the protection of the country’s territory to include warding off threats to the public order, such as separatism, terrorism, and religious fundamentalism.” He noted that this had led to previous military coups when the Turkish General Staff felt Kemalism was under threat.
Addressing the rise to power of Recip Erdogan, Phillips related how his Justice and Development Party came to dominate the Turkish parliament. He stated that concerns remain about how committed Erdogan and his Islamist party are to preserving Ataturk’s secular Turkish state. Phillips reviewed the Turkish Parliament’s decision to ultimately not allow U.S. troops to use southeastern Turkey as a point of entry to invade Iraq. Phillips also devoted a portion of the lecture to Erdogan’s campaign to gain Turkish accession to the European Union.