Reparations: Different Meanings for Different Cultures

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WORCESTER, Mass. — On Thursday, October 27, an audience of 200 braved snow to attend the opening of a two-day conference at Clark University, titled “Beyond the Armenian Genocide: The Question of Restitution and Reparation in Comparative Review.” The featured speaker was Prof. John Torpey, professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York (CUNY).

After welcoming remarks by Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark, Taner Akçam, who holds the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies and organized the conference, began the evening with the announcement of his victory in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled the Turkish government’s prosecution of him for speaking about the Armenian Genocide, under Article 301 of its Criminal Code, which bans such speech, had violated his freedom of expression in Turkey.

In his address, Torpey sketched a broad canvas regarding the subject of reparations, making the point that reparation can mean something different depending upon the culture and the circumstances. In spite of these differences, there are some commonalities amongst groups, including European Jewry, the Armenians, Native Americans and African Americans, all of whom have asked for reparations for wrongs done to them, he explained.

Reparations commonly involve coming to terms with the past, an expectation that financial recompense will be made responsibly, reconciliation between the parties, financial compensation and the promise that wrongs will not be repeated, said Torpey. Not every reparation settlement involves a financial factor, as in the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which brought groups of blacks and whites together to talk out their conflicts and differences.

In the case of African-Americans who seek reparations for slavery, the monetary factor has been more important. While reparations have not been made to individuals, the issue of reparation has been addressed, in part, by the building of hospitals and schools in disadvantaged black neighborhoods and by building the National Museum of African-American History in Washington, DC.

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On the other hand, he continued, reparations to the Japanese who were interred in camps in the US duringWorldWar II involved only a payment of $20,000 per person, “not enough to change the circumstances of their lives,” said Torpey, but “a way to address past wrongs.”

Native Americans have sought and received reparations in the preservation of certain tribal lands, artifacts, burial grounds and the granting of casino licenses.

In the case of the Armenians, said Torpey, the issue of reparations from Turkey for the acts of the Armenian Genocide has focused primarily on the insistence of recognition of the Genocide by Turkey. And it remains the primary issue as Turkey “remains opposed to the recognition,” he said.

He pointed out that the Armenians have received some reparations through successful lawsuits against insurance companies, such as New York Life, that have awarded compensation to the descendents of policy holders who were denied the benefits of their policies. “These, however, have reached only a very narrow group of plaintiffs,” he commented.

He added, “Turkey’s refusal to apologize is a continuing open wound to Armenians. The Turkish government doesn’t seem to realize the world won’t fall apart if it acknowledges the Genocide, and it would increase its chances of becoming a part of the European Union.”

Further acts of reparation by the Turks could include acknowledging the contributions of the Armenian community to Turkish life and also a major revision of history textbooks. “Many Turks support these measures,” Torpey said.

The primary aim of reparations, said Torpey, “is to ensure that all members of society enjoy equal rights, opportunities and mutual respect.”

Germany, as a successor state to the Third Reich has been able to acknowledge the Holocaust, whereas, in contrast, Turkey, a successor state to the Ottoman Empire, has not.

“Ultimately,” said Torpey, “the issue of responsibility is more important than guilt.”

The conference, which included workshops on Friday, was sponsored by the Strassler Center in conjunction with the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and Eric Weitz, the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair at the University of Minnesota.

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