WASHINGTON (AP) – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday sidestepped a delicate dispute between two allies over the World War I-era killing of Armenians in Turkey.
Clinton was asked why the United States has not matched a move by French lawmakers to criminalize denial that the killings were genocide. The French legislation has enraged Turkey, which has threatened sanctions if French President Nicolas Sarkozy signs the bill.
The U.S. administration has avoided calling the killings genocide despite support for recognition by both Clinton and President Barack Obama when they were senators.
Clinton said the administration was wary of compromising free speech. She said the issue was best left for scholars.
“To try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through,” Clinton said at an event with U.S. State Department employees.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
The issue has also previously roiled U.S.-Turkish relations. A move by a U.S. congressional panel in 2010 to advance a resolution by the House of Representatives recognizing the killings as genocide caused Turkey to temporarily withdraw its ambassador to Washington. The resolution was opposed by the Obama administration. Ultimately, the full House of Representatives did not bring the measure up for a vote.
Clinton said Thursday that the issue should be debated, but not settled by governments.
“We need to encourage anyone on any side of any contentious historical debate to get out into the marketplace of ideas,” she said. “Muster your evidence, put forth your arguments, and you know, be willing to engage.”
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