The goal of the commission, according to its statute, is "to promote mutual understanding and goodwill between Turks and Armenians and to encourage improved relations" between the two communities. A non-governmental initiative, the commission will engage in activities to facilitate contacts and dialogue both between the Armenian and Turkish authorities and between their third, non-governmental sectors. The new reconciliation group will work to give their respective governments more policy recommendations and to spark debate about the sensitive issues that have blighted the countries' relations.
The current state of Armenian-Turkish relations can be traced as far back as the last days of the Ottoman Empire, and more specifically to the massacres of ethnic Armenians living in the empire. According to available historical records, between 1915 and 1923, more than one million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman authorities. In recent years, Armenia--in cooperation with the Armenian diaspora abroad--has campaigned heavily for international recognition of the magnitude of the killings. The modern Turkish state, however, has repeatedly and resolutely refused to acknowledge the Armenian interpretation of events and has rejected Armenian calls for apologies. The Turkish side insists that the circumstances and the death toll of the killings are different and less horrific than the Armenian version.
Most recently, bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey took another serious nosedive in the wake of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the beginning of the 1990s. A loyal supporter of Azerbaijan, Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Armenia and closed its checkpoints at the border.
The founders of the Reconciliation Commission are ten individuals from Armenia, Turkey, Russia, and the United States renowned for their past achievements. The majority of the members are former foreign diplomats from recent Turkish and Armenian administrations. In addition to retired frontline politicians and diplomats, the group also includes a former foreign policy advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, a psychiatrist from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and several academics.
"This is the first multi-disciplinary, comprehensive attempt to reconcile differences between two neighbors, separated by bitterness and mistrust, and as such, it is a major advance," commented Harair Hovnanian, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Washington-based Armenian Assembly of America (AAA).
Carolyn Mugar, the president of the AAA's board of trustees, is hopeful about the commission's chances: "We believe that the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission will benefit and build on the experiences of other similar international efforts." Mugar cited South Africa and Northern Ireland as two cases that offer guidance for the commission's activities.
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