by Harut Sassounian
Presented at the first international conference on the Armenian Genocide in Israel held at the Open University of Israel on November 2-4, 2015. “Marking 100 Years since the Armenian Genocide”
Now that the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide is coming to an end, Armenians consider the recognition stage of the century old genocide basically over and turn their full attention to demanding restitution and justice rather than the mere acknowledgment of this Crime against Humanity.
Let us quickly review the developments of this important issue over the past 100 years:
In the immediate aftermath of the Genocide, most survivors were scattered throughout the Middle East, and the four corners of the globe.
They had no food, no shelter, and barely the clothes on their back!
They vainly hoped to be rescued by Christian European nations, enabling them to return to their ancestral homeland in Western Armenia and Cilicia from which they were so brutally uprooted. Alas! It was not to be!
On August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sevres was signed by over a dozen countries, including the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Turkey and Armenia. The leaders of these countries had committed to restore Justice to the long-suffering Armenian nation. The Treaty of Sevres recognized Armenia’s independence and asked Pres. Woodrow Wilson to fix the borders between Armenia and Turkey. Unfortunately, this treaty was never ratified.
The European powers reneged on their commitments to their “Little Ally.” The newly-established Republic of Armenia lasted only two years, 1918 20, before being swallowed up by the Soviet Union and Turkey.
The destitute Armenian refugees, abandoned to their tragic fate, were forced to settle down in permanent exile. In those early years, their first priority was survival, fending off starvation and disease. Gradually, they rebuilt their lives in new homes, churches, and schools. Engaging in lobbying activities and making political demands were the last things on their minds.
Every April 24, Armenians commemorated the Genocide by gathering in church halls and offering prayers for the souls of 1.5 million innocent victims. Successive generations, particularly after 1965, the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, tried to break the wall of silence surrounding the greatest tragedy that befell the Armenian nation.
Tens of thousands of Armenians in communities throughout the world held protest marches, wrote letters to government officials and petitioned international organizations.
The Turkish government, along with the rest of the world, initially turned a deaf ear to Armenian demands for recognition of the long-forgotten genocide.
But, as media outlets, world leaders, parliaments of various countries, and international organizations began acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, Turkish leaders, astonished that the crimes perpetrated by their forefathers were making headlines after so many decades,
— started pumping massive resources into their campaign of denial,
— funded foreign scholars to distort the historical facts,
— engaged the services of powerful lobbying firms, and
— applied political and economic pressure on countries acknowledging the Genocide.
Since 1965, over 25 countries, including Canada, France, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Argentina, Uruguay, and the latest was Paraguay, last week, have recognized the Armenian Genocide.
It is commonly assumed that the United States has not acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, because recent U.S. Presidents, including Pres. Obama, have failed to use the term genocide, after promising to do so as presidential candidates.
The fact is that all three branches of the American government — executive, legislative and judiciary — have repeatedly acknowledged the Armenian Genocide.
The first time that the Executive branch made a reference to the Armenian Genocide was all the way back in 1951 in a document filed by the US government with the International Court of Justice (the World Court).
The second reference to the Armenian Genocide by the Executive branch was made by Pres. Ronald Reagan when he issued Presidential Proclamation 4838, on April 22, 1981.
The Legislative branch of the US government adopted two resolutions confirming the historical facts of the Armenian Genocide. The first resolution, approved by the US House of Representatives on April 8, 1975, designated April 24, “as a day of remembrance for all the victims of genocide especially those of Armenian ancestry who succumbed to the genocide perpetrated in 1915.”
A second resolution with similar wording was adopted by the House of Representatives on September 10, 1984. Most people are unaware that the Judiciary, the third branch of the US government, has issued three federal court rulings concerning the Armenian Genocide:
The first judicial reference to the Armenian Genocide was the unanimous ruling of a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals on August 11, 2010. The second court case was the ruling of federal Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on January 26, 2011, in the lawsuit regarding the Armenian Genocide Museum & Memorial in Washington, D.C. The third judicial reference to the Armenian Genocide was on May 3, 2012, by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, denying the claim of the Turkish Coalition of America against the University of Minnesota. In a unanimous ruling, the judges described the Armenian Genocide as “the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War I.”
Thus, with all three branches of the US government going on record reaffirming the Genocide, the United States has gained its rightful place in the ranks of righteous nations that have recognized the Armenian Genocide.
In fact, in many respects, the United States has compiled a more extensive record of acknowledging the Armenian Genocide than many other countries that have simply adopted a parliamentary resolution on this issue.
International organizations have also acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, including the United Nations. The UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a report in 1985, prepared by Special Rapporteur Benjamin Whitaker, acknowledging that the Armenian Genocide met the U.N. criteria for genocide.
Two years later, in 1987, the European Parliament also adopted a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. In addition, hundreds of Holocaust and Genocide scholars have issued joint statements confirming the facts of the Armenian Genocide. After so many acknowledgments, the Armenian Genocide has become a universally recognized historical fact. Despite such widespread acknowledgment, there are still a few important countries, one of which is, regrettably, The State of Israel, that have yet to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
I must draw an important distinction between the position of the Israeli government and the people of Israel and Jews around the world who have been some of the most outspoken advocates for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, such as:
— Henry Mongenthau, U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, during the Genocide;
— Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer, who coined the term genocide, told the CBS- TV Program, Face the Nation in a 1949 interview, “I became interested in genocide because it happened to the Armenians”;
— Franz Werfel, the Austrian Jewish novelist, who wrote in 1933 the international bestselling novel: “Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”
The book was translated into Hebrew in 1934 and was widely read by Jews everywhere, particularly in the Warsaw ghetto, as a source of inspiration for survival and resistance to the Nazis during the Shoah.
— I would add to these historical figures the name of Yossi Beilin,
who spoke out on the Armenian Genocide, as Minister of Justice on April 24, 2000, and as Deputy Foreign Minister in 1994, despite heavy pressures and criticisms from the Israeli government.
— We also remember fondly Yossi Sarid, who as Minister of Education, was the keynote speaker on April 24, 2000, the 85th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. He said: “I am here, with you, as a human being, as a Jew, as an Israeli, and as Education Minister of the State of Israel…. Whoever stands indifferent in front of [genocide], or ignores it, whoever makes calculations, whoever is silent always helps the perpetrator of the crime and not the murdered.”
— I must include in this list of Righteous Jews, Prof. Israel Charny, Prof. Yair Auron, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and a large number of Jewish scholars who were the trailblazers in writing articles and books on the Armenian Genocide, even before Armenian scholars themselves.
— I must also commend the Knesset members and former Knesset Chairman and current Pres. Rivlin who staunchly supported this issue despite the government’s vehement opposition.
After all, the Armenian Genocide was the prototype of the Shoah in view of German complicity in the extermination of Armenians. In the process of that criminal cooperation, the German military learned from its Turkish allies practical evil lessons on how to organize and implement the elimination of an entire race!
As we all know, Hitler was emboldened by the silence of the world while Armenians were getting wiped out, to confidently declare on the eve of the invasion of Poland in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians.”
The State of Israel should have been the first, not the last country to recognize the Armenian Genocide! Who should empathize more with the victims of a genocide than those who have suffered a similar fate? Those who give realpolitik reasons to justify Israel’s lack of acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, should answer the following question: Would they accept the denial of the Shoah by another country, simply because it is in that country’s strategic interest to deny it?
Equally illogical is the claim that now is not the right time to recognize the Armenian Genocide! When is a good time to recognize a genocide? Isn’t 100 years of waiting long enough? Furthermore, for years, we were told that acknowledging the Armenian Genocide would ruin Israel’s good relations with Turkey.
Now, we are being told that Israel cannot acknowledge it in order not to make its bad relations with Turkey worse!
It would be immoral to exploit the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a bargaining chip between Turkey and Israel. No political, economic or military interests should override the recognition of any genocide!
Israel should recognize the Armenian Genocide for one reason only: To tell the truth!
Countries that side with the denialist regime of Turkey, are not doing so due to lack of evidence or conviction, but, sadly, because of political expediency, with the intent of appeasing the denier. One would hope that these governments would join most of the enlightened world in acknowledging the historical facts as they are, and not as the Turkish government wishes them to be!
Armenians no longer need to convince the world that what took place from 1915 to 1923 was genocide. However, a simple acknowledgment of what took place and mere apology would not heal the wounds and undo the consequences of the Genocide.
Armenians are still waiting for justice to be served, restoring their historic rights, and returning their confiscated lands and properties. In recent years, Armenian-American lawyers have successfully filed lawsuits in U.S. federal courts, securing millions of dollars from New York Life and French AXA insurance companies for unpaid claims to policy-holders who perished in the Genocide.
Several more lawsuits are still pending against other insurance companies and German banks to recover funds belonging to victims of the Armenian Genocide.
In 1915, a centrally planned and executed attempt was made to uproot and decimate an entire nation, depriving the survivors of their cultural heritage as well as their homes, lands, houses of worship, and personal properties. A gross injustice was perpetrated against the Armenian people, entitling them, as in the case of the Shoah, to just compensation for their enormous losses. Restitution can take many forms. As an initial step, the Republic of Turkey should place under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul all the Armenian churches and religious monuments which were expropriated and converted to mosques and warehouses or outright destroyed.
In the absence of a voluntary restitution by Turkey, Armenians should resort to litigation, seeking “restorative justice.”
In considering legal recourse, one should keep in mind that the Armenian Genocide did neither start nor end in 1915.
Large-scale genocidal acts started with Sultan Abdul Hamid’s massacre of 300,000 Armenians from 1894 to 1896; the subsequent killing by the Young Turk regime of 30,000 Armenians in Adana in 1909; culminating in the Genocide of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923.
In subsequent decades, tens of thousands of Armenians were forcefully Turkified or deported by the Republic of Turkey.
Most of the early leaders of the Turkish Republic were high-ranking Ottoman officials who had perpetrated the Armenian Genocide.
This unbroken succession in leadership assured the continuity of the Ottomans’ anti-Armenian policies.
Today’s Republic of Turkey, as the successor of the Ottoman Empire, is therefore responsible for the Genocide.
An important document, recently discovered in U.S. archives, provides irrefutable evidence that the Government of Turkey continued to uproot and exile the remnants of Armenians well into the 1930’s, motivated purely by racist reasons.
This document is a “Strictly Confidential” cable, dated March 2nd, 1934, and sent by U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Skinner from Ankara to the U.S. Secretary of State, reporting the deportation of Armenians from “the interior of Anatolia to Istanbul.”
In the 1920’s and 30’s, thousands of Armenian survivors of the Genocide,were forced out of their homes in Cilicia and Western Armenia and deported to other parts of Turkey or to neighboring countries.
In the 1940’s, these racist policies were followed by what is called in Turkish ‘Varlik Vergisi,’ the imposition of an exorbitant wealth tax on Armenians, Greeks and Jews, bankrupting the remnants of these communities.
During the 1955 Istanbul pogroms, many Greeks as well as Armenians and Jews were killed and injured, and their properties destroyed.
This continuum of massacres, genocide and deportations highlights the existence of a long-term strategy implemented by successive Turkish regimes from the 1890’s to more recent times, to solve the Armenian Question with finality.
Consequently, the Republic of Turkey is legally liable for its own crimes against Armenians, as well as those committed by its Ottoman predecessors.
The Turkish Republic inherited the assets of the Ottoman Empire; and, therefore, it also inherited its liabilities.
Finally, since Armenians often refer to their three sequential demands from Turkey:
— Recognition of the Genocide;
— Reparations for their losses; and
— Return of their lands,
Turkish denialists have concluded that once they recognize the Genocide, Armenians will then pursue their two other demands.
This is one of the main reasons why Turkish leaders adamantly refuse to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, fearing that its acceptance would lead to demands for restitution.
They believe that by denying the first demand — recognition — they would be blocking the next two: reparations and return of the territories!
While commemorative resolutions adopted by legislative bodies of various countries, and affirmative statements by world leaders on the Armenian Genocide, might alleviate the trauma experienced by the survivors and their descendants, they have no force of law, and therefore, no legal consequence.
Armenians, Turks and others involved in this still unresolved issue, must realize that recognition of the Armenian Genocide or the lack thereof, will neither enable nor deter its consideration by international legal institutions.
Once Turkish officials realize that recognition by itself cannot, and would not, automatically lead to other demands, they may no longer persist in their obsessive denial.
Without waiting for any further recognition, Armenians must pursue their historic right through legal channels, such as the International Court of Justice (where only states have jurisdiction), the European Court of Human Rights, as well as individual country courts.
A good example of such legal action is the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Armenian Church: the Catholicosate of Cilicia, which was forced to relocate to Lebanon after the Genocide.
The Church is now seeking the return of its former headquarters in Sis, Turkey, by initially petitioning the Constitutional Court of Turkey, and failing there, the Catholicosate plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Justice must be pursued by all means: through legal, political and economic channels.
After all, who could be opposed to Armenian demands for justice? Not even Turkish President Erdogan, whose ruling party is ironically called Justice & Development Party.
For Armenians, seeking justice means the recovery of all losses from the Genocide, including communal properties, such as churches, monuments, cemeteries, schools, confiscated and looted properties, and the occupied territories of Western Armenia.
Therefore, 100 years after the Genocide, the end game is not genocide recognition, but the long overdue demand for justice; which means the recovery of everything that can be returned and compensation for whatever cannot be returned.