UCLA Hosts First-Ever Conference Pertaining to Armenian Genocide Restitution Following US Genocide Recognition

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WESTWOOD, Calif. — On Saturday, March 25, the Armenian Genocide Research Program (AGRP) at the Promise Armenian Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at LMU Loyola Law School, and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) co-hosted a conference pertaining to Armenian Genocide restitution. The conference was co-sponsored by the Armenian Bar Association, the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law, and the Ararat-Eskijian Museum.

Titled “What’s Next?: Armenian Genocide Restitution in the Post-Recognition Era,” this historic conference explored whether congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide in 2019 and President Biden’s recognition on April 24, 2021 offer new possibilities to pursue legal paths toward restitution, as well as how other restitution initiatives can serve as a model for future Armenian efforts.

Panelists included international human rights lawyer Kathryn Lee Boyd, who litigated the first successful art restitution case related to the Armenian genocide, UC Davis art history professor Heghnar Watenpaugh, known for investigating the complex history of medieval Armenian manuscript, the Zeytun Gospels, and lawyer and academic Mayo Moran, who facilitated restitution-related progress for Canada’s Indigenous population.

“If American recognition is not to remain a merely symbolic gesture, must there not be certain legal ramifications to such recognition?” stated Taner Akçam, director of the AGRP at the Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA, in his introductory remarks. “The main purpose for recognizing historical injustices is to bring in their wake the at-least-partial recompense for past injustices. Indeed, if such acknowledgment is not followed by some steps in the direction of obtaining justice for past wrongs, then the gesture is truly without meaning.”

“I think that what President Biden did on April 24, 2021 was truly historic and something no other president was willing to do, and that provides a legal framework to begin working on restitution of cultural property, religious property, artifacts, that were part of the Armenian genocide,” stated keynote speaker Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat in a pre-recorded interview. Eizenstat also underlined similarities between the Holocaust and Armenian genocide restitution movements, suggesting the latter take a path similar to the former. “[This conference] has the prospect of being the equivalent to the 1994-95 Bard Graduate Conference that really elevated the issue of Nazi looted art,” he concluded.

The first panel outlined the legal precedent for Armenian Genocide restitution cases within the United States, instances of foreign affairs preemption in such cases, and the importance of just attribution. During the second session, panelists discussed the global landscape concerning looted art, including the story of Nigeria’s stolen Benin Bronzes and the restitution of Armenian cultural heritage. The third panel focused on “what’s next” for the Armenian Genocide restitution movement and how examples of political progress in other restitution cases can inspire a new path forward.

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Conference participants all agreed that this event marked the beginning of a new era pertaining to the Armenian Genocide restitution movement. Organizers plan to take concrete steps to address the conference’s agenda, including establishing an inventory of Armenian looted assets in different countries. “It is now that we begin to build on what is undoubtedly a very promising future,” stated Dr. Akçam at the conference’s closing reception.

Watch the conference’s full proceedings on the Promise Armenian Institute’s YouTube Channel. A short documentary about the conference will be released this year by the Armenian Film Foundation.

The Armenian Genocide Research Program (AGRP) was established within the Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA in early 2022. Led by Taner Akçam, the AGRP engages in research and scholarly activities pertaining to the study of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during the early 20th century.

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