German Gov't Won't Distance Itself From Vote to Accuse Ottoman Turks of 'Genocide'

Non-binding resolution in parliament would labeling the Turkish killings of Armenians in WWI as genocide, a sensitive subject for Turkey but a move which German government supports.

This file photo taken on October 18, 2015 shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) shaking hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Istanbul.
This file photo taken on October 18, 2015 shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) shaking hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Istanbul.Credit: Tolga Bozoglu, AFP

The German government won't distance itself from a parliamentary resolution labeling as genocide the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said Friday, but he did stress that it isn't legally binding.

Spokesman Steffen Seibert's comments came after weekly Der Spiegel reported, without identifying sources, that he would distance himself from the June 2 vote in a gesture to end a diplomatic standoff over lawmakers' access to German military personnel in Turkey.

Turkey was infuriated by the resolution and withdrew its ambassador for consultations. It has been refusing to allow German lawmakers to visit its Incirlik air base to see personnel stationed there with reconnaissance planes and refueling aircraft supporting the campaign against the Islamic State group.

German military missions abroad need parliamentary approval, usually on an annual basis. Some lawmakers have said the Incirlik mission couldn't be extended if visits aren't allowed, raising the possibility of a diplomatically delicate withdrawal to another country.

"There can be absolutely no talk" of distancing the government from the resolution, Seibert told reporters in Berlin. Parliament "has the right and opportunity to express itself on any issue whenever it considers that right, and the government supports and defends this sovereign right."

However, he did add that Parliament itself says such resolutions are not legally binding.

"We are aware, also from recent talks conducted by Foreign Ministry representatives in Turkey, that the question of how a parliamentary resolution should be legally evaluated is a question of great significance there," Seibert said.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event viewed by many scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey disputes the description. It says the toll has been inflated and considers those killed victims of a civil war.

Friday's comments underlined a difficult balancing act for top German officials, keen to avoid angering Turkey further while also keeping an eye on their own political base and respecting a resolution that passed with cross-party support.

Merkel was absent from Parliament for the June vote for what officials described as scheduling reasons, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was on a visit abroad.

However, the government has made clear that Merkel supported the motion and Steinmeier's spokesman, Martin Schaefer, said Friday that he too stands by it.

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