NAASR Talk Pays Tribute To Lemkin

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By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Khatchig Mouradian, a doctoral student at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Clark University, presented a talk on October 6 at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) on the links between human rights activist and lawyer Raphael Lemkin and the discourse both within and outside the Armenian community on the Armenian Genocide.

Mouradian, the editor of the Armenian Weekly, drew from various sources, including the archives of Armenian newspapers as well as Lemkin’s correspondence with the editors of those newspapers on how the Armenian experience helped the Polish-born, Jewish Yale professor to craft the word genocide to define the events that befell the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and the new Turkish Republic. In addition, he delved into the Armenians’ perception of the word genocide and how and when they started using it. In addition, he also spoke about the collaboration between Armenian-Americans and Lemkin in his tireless efforts to have the US ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, more commonly known as the Genocide Convention.

Mouradian said Lemkin and his efforts, which cost him so much during his life, inspired him to turn from journalism to academia.

“Lemkin knew about the Genocide, was influenced by the Genocide and dedicated his life” to “make Genocide a crime punishable by law,” Mouradian said. The issue was especially resonant with Lemkin because he had lost so many family members during the Holocaust.

On December 11, 1946, thanks to his efforts, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Genocide Convention. After that, Lemkin was more and more in touch with the Armenian press, trying to galvanize them into action to push the US to ratify the Genocide Convention. He corresponded regularly with the editors of the Armenian papers and started interviewing survivors, including a woman in Watertown who was the only person to be spared in her family. In addition, he also wanted Turkey to ratify the Genocide Convention. Ironically, he succeeded with Turkey, but not with the US. It was not until 1988 that the US ratified it.

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The issue of defining and avenging the crimes against the Armenians, Mouradian noted, for Lemkin came to a head with the case of Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Talaat Pasha, one of the three of Ottoman leaders who devised the policy of Armenian extermination. Tehlirian assassinated Talaat in Berlin where he had fled after being found guilty of crimes by a military court in Turkey. Tehlirian was traumatized by witnessing the deaths of all his family members, which the court found, absolved him of guilt.

Lemkin was a student in Lvov, then part of Poland and now part of Ukraine, when the assassination took place in March 1921. The events made him think what recourse individuals had against any government which had put into place a policy of extermination. From that starting point, he dedicated himself to first defining that mass extermination and then making sure that it was punishable. He also wanted to help the Armenian people get some sort of justice, even if only symbolic.

Among the reasons the US used for not ratifying the convention were that they referred to a territory under Soviet rule and that they were afraid the descendents of slaves would use the measure in court to receive compensation.

Mouradian listed some of the many phrases Armenians have used since the tragic events took place, some of which are still in usage, including Medz Yeghern, Aghed, Medz Voghperkutyun, Hayaspanoutiun and Chart. As for Medz Yeghern, he said, Armenians often use it but it became “a four-letter word” once Pope John Paul II and President Barack Obama used it in order to avoid using the word “genocide.”

Mouradian detailed the numerous instances in which Armenian publications started using the translation of genocide (tzeghaspanutiun) to refer to the events of 1915-1923. One of the first examples, he said, was in Haratch in 1945.

Interestingly, he said several people wrote letters to the editors of Armenian publications at the time — the height of the Cold War — asking them not to use the word genocide, as it would cause problems for the US and help the Soviet Union.

“The US forgot Lemkin. He was someone who should have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but by the mid-1950s, it was over for him,” he concluded.