Justice for Armenian Genocide Still Elusive

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The horror that the Armenians experienced in 1915, under Ottoman rule, did not have a name nor a definition when it happened. We had to await the arrival of a Polish Jewish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, to the US, to define that monumental horror as a genocide.

Ever since, Armenians have been waiting for justice, often fighting for it.

The Armenians lost two thirds of their population along with their historic homeland; those who were not killed were exiled from their habitat.

Some historians, feigning objectivity, explain away the action as a historic necessity for the Ottoman rulers who wanted to save the empire. For the Armenians, that represents millions of corpses in the Syrian desert and in the Euphrates River. It represents poet Daniel Varoujan and writer and parliament member Krikor Zohrab being slaughtered by axes. The horror was so overwhelming that it defied human comprehension. The blow was so devastating that for 50 years, Armenians were left licking their wounds and putting their lives together. The year 1965, the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, was a watershed when Armenians began to really understand what had happened to them. A struggle began to emerge from the devastation and a fight for historic justice along was launched as well as the conscious effort to build communities around the world.

Armenia, as a member of the Soviet Union, was limited in contributing to the reconstruction of historic memory.

The challenge was three-pronged:

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a) Compilation of documents and the publication of volumes on the history of Genocide; b) the fight for recognition by world bodies and states and c) formulating legal claims.

In recent years, some controversies have emerged about the primacy of those tasks. Some argue that the recognition phase is over and the focus should shift to compensation or retribution. Unfortunately, the recognition phase is not over: we need to fight for recognition and compensation at the same time, because they complement each other.

Since 1965, tremendous volumes of documentation have been compiled; scholarly volumes and memoirs have been published a good number by non-Armenians such as Yves Ternon, Yair Auron, Taner Akçam and others. Institutions to study the genocide have been set up, such as the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Monument Institute in Armenia, the Zoryan Institute in Toronto and the Armenian National Institute in Washington. However, those do not meet the magnitude that the cause warrants. Armenians do not yet have a center to preserve documents in a comprehensive way, nor do they have a sufficient numbers of scholars to collect new documents and publish regular series on the genocide.

The Tsitsernakabert Monument and Museum, though imposing in its physical stature, pales in comparison to its Jewish counterpart, the Yad Vashem in Israel, or other Holocaust museums, when it comes to its visual and scholarly documentation.

What happened to the Genocide museum project in Washington was a national disgrace. A piece of property was acquired, a stone’s throw away from the White House, for a planned museum. Before discord among the Armenian factions destroyed the project, Turkey was certainly alerted. The shameful lawsuits that ensued led to the failure of the project altogether. Even worse, the silence that followed the failure showed a lot of adverse politics were involved.

Although new scholarly publications continue to be released and some 100 scholars have signed a declaration that what happened to the Armenians was indeed a genocide, documentation still remains a challenge.

As far as recognition is concerned, some 30 nations, in one form or another, have recognized the Armenian Genocide. Last year, it was a landmark victory when the two legislative bodies of the US government overwhelmingly recognized it, although that recognition is only ceremonial and without any legal or political bearing. However, it was enough to scare Turkey. It is anyone’s guess how much we can attribute the success to the Armenian lobbying and political activism rather than strained Turkish-American relations.

Armenians can only hope to chance upon on such political opportunities and bank on them, since their own political clout in the US and Europe cannot bring to bear such results.

In the 1970s, a group of young Armenians, disappointed with the inaction of the political groups, took the cause of justice into their own hands and resorted to political violence. No matter what our position on terrorism may be, it is hard to deny that attempts to kill some 70 Turkish diplomats shook up the Turkish establishment and sensitized the world public opinion on the Armenian Genocide.

The recognition process is still ongoing. Pope Francis’ contribution was tremendous and even Kim Kardashian played a part.

As far as compensation is concerned, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, the present Republic of Turkey, is far from recognizing its culpability, let alone ceding any territory. The Turkish authorities are counting on the assimilation of Armenians around the world to seal the fate of historic Armenia. Indeed, assimilated Armenians gradually are losing their identity and some are even buying into the Turkish rationale asking why Armenia would need additional territory when its population is dwindling.

In the first place, lost historic territory is any Armenian’s birthright. Second, it is a matter of principle and historic justice. Why should Turks disgrace Vasburagan where Grikor Narekatsi prayed and created his masterpiece? And if the Armenian population is decimated, it is because of Turkish actions. Today, there are 25 million Kurds on Western Armenian lands. Were it not for the Genocide, 20 million Armenians could have been living within the borders of present-day Turkey.

On our way to compensation, we will be marking this year the centennial of the Treaty of Sevres on August 10, 2020. It defines the Armenian territorial claims based on President Woodrow Wilson’s arbitration. Although that treaty is still the nightmare of present day Turkish leaders, no international legal venue seems to be open to its implementation.

The next milestone to address territorial claims is the centennial of the Treaty of Kars (October 25, 1921). That treaty was based on the terms of the Treaty of Moscow (March 16, 1921), signed between Bolshevik Russia and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey led by Mustafa Kemal. Upon Stalin’s insistence, much of Armenian territory was ceded to Turkey.

The moment the Moscow Treaty was being signed, the February 18 revolt had taken place in Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation had taken over the government, which cabled to Moscow that the Armenian delegates who were on their way did not represent the revolutionary government. Georgia was also in turmoil and did not participate in the proceedings and signing of the Moscow Treaty, which determined the borders between Turkey and the three Caucasian republics — Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Although Turkey has violated the terms of the Kars Treaty, it has been trying to enforce it, as it guarantees its borders. The 2009 protocols which were supposed to have taken in Zurich was the opportunity for Ankara to trap Armenia into signing them, thereby sealing the fate of its borders with Armenia. But that signing never took place. There is talk that Russia may request its revision next year. But that would depend on the shape of the Russo-Turkish relation, as well as Armenian-Russian relations. Currently anti-Russian rhetoric from Yerevan does not inspire much hope.

But the battle continues. It has taken Armenians 105 years of struggle and it may take as long again until justice is served.

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