AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Journalist, author and professor Maria Armoudian is focusing on ideas and actions in the quest for justice; she knows that one needs plenty of the former to arrive at the latter.

Her latest book, Lawyers Beyond Borders: Advancing International Human Rights through Local Laws and Courts, was released this fall by the University of Michigan Press.

Armoudian’s family history of crossing continents in search of a better life following the Armenian Genocide has led to her current career.

Armoudian, who last month was interviewed via Zoom in her home in Auckland, New Zealand, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Baton Rouge, La. And not just that — her story, like many other Armenians, has seen her family go from historic Armenia to Cyprus and Lebanon, and finally to yet another country, in this case, the US.

Her dad was born in Lebanon, her mother grew up in Cyprus but attended the American University of Beirut. They met and married and her father got a scholarship to Louisiana State University to do a PhD.

She joked, “My brother and I were both born in Baton Rouge, so, we are Cajun Armenians.”

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She said, “Armenians have had to start over so many times. First our indigenous homelands and all our family members and everything that we had built were taken away from us, with no justice whatsoever. So Armenians then flee to other countries and we find homes and we start over again and rebuild community and we rebuild family and we rebuild livelihoods and then those countries fall apart and we move to another country: this constant reinventing of ourselves – and rarely with any justice.”

“Within weeks of [my] being born, he [Armoudian’s father] went to New York to do his post-doc in Columbia. He ended up in a small town called Weatherford, Ok.,” she said.

Armoudian wears many hats. She was a journalist and later became a commissioner in Los Angeles on environmental affairs. She is a fierce advocate for journalists and their potential to shine a light on wrongdoing.

“Through it all, I was quite disturbed by how hard it was to advance good public interest policy and that is when I decided to do a PhD, to understand why it is so hard to get basic things that everyone needs, like water, air, healthcare, human rights,” she said.

She got her PhD in politics and international relations from the University of Southern California. “And when I finished, this was my third or fourth career,” she noted.

She is the author of two other books, Reporting from the Danger Zone: Frontline Journalists, Their Jobs and an Increasingly Perilous Future and Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World.

Armoudian said she wrote Kill the Messenger as a sign of what was to come in the US.

At the time, right wing radio had taken off because of two law changes, “the Fairness Doctrine which had required that you treat things fairly and evenly, and the Telecommunications Act, which allowed these big huge corporations to gobble up these radio stations. This enabled people to say anything they wanted, completely lie, and frame things in what I call ‘Hate Frame.’ I wrote that 12 years ago and people believed the most ridiculous things. They believed Obama was the antichrist, for example,” she said. “All the chapters in the book are about how media has been used throughout history to either enable the mass killing of people, including the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust,” and the second half looks at how it can be used for peacemaking, such as Northern Ireland, South Africa and Burundi.

“Peace — and human rights — can be a short-lived thing unless people continue to subscribe to it and that’s a key role that the media can play” or do the opposite and propagate lies, she said.

Civil litigation, she commented, “seems like that’s all we’ve got left.”

The foreword to the new book is by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

The reviews and reactions so far have been heartening and very positive, Armoudian said.

Armenian Heritage and Its Effect

Growing up in a small town with no other Armenians, she said, and no sense of community, was tough. Her brother, she said, “eventually found a community, but I didn’t and I left, to find my community and that’s part of what made LA my home for a long time,” she explained.

Being Armenian is “a huge part” of her identity, “perhaps because I grew up without Armenians. And because I knew my grandfather had gone through some really horrific experiences in the genocide, it was not a subject I easily came to studying, but ended up doing partly because when I moved to New Zealand, there was such a paucity of any understanding of the region, World War I, [and] what the Christians went through. Nobody had any idea and so I am working on my fifth academic article related to the Armenians in New Zealand.”

She initially tried to stay away from the subject because it was too close to home, but now, she said, she is “totally immersed” in it.

She has made several appearances on television in New Zealand to speak about the Armenian Genocide and has written a chapter for the book Remembering the Great War in the Middle East: From Turkey and Armenia to Australia and New Zealand (edited by Hans-Lukas Kieser, Pearl Nunn and Thomas Schmutz, titled “New Zealand and the Armenian Genocide: Myths, Memory and Lost History” with frequent collaborator James Robins as well as V.K.G. Woodman.

“At the time [of the Genocide] New Zealand newspapers were covering what was happening there. There were something like 75,000 hits of the words ‘Armenia’ and ‘Armenians’.”

Compounding the amnesia surrounding the issue there is the active celebration of the myth of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in whose honor there is a memorial park in Wellington, officially opened in 1990.

“I was shocked to find out not only was there no understanding of the history but they had put this monument up to Mustafa Kemal,” she said. “I did two more articles on how this came up to be. Why would a country that prides itself on human rights, be so cozy with human rights violators like Turkey and China?”

In tackling the issue of the memorial, she is reaching out to the Greek and Assyrian community in New Zealand, who are much larger than the Armenian one.

“It’s fascinating how much pushback I got on the opinion piece about the Ataturk Memorial,” she said, “from New Zealanders who thought he was a modernizer and forgot that he was genocidal. A lot of modernizers who commit genocide don’t get monuments.”

She said now she regularly sends them links to inform them.

“The more we interact, the more we can build good things for our community as well,” she said.

The Greeks, Cypriots, Serbs and native Maori had opposed the construction of the monument on the site and naming it Ataturk Memorial Park.

The root of the objection for Maori, she said, was because the site was on a sacred burial site.

“We are meeting with them and we are in talks about seeing if rather than taking the entire monument down, [we can] rename it,” she said.

(There is no Armenian Genocide monument in New Zealand now, only an Armenian alphabet statue.)

“I’ve just gotten started and I think it is going to take a long time as these education campaigns do,” she said.

“It’s utterly ridiculous to have two sides to a genocide. There is no worse crime,” she said.

“I think our fates are so intertwined and people came to our aid at the time of the genocide, not so much now, but much more at the time of the genocide  trying to reduce Armenians and taking us in as refugees. We have been remarkably resilient as survivors, as a community, and we’ve been remarkably successful given what we were up against,” she said. “We have a long way to go to restore our indigenous lands.”

Justice for Artsakh

The fate of Artsakh and the images of torture are painful for Armoudian, but she thinks the application of a legal approach can help its people. “Given the torture of the Armenian soldiers and all of those types of violations, some of these procedures that are in this book [Lawyers Beyond Borders] need to be explored,” she said.

In Europe, human rights lawyers have just gotten a case prosecuting a Syrian official for torture.

“Universal justice should be used for Artsakh soldiers and victims the same way in European and United States courts for those who are suffering,” she added.

“I’m a big, big advocate of these types of civil litigation where the victims and survivors themselves with their lawyers take on their tortes,” she noted. “There are a lot of disasters in the world right now and it’s hard to get attention for us. We are competing with how many other hundreds of thousands of survivors and victims all over the world. It’s so hard right now. We’re in a massive crisis.”

Civil courts can be helpful in cases of documented torture there. And there is precedent, which is documented in her most recent book.

“It [civil litigation for foreign nationals] started in the United States with lawyer Peter Weiss,” who took on the case of a Paraguayan doctor filing suit against the man who had caused the death of the former’s son, through torture. While the incident had happened in Paraguay, the torturer had later moved to the US.

“Peter found an old, obscure statute in the United States that was passed in the First Congress in the first judiciary act and used that to sue this guy who had killed by torture the Joelito Filártiga, the son of Dr Joel Filártiga. It became a precedent-setting case,” (Filartiga v. Peña-Irala), she explained.

“Peter then went and set up the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights that has been representing the victims in Syria and ISIS. He’s 95 and he’s still going,” she said with admiration.

Armoudian is a proponent of Armenians taking notice of and acting in favor of righting wrongs of other communities. That way, she suggested, Armenians can weave themselves in a global fabric.

“Other people go through it [tragedies] too and we have to care about them and build community with people. I think Armenians need to be involved in politics, journalism and law. Obviously they are involved in other things which is wonderful,” such as the Nobel Prize for Medicine winner Ardem Patapoutian, and Moderna. “We obviously have so much to offer and so much to bring to the table.

A Varied Career

While her career trajectory has evolved, the core of her beliefs has not.

“My first book was Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World and it was similarly about similar human rights abuses, genocide, torture. I cried through the whole thing of writing that. Then I started finding people who were trying to make a difference,” ending up writing Reporting from the Danger Zone: Frontline Journalists, Their Jobs and an Increasingly Perilous Future, “and it was more heartening.”

Now, this most recent book, she explained, “is actually about getting redress, representing people who have no other options, was affirming in many ways and so while it can be pretty devastating to know what people   and people get secondary PTSD through this but I am more heartened by people making difference. It was a creative way — the audacity and creativity it took to tackle the status quo, which is this people would never get justice. … They were like ‘sorry, but we’re going to find a way.’ And they stood for people who were marginalized and no one was doing something about them,” she added.

A big part of this most recent book is the activities of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which was founded by a therapist Gerald Gray, who had attended a talk by Paul Hoffman, a lawyer who had represented three Ethiopian women who had been tortured during the Red Terror and had come to the US. As Armoudian says, “One was working in a hotel [in Atlanta] and ran right into the man who had tortured her, who happened to be working in the same hotel. She contacted these other compatriots of her who concurred that it was the same man who had tortured them. The trio sued him. “He got deported and they got some money and donated it all to the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union],” where Hoffman was then working.

Gray, Armoudian explained, “thought that’s a problem for people running into their abusers,” she said. They are never going to heal and worried about tit-for-tat violence.”

She added, “He thought this is a way we can actually help people to heal through civil litigation where the torture survivors become agents for themselves and sue their torturer in a court of law. If they win they get this affirmation that what was done to then was very wrong and that’s very healing,” she said. Of course, they can also get money or deport the offender. “And that’s how the CJA was born.”

“They are pretty selective on their cases. The United States, which was the original place these cases were done, has changed. And the courts have been closing their doors for many of them. They’ve restricted the use of one of the laws, called the Alien Tort Statutes, but they cannot restrict as much a second law passed to support the Alien Tort Statutes, called the Torture Victim Protection Act. So individuals can still use that to sue torturers,” she said.

That law could possibly be used in Artsakh.

“I think what the lawyers are not doing is globalizing justice. They are working with organizations all over the world to try to ensure justice can happen somewhere. If not in the US, or Germany, maybe it can happen in the places they happened or the country next door,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we can move forward as a humanity. It’s all related to ideas and which ideas prevail. The ideas about justice are important ones and all the obstacles have been manmade. The obstacles around jurisdiction or extraterritoriality. You just need to either make something else up to overcome them or creatively put them together to overcome these barriers to justice.”

She further explained, “I think a lot of constitutional lawyers in the US, for a start, really need to address the issues of free speech versus hate speech and the definition of hate speech needs to be re-explored, There needs to be some global agreements made around these issues because all human rights violations, all wars and all genocides begin in the minds of people with ideas that then get turned into frames that then get propagated out into the world to generate the extremely negative emotions like hate. Without that, it’s much harder to have genocides, mass killings or torture.”

She concluded, for a better world and positive change, we need a “better form of democracy, better ideas and better means of propagating those ideas.”


From LA to New Zealand

Armoudian has been living in New Zealand for the past seven and a half years as a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, teaching courses both undergraduate and graduate on media and politics as well as American politics.

Though New Zealand is considered a dream country for many around the world, the actual transition from the US was a bit difficult, Armoudian said.

“When I finished my PhD which was obviously a little bit later in life than most people,” she said, she started looking for academic positions. The hiring schedule in New Zealand is different than many, and it was one that was convenient for her. “As soon as I finished the PhD I saw they had advertised for a position. I applied for it and got an interviews. I got an offer and have been here ever since,” she noted.

The process was certainly not easy.

“It meant uprooting and starting over like Armenians do, over and over and over again. Trying to rebuild a sense of community one more time. Thankfully there is a small Armenian community here and they are wonderful,” she explained.

The adjustment might have been hard, but there are a lot of good points to living in the Land of the Long White Cloud, the translation of Aotearoa – the Maori name for New Zealand.

“It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful for the most part,” she said. “Because it’s an island, there are a lot of beautiful sea views all over the place. People are generally nice but they are not as open as Armenians or Americans are. They keep a little back and it took a little to get used to,” she said.

“The hard part is with covid I can’t go home and visit. I haven’t been able to do that for two and a half years,” she said.

Armoudian had lived in Los Angeles for 27 years. “I was part of a lot of communities, the Armenian community, the environmental community and others. I had been a commissioner in the city of LA and was producing and hosting a radio program at a radio station. In addition, most of her family is in the United States.

Armoudian is still a big part of the radio program, Scholars’ Circle, which she founded several years ago.

“While I was in graduate school I noticed it was changing how I saw the world and helping me really understand why things are the way they are. And I thought can I do this for the public,” she said, leading her to reach out to scholars and experts and create a conversation.

She has been doing the program with Ankine Aghassian, a friend of hers who has been involved with the program since its inception. “We built it together, really,” she said.

Now, Doug Becker, a USC Professor, hosts many episodes.

As for where she will end up, she threw her hands up and said, “I don’t know. It depends on what happens next,” she said. She noted that she would like to spend a year in Armenia, and “see if there are things there that I can do to make a difference.”

She added that she would love to spend time in Cyprus, where she still has family. “At this point in life I am still a little bit of a taparakan” or gypsy.

Going forward, this former musician is concentrating on “the politics of human potential and litigation as a last resort for the planet,” she said. “I don’t know which one will come first.”

“Mass extinction is happening now,” she said.

When asked if, considering her close proximity to so many legal issues, she would consider becoming a lawyer, she laughed heartily and said, “I couldn’t take another exam!”

Lawyers without Borders is available through University of Michigan Press and Amazon.

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