CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—From the concept of worthy and unworthy victims to calls for reparations for the Armenian Genocide, the fifth Armenians and Progressive Politics conference saw journalists, academics, legal professionals and activists from across the globe gather to share knowledge and ideas and to discuss how to achieve justice for the Armenian people.
The conference, which took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from Sept. 26-27, had as its theme “The Road to Justice.”
Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian Discuss the Middle East
Friday night’s opening plenary featured world-renowned intellectual, activist, and MIT professor Noam Chomsky, who focused on Middle Eastern politics in a dialogue with Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian with whom he has collaborated for thirty years.
Barsamian began the discussion by asking Chomsky to explain the origins of the Islamic State, or ISIS. Agreeing with a leading mainstream intelligence analyst with a CIA background who wrote, “the United States created ISIS,” Chomsky excoriated U.S. policy for fashioning “the background out of which ISIS grew and developed.”
Iraq has been completely devastated by two U.S.-led wars and sanctions, he said, and the 2003 American invasion was responsible for inciting brutal sectarian fighting that has now spread across the entire region. The chaos triggered by Iraq’s destruction provided the breeding ground for “the most extreme elements” such as ISIS.
“When violence becomes the means of interaction . . . the most violent groups take over,” Chomsky stated. “If they manage to destroy ISIS, they’ll have something even more extreme on their hands.”
ISIS’s ideological roots come from Saudi Arabia, “the major U.S. ally in the region,” he continued, labeling that country “the most extremist radical Islamic state in the world.” Saudi Arabia, he pronounced, is a “missionary state,” using its vast oil wealth to promote its “extremist version of Islam” throughout the world.
Obama’s policy of excluding Iran and Syria’s Assad from the anti-ISIS coalition “makes absolutely no sense,” charged Chomsky, especially since the alliance’s “main component is Saudi Arabia . . . the main funder of ISIS and the ideological center for ISIS. And those who oppose ISIS are excluded from the coalition.”
Turkey, he added, has “an enormous military force. If they entered the conflict, they could wipe [ISIS] out in no time, just as Iran could, but they’re not interested and Iran’s not permitted.”
Addressing the concept of worthy and unworthy victims, Chomsky explained that the Kurds provide a good example of victims who are deemed worthy or unworthy depending on U.S. foreign policy goals at any given moment.
In the 1980s when Saddam Hussein, then a U.S. ally, attacked Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons, the Reagan administration protected him, with the Pentagon going so far as to blame Iran for the gas attacks on the Kurds, he said. After Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, however, the United States condemned the slaughter and eventually established a no-fly zone in the 1990s to protect Iraqi Kurds. They had been transformed from unworthy into worthy victims by political events.
“At the same time in Turkey,” Chomsky continued, “there was massive repression against the Kurds in the Southeast . . . Tens of thousands of people were killed, about 3,500 villages were destroyed, probably a couple of million refugees, every imaginable form of torture. It was just a horrendous attack, completely supported by the United States. Eighty percent of the arms came from the United States . . . As the atrocities mounted, the arms flow increased.”
“The press refused to report any of this. It wasn’t a secret. There were extensive reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International,” he said. “You could find out what was happening, but you couldn’t read it in The New York Times. They had a bureau in Ankara, of course, but it wasn’t interested in covering this, especially the U.S. role. That’s not the right story.” Because Turkey was a U.S. ally, Turkish Kurds were unworthy victims.
Turning to press freedom in Turkey, Chomsky stated that in recent years, “Turkey was the world champion in jailing journalists.” The government, he conjectured, stopped “playing the game” of improving human rights around 2005 when it realized it would not be admitted to the European Union.
When Barsamian asked what could be done to protect minorities like Armenians in Syria or Yazidis in Northern Iraq, Chomsky replied that international law codified in the United Nations charter provides solutions rejected by Obama. “The reason is the U.S., Britain, Israel, and other clients are rogue states, states that disregard international law. It doesn’t apply to them; they do what they want. They have a monopoly of force . . . and they use it as they like.”
Barsamian concluded his questions by asking what people can do to effect change. “You can do a lot,” responded Chomsky, “especially in a relatively free and open society like this. There are endless numbers of options: electoral, organizational, educational, demonstrations—anything you can think of. And with sufficient dedication and commitment, policy can change.”
The Media: Framing a Narrative
The conference resumed on Saturday morning with a panel on the mainstream media, moderated by writer and activist Laura Boghosian. She began by describing the power of the mass media to shape and control public opinion. Only five or six media conglomerates control all news and entertainment in the United States, she said, and these media giants share board members with oil companies, defense contractors, big banks, and other powerful industries through interlocking directorates.
These corporate interlocks influence what gets reported, she stated. Journalist and media critic Ben Bagdikian, she noted, described this immense conflict of interest in The Media Monopoly, writing, “When their most sensitive economic interests are at stake, the parent corporations seldom refrain from using their power over public information.”
The corporate media and their partners have vast economic interests in Turkey, she observed, which explains why, for example, it typically frames the Armenian Genocide as a controversy rather than a fact.
Professor Levon Chorbajian of UMass Lowell discussed the structure of the U.S. corporate media, stating they are big businesses interested primarily in making money. “They are part of the capitalist business establishment and this is reflected in their reporting,” he said.
Referencing Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, Chorbajian examined various influences on what is reported and how. Advertisers intervene, for example, if they don’t like a story. Sourcing, where “news workers get the information to write their stories,” is very important, he said. Reporters “primarily rely on official sources,” such as the White House or the State and Defense Departments, for their material. If you have a dissident or nonconforming opinion, “you have to work to get their attention.”
There are also people and organizations that will contest your position and what you have to say, he added. “This is something that we constantly have to deal with on Armenian Genocide issues,” he said, “whether it’s the Turkish embassy or the various lobbying organizations. They are out there and they will intervene.”
Chorbajian then examined Armenian Genocide denial in the media. As the genocide was happening, there was no controversy at all, he said. The news got out through diplomats and missionaries and was reported accurately.
The denialist arguments used by the Turkish government began as early as May 1915 and eventually began to take hold, he stated. “These same arguments are still around today.” By 1923, the new Turkish republic had a retired U.S. admiral writing an article that denied the genocide in the influential publication Current History. The piece claimed reports of massacres were due to an anti-Islamic bias in the American media.
Soon the State Department was actively intervening to stop all discussion or artistic representation of the Armenian Genocide. Chorbajian cited one State Department memo that asserted, “The Turkish government is very sensitive about this period in their history and is a valued ally.”
Due to Turkey’s power, he said, Armenians “have a difficult road, but not impossible . . . We need to have greater resources than we have now. We have to see Turkish denial as a real threat to the history of our people.”
Expanding on how the media has covered the Armenian Genocide, journalist and filmmaker Carla Garapedian asserted, “We Armenians have been obsessed with one equation, and that equation is we believe more reporting leads to justice. We’ve waited for that big hit of media coverage . . . that would flood the national debate, forcing the issue onto the world stage, and when that happens, we thought, finally there would be change . . . finally, we’ll see justice.”
Garapedian reported that there have been three principal periods of heightened media coverage of Armenian issues. The first wave, she said, was during the genocide itself, when there was extensive coverage. “Did all that lead to justice?” she asked. “No.”
The second big wave began in 1975 with the 60th anniversary of the genocide and continued into the 1980s. Some of the media interest was fueled by the shooting of Turkish diplomats, she said, but “what really made a difference were protests. Protests by Armenian-Americans who started to stand up as one unified group.” Again, increased media coverage did not equal justice. Although elected officials began to take the Armenian-American constituency into account and school genocide education programs started to incorporate the Armenian Genocide into their curriculums, “it did not lead to any change in American policy toward Turkey.”
The third and current wave of coverage began in 2004 and was precipitated by Turkey’s proposed membership in the European Union. “Suddenly Turkey’s human rights record became a focus in Europe.” Other factors converged, including Samantha Power’s book on genocide, Turkey’s prosecution of Orhan Pamuk, political work by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the release of Garapedian’s film Screamers, and a Congressional resolution to recognize the genocide. “Media coverage—lots of it,” she said. “Justice? No.”
She explained: “Why? The root of the failure, of course, is the politics. It’s been an inconvenient truth for America who . . . has sided with Turkey, as we know, and has enabled Turkey’s denial.”
“Big Politics”—the main political parties; local, state, and federal politicians; the policy elite that surrounds them; the think tanks; retired diplomats; the military—do not want to talk about the Armenian Genocide, she stated. “Silence is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome,” explained Garapedian, adding, “When it comes to reporting on foreign policy, the media takes their lead from Big Politics. If Big Politics isn’t talking about Turkey, then there will be a vacuum in the mainstream media debate, silence . . . As a general rule, news editors will follow Big Politics’ lead.”
Big Politics, continued Garapedian, resorts to dirty tricks each April 24, which will then be repeated in the mass media. “They will try to create fog,” she said, by claiming it happened a long time ago; it’s a conflict between two parties; he said, she said; they need to work it out; it’s contested history; politicians shouldn’t get involved; and leave it to the historians.
“They’ll say it’s a question of balance, as if there are two sides to a genocide. As if you would ask the Jews and the Germans to discuss whether the Holocaust happened.”
Garapedian stated that Big Politics will never mention American and European eyewitness accounts, but will try to make it all about what Armenians say, and they’ll use national interest as a reason to ignore this issue. “And they’ll never say it’s a crime, and certainly not a crime against humanity.” All of these are classic attempts to obscure and deny the historical record, Garapedian pronounced. “Offensive, but they work. They play on ignorance and a misguided sense of patriotism.”
“The good news,” however, “is these tactics don’t always work.” Garapedian offered several suggestions for Armenian activism: first to recognize the dirty tricks of Big Politics, but refuse to engage with them. Second, to “widen our message,” understanding that Armenian Genocide coverage is most successful when there is another way to frame the issue, through movies, music, or other genocides, for example. And then there are protests; she quoted Stephen Spielberg who said, “I respect the fact that Armenians protest every year.” Finally, we must educate others. Teaching materials need to be available, she said, as genocide education has to go hand-in-hand with news coverage.
“In conclusion, that equation of big media will lead to justice—maybe that’s an outdated way at looking at our challenge,” she said. Instead, she pointed out the importance of digitizing historical records. “The genocide is documented in the world’s archives which are being digitized. That’s historic truth that can’t be rewritten or revised,” she said. “That’s for everyone, even Turkish citizens, to see for themselves.”
Turning to the Turkish media’s coverage of Armenian issues, Istanbul-based journalist Aris Nalci said he has observed changes, even if limited, over the past 15 years. There is increasing knowledge about Armenians, he reported, whereas previously “they didn’t know anything.”
Several years ago Nalci took ten Turkish journalists to Armenia, and today these journalists are senior news directors or have their own programs. Recently, he received a call from one of them apologizing for being forced to publish a story he knew was false. There had been a sensational murder in Turkey that had been extensively covered for four months. Suddenly the Turkish media began reporting that the suspect had been “arrested on the border between Russia and Armenia,” but that Armenia would not return the accused because it had no relations with Turkey. This mendacious reporting was done simply to “target Armenia,” Nalci said, as not only was the suspect elsewhere, but Russia and Armenia do not even share a border. Thus, despite some increase in knowledge about Armenians by a segment of the Turkish media, content is still determined by others.
Nalci also recounted an incident that took place when he worked at the Armenian newspaper Agos. They had asked a large Turkish corporation to advertise in the paper, but heard nothing for three months. Finally, the company announced that it would be willing to purchase an ad, but only if the ad was not printed. They had conducted a poll of their clients, and 65 percent had responded they would not approve of the company doing business with an Armenian newspaper. The company believed it would lose those customers if it advertised.
Another tactic of the Turkish media is to counter April 24 coverage each year with invented tales of Armenians converting to Islam. “There are dozens of stories like this,” said Nalci.
Regarding coverage in 2015, he stated, “I’m not very hopeful… There is a deep lack of knowledge.” As an example, he mentioned a Turkish journalist who had actually been to Armenia, but criticized the country for claiming Aram Khachaturian; he believed him to be an Arab—“Arab Khachaturian.” This man is still producing news and commentaries, added Nalci.
Nalci predicts that Turkish media will evade genocide coverage in 2015; rather, he said, “We’re going to see more coverage of Gallipoli in Turkey,” as well as stories on Armenian-Azeri relations. “I don’t think the coverage in 2015 will lead to more knowledge for the people of Turkey… I don’t think it’s going to help Armenia, not yet.” It is important to look beyond 2015, he concluded, as the struggle is long.
Turkish-Armenian Relations: From Civil Society to State Denial
Moderated by Khatchig Mouradian, coordinator of the Armenian Genocide program at Rutgers University, this panel examined myriad aspects of Turkish-Armenian relations. Mouradian stated that much has changed over the past two decades, with new civil society voices challenging the official state narrative.
A space has been created in Turkey for Armenians and others to discuss various issues, including the Armenian Genocide, he said. But we have to look at this change critically, he warned, to determine if it is, in fact, leading to any kind of improvement. Is this genuine change by the government, he wondered, or simply a shift in methods that maintains “the core of the traditional Turkish position toward Armenians.”
Bilgin Ayata, a lecturer at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, believes that Kurdish-Armenian dialogue and rapprochement has much more potential than Turkish-Armenian efforts. Although Kurds were also perpetrators during the genocide, they became victims with the establishment of the Turkish republic.
Ayata noted similarities in Turkish denials of the Armenian Genocide and of its destruction of Kurdish villages and consequent displacement of the population in the 1990s. In each case, the government has said the number of victims was exaggerated, the villages had to be evacuated, and it was a matter of national security.
The Armenian issue is seen as separate from the Kurdish problem by the Turkish government. Imagine, she said, if they were united; this would worry Turkey “very much.” There are common themes of displacement and denial between Kurds and Armenians, she said, “which opens up space for recognition and acknowledgement, for justice.”
Contrasting the Turkish government’s renovation of the Armenian Church on Akhtamar with the opening of Surp Giragos in Diyarbakir, Ayata charged that the Turkish government funded the Akhtamar renovation solely “to showcase that Turkey is a tolerant nation.” Erdogan himself said at the time that the world would see that Turkey did not commit genocide. “So this was very much the set-up of the renovation,” she explained. The church, she pointed out, is now a Turkish state museum; the property was not returned to the Patriarchate. “Basically once a year Armenians can go there and hold a mass with the Turkish flags” that surround the church, she said.
In Diyarbakir, however, “where the church has been renovated both with church foundation funds and money from the Kurdish municipality of Diyarbakir,” you’ll see Armenians praying each day. “It’s a very different atmosphere . . . after [the Kurds’] own victimization and displacement, the call for justice rings a very different bell.”
Addressing the Turkish state’s denial of the Armenian Genocide, Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, said that while the body of knowledge concerning the Armenian Genocide has grown exponentially over the past several decades, the opportunities for denial have also increased.
Deniers wish to create controversy or doubt through denial and prevarication, he explained, decrying the inroads denial has made into academia and elsewhere, particularly last year’s court decision in Europe that found genocide denial was protected speech. “This appears to be a crowning achievement,” he said, “to attach permanently ‘controversial’ or ‘debatable’ to the words ‘the Armenian Genocide.’”
The tactics used by Turkey to deny the Armenian Genocide are not unique, Mamigonian noted, but are common to other forms of denial. In 1969, for example, a tobacco company memo stated, “Doubt is our product.”
Similarly, in a 2002 memo Republican strategist Frank Luntz wrote that the scientific debate on climate change was closing, but was not yet closed. “There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,” he wrote. “We need to make the lack of scientific uncertainty our primary issue.”
“You might say that no serious person takes [the work of genocide deniers] seriously,” said Mamigonian, but it’s “naive and incorrect to assume that everyone will see such denial for what it is.”
The University of Utah is a hub of Armenian Genocide denial, he said, and has been “exceptionally productive” in publishing books and organizing conferences. Scholars who participate in such “denialist-framed conferences, which seek to reduce the genocide thesis to one of many competing narratives,” are extremely valuable to them, said Mamigonian. “Through their participation [they] have supplied deniers with what they crave most: legitimacy and debate.”
“The purpose of the debate is really to have a debate,” he stated. Such a debate “presents scholarship and pseudo scholarship on an equal foot.” There is a need, he concluded, for scholars to uphold academic integrity.
University of Chicago professor Ronald Suny cited Czech writer Milan Kundera’s quote, “A small people can disappear and knows it” to explain Armenians’ views of themselves and concerns for the future.
“I think of Armenians as a people burdened by history . . . We are a people, I would argue, whose history and suffering has been denied, avoided, rejected, erased from the collective memory of much of the world,” he said.
Although he acknowledged significant gains made in Armenian studies over the past decades, he stated that there are still too few historians specializing in Armenian history or the Armenian Genocide.
Armenian history can no longer be kept within the Armenian community, but must be directed outward toward international and scholarly audiences, he said, adding that we need to discuss why there was a genocide—not if—but what actually happened.
Toward that end, Suny was instrumental in bringing together Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and other scholars to commence a discussion on what happened and why. At first, he said, Armenians were skeptical of the project, believing the Turkish scholars would be genocide deniers. Suny said, however, that the majority of the Turkish scholars “were on the left and most of them had been jailed at some time.” Hrant Dink and other journalists came to their meetings, “and so a dialogue began, and it was extraordinary what happened . . . We hit the zeitgeist, we hit the spirit of the time, the critical, historical juncture when the AKP came to power,” and when it “decided to use democracy as a weapon, as an instrument to undermine the Kemalist, nationalist state . . . Things began to change.”
In 2011, Suny visited Western Armenia and “found Kurdistan.” He reported that wherever he went—Kars, Van, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Mardin—he heard a similar refrain: “We’re sorry this happened… We did participate in this or our grandparents participated in this… The Turks made us do it.” Kurds began to talk about it as genocide, said Suny, even if they did not use the word. “Something was shifting in that population,” he noted, and in the elite Turkish progressive intelligentsia as well.
Suny is optimistic about the future of Armenian studies. “At the beginning of the 21st century, we have new tools and new capabilities,” he noted, adding that we can learn about our history in a way we couldn’t twenty years ago. A more cosmopolitan, multinational history of the Ottoman Empire is now being written with Armenians as a part.
Although genocide recognition is important, Suny believes that Armenians must also tackle complex issues such as democracy in Armenia and Armenians in Turkey.
He concluded by relating a recent experience with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He asked them to host a conference in 2015 to mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide with the theme “From the Armenian Genocide to the Holocaust: The Origins of Modern Human Rights.” “They refused,” he said. “It’s a government agency; they don’t want to talk about this.”
Peter Balakian, a professor at Colgate University, also believes the change in Turkish-Armenian relations in recent years is “large.” Yet, he said, there is an impasse due to Turkey’s “paranoid style” and continued denial.
“The Turkish state’s obsession with the Armenian people and the genocide of 1915… has resulted in erasing the representation of the Armenian massacres in Turkey and the proactive creation of false narratives,” he stated. Due to this “Armenian Erasure Syndrome… there remain ethical impediments to reconciliation or even conversation between the two cultures.”
Balakian described how tour guides speaking about imperial structures in Istanbul, including many of the most famous palaces, mosques, and government buildings, tell tourists that “these great buildings were built by an Italian family named Baliani.” In reality, the builders were the Balians, an Armenian amira family who served as imperial architects of the Ottoman Empire for six sultans over two centuries.
“It matters that people, Turkish citizens or tourists, know the truth about any history,” said Balakian. He pondered how it might be if an Armenian historical narrative were attached to these structures.
“Armenian monuments and ruins are a complex archipelago of shapes and forms throughout Turkey,” observed Balakian, as he began to speak about Ani, “the most important, pre-modern city for Armenians.” Ani, he said, is for Armenians what Florence is to Italians. “Today it’s a ruined, medieval city, a tourist site about 100 feet from the Armenian border.”
When touring the site, he said, “one is astounded by the range of imagination of the building there, but one is also astounded by the signage. Not one sign on any building bears the word Armenian,” except for a notice on one structure that reads, “This church was burned down by an Armenian priest in the early 20th century.” The significance of Ani is not just for Armenians, he declared; it is also an important part of world civilization.
While traveling through Western Armenia, Balakian spoke with numerous Turkish farmers and villagers who shared these thoughts with him: “Some people lived here before we moved in, but we don’t know who they were… I don’t believe that ruined building in the middle of town is a church; it’s just a house where some rich man once lived. (Balakian says it was obviously a 6th-7th century Armenian church.)… Every now and then someone finds a big pot or even a cauldron of gold in the ground. The police are called in and the gold is taken away. Who were these people? Who were they that they were so rich they just put their money in the ground and walked away?”
“These are complex gestures of collective socialization, political policy, and programming over many years,” he observed.
“Turkish Erasure Syndrome” has had a traumatic impact on Armenians, said Balakian, but his encounters with Turkish progressives have given him hope. He envisions restoring Armenian and other cultural presences to create a multicultural narrative inside Turkey.
Reparations for the Armenian Genocide
Moderator Henry Theriault, professor at Worcester State University, opened the discussion on Armenian Genocide reparations by placing them within an international framework. “As we talk about Armenian reparations, we have to remember that this is an issue that affects a slew of groups across the world,” he said. “In the last ten years, we’ve started to see what people are terming a global reparations movement that the Armenian case is fitting into… When we think about the Armenian case, I think it’s really important to understand it as part of a bigger context.”
Theriault touched on diverse reparations movements ranging from Aborigines in Australia to Native Americans in Canada, and pointed out that reparations can also be paid for other types of human rights abuses, such as the sexual slavery imposed on Korean women by the Japanese military during World War II.
The Armenian Genocide is “really a part of more than 500 years of genocide, colonialism, slavery, apartheid, mass rape, economic exploitation, and aggressive war that really have shaped the globe,” said Theriault. Reparations are not just about money, but “how we address this incredibly deep foundational process of destruction . . . to reshape the globe toward social justice.”
Theriault announced that a report on Armenian Genocide reparations had just been published by the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group which he chaired; it can be found at: www.armeniangenocidereparations.info.
Reparations for the Armenian Genocide should concern not only Armenians, but the entire world community, stated Thomas Samuelian, dean at the American University of Armenia and an attorney in Yerevan. Even if Armenians and Turks agreed “to let bygones be bygones,” he said, “it wouldn’t change the fact that a horrible crime took place and it took place with impunity. There has not been an appropriate response to the crime.” Genocide is a crime against humanity, he explained, and as such, the entire world should be demanding condemnation.
A legal framework exists for solutions, he said, but there is a problem with the leadership of the world’s nations that “probably leads us right to Washington.” If the United States were to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the “organizer-in-chief of the international community… would then be required to take the necessary steps to remedy it,” he said.
Samuelian stressed that Armenians need to separate recognition from reparations, that reparations are not, in fact, predicated upon recognition. Recognition is about a criminal act, he said, while reparations is about “making the victim whole. That’s the inalienable right of the victim.”
Even if there were no recognition, reparations is compensation that can’t be taken away from Armenians, he explained. “There’s a notion that you have to wait until Turkey issues a unilateral admission of guilt for the genocide before there can be reparations. Not true,” he declared. “There’s more than enough evidence of confiscation and destruction in property and lives for there to be claims.”
Different studies have estimated these losses to be worth between 80 billion and a half trillion dollars, he stated.
Samuelian pointed out that it was not only Turkey that benefitted from the Armenian Genocide. “A lot of the harm was done by more than just the Turks… there were plenty of European instigators and beneficiaries of the Armenian Question—all of whom benefitted greatly at the expense of the Armenians,” he said. “Certainly during WWI, Germany’s role is well documented. Certainly there’s some liability there. There’s no reason why when we raise the issue of reparations, we should just be focusing on Turkey.”
Western powers have not supported Turkey’s denial for 100 years simply to protect the Turks, Samuelian believes. Rather, he thinks it is a way of manipulating Turkey. “The Americans, and the Israelis, and others, and the Brits, who don’t recognize the genocide are keeping it hanging over their heads, so they can always pull out the Armenian trump card” to make Turkey do what they want.
“It’s a very nasty game, and it’s even more frustrating for Armenians to be part of this blackmail… the harm that happened to us as a nation for the last 150 years or longer has been turned into a commodity.” Other nations have been externalizing the costs of their foreign policy toward Turkey and making Armenians pay for it, he asserted.
The United States has benefitted by exploiting the Armenian Genocide for the past 60 or 70 years by using it to keep Turkey in line, to help Israel have an ally, and as a counter-balance to the Russians. The U.S. defense budget during that period in 1912 dollars is $400 billion a year times 60 years. “It’s a big chunk of money,” he said. “How much of that was at the expense of the Armenians? How much did they save the American taxpayers… who’ve actually been subsidized by the Armenians?”
Armenians have not been able to demand a suitable remedy to this injustice because we have not been powerful enough, Samuelian said. Things are changing, however. “We do have a state and our state is now taking more positions on these issues, and we also have a church that is finally asserting itself in making claims… They have standing in international fora that we as individuals do not.”
Samuelian believes that Armenians “should demand everything that we can possibly ask for. Nothing should be dismissed out of hand because it’s infeasible or improbable, there may be a counter-claim, there may be an objection.”
There are two types of harm to be compensated, he said: reversible and irreversible.
“Reversible harm is pretty straightforward,” he stated, explaining that properties can be returned, for example, or rights of ways can be granted. Other types of reversible harms include things like natural resource rights. “Turkey has $2.5 trillion in known mineral rights; a lot of them are under the Armenian highlands,” he said. “Why should Turkey get the only benefit from that?” Native Americans, he pointed out, are pursuing these types of claims.
“There is plenty of money out there,” he said, from the United States, England, Germany, and Israel, “all of whom are spending large amounts on defense and largely benefitting from externalizing the costs to the Armenians. We should implicate all of them because they have deprived us of a resolution of this for over 100 years.”
Samuelian next described irreversible harm, which is the loss of generations and lives, and thus more difficult to quantify. “We should be a nation of maybe 40 million; instead we’re a nation of ten million, a direct consequence of the genocide,” he stated. Samuelian said that no amount of money could possibly compensate for this loss, but that Armenians must pursue claims regardless.
Reparations, he argued, would help make Armenia a better country. “It’s a lot easier to have social justice when you have lots of money,” he said. “First, we have to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. People aren’t asking for it. We should be asking for everything we possibly can.”
The Armenian Genocide is a world problem that needs a world solution, he concluded. “It took a lot of countries to create this predicament. It will need a lot of countries to fix it… Since we’re the ones who know the issue the best, it’s up to us to advocate for the kind of solution that will actually resolve the predicament, so it won’t carry on for another generation.”
When demanding reparations, an understanding of what was taken and how is essential. The legal mechanisms by which the Turkish state, both Ottoman and republican, took possession of Armenian property was examined by panelist Ümit Kurt, a PhD candidate at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.
Kurt explained that Armenian property was seized under a set of laws and regulations known as the Abandoned Property Laws. Though initiated by the Young Turk government, most of the relevant regulations were issued in the republican period. “The Republic of Turkey and its legal system,” he said, “were built upon the seizure of Armenian cultural, social, and economic wealth, and removal of the Armenian presence… The republican legal system institutionalized the Armenian Genocide of 1915.”
“Turkey is founded on the transformation of a presence of Christians in general, Armenians in particular, into an absence… This is why the Armenian question is considered a matter of national security. Bringing up this topic or even just calling for a normal discussion of it is perceived as a threat to national existence and national security.”
Kurt pointed out that Raphael Lemkin wrote how genocide is hidden in ordinary legal texts. Typically, genocide is seen as the collapse of normal laws and systems, of civilization itself, he said, but Lemkin believed the opposite to be true. Lemkin told us to follow “the legal trail” when examining genocide.
Minister of the Interior Talaat, said Kurt, used existing laws to confiscate the patriarchate of Sis, for example, and expel the Armenians. In an April 1916 telegram to Jemal, commander of the Fourth Army and military governor of Ottoman Syria, Talaat wrote, “Laws exist for this purpose… Everything was arranged in a very suitable way for completely removing the existence of the Armenians.”
Genocide is thus not a deviation from the normal legal system; it is, rather, a product of this system, stated Kurt.
The Turkish government never declared that Armenians’ property was being confiscated, according to Kurt. On the contrary, he said, Turkish officials alleged “the goods and their value would be administered by the state in the names of their owners” and be returned one day.
“The tension or contradiction lies here,” Kurt explained. “On the one hand, there’s a state which does not wish to be accused of usurping goods by force, and the language of abandoned property law was set accordingly. However, on the other hand, the same state wished to destroy the basis of existence of the Armenians and institutionalized an official seizure.”
This theft was codified in countless ways. Armenians were not allowed to sell their property themselves, and “although the law formally granted them the right to the value of their property, not a single step was taken to reimburse them,” said Kurt. Travel laws were written to prevent survivors from returning to Turkey to claim their property, while other regulations stated Armenians themselves had to be physically present to file a claim. The few who did manage to file claims saw them “lost in the passages or the corridors of the legal system.”
During the negotiations of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, Kurt said, the Turkish representative acknowledged that the true owners of the seized property were the Armenians, claiming it was registered in their names and being protected for them by the Turkish state.
Kurt asserts that the complete lack of arrangements for settling Armenians in the localities to which they had been deported, as well as the total absence of any discussion of how to get their property or its equivalent value back to them, demonstrate that the Turkish government’s goal was the elimination of the Armenians from their homeland.
“The Armenians, from the moment they were deported from their homes, ceased to exist, and making any sort of arrangements for a community considered non-existent was redundant,” Kurt explained.
“These absent laws are the best evidence to rebut the official Turkish state thesis concerning the Armenian deportations,” he declared.
Instead, Kurt stated, the best legal minds were convened to update the Abandoned Property Laws “to erect a barricade to prevent Armenians from entering the country and demanding their property.”
The Turkish state completed its liquidation of Armenian property “to eliminate the physical foundations of the Armenians in Anatolia,” which is why, he says, these laws are genocidal.
Still, the Abandoned Property Laws present a dilemma for Turkey today. “If it says that these properties do not belong to Armenians and will not be returned, it will have accepted that a crime was committed. It will be forced to accept the fact of their seizure because not a single cent was paid,” he explained. Under both Turkish and international law, these seizures are a crime and a clear violation of human rights.
Conversely, Kurt concluded, if Turkey accepts that the owners of the properties are Armenians, they will have to return them. This contradiction, he said, explains Turkey’s “aggressive stand” toward its history.
Moving from the Turkish to the American legal system, Edvin Minassian, an attorney and member of the Armenian Bar Association, discussed obstacles to achieving justice in court. One has to consider, for example, whether there is a cause of action or the correct jurisdiction, he said, “Otherwise, you’re not going to get justice even though you’re entitled to it.”
Minassian summarized the recent California court case in which Armenians filed suit to collect on life insurance policies issued in the Ottoman Empire. Federal courts found that California, by allowing these filings, had infringed upon “the executive’s domain in foreign affairs.”
At the Supreme Court’s request, the U.S. solicitor general produced an opinion that was also signed by the State Department; this report contained numerous false representations which Minassian listed.
“One of them was that the United States had already resolved the claims of Armenians under the very little known Lausanne II, which was between the U.S. and Turkey. That treaty is not valid law because it was never ratified by the Senate,” he said. In fact, the Senate actually rejected the treaty, a primary reason being the Wilsonian arbitration determining Armenia’s borders was not upheld. “In 1927-28, that was something still important,” he stated. The treaty also dealt with the rights of only people who were United States citizens in 1914.
Minassian said that the opinion also referenced another case that primarily concerned missionaries, not Armenians. Finally, the solicitor general argued that it was not up to California to determine whether or not there was a genocide, “even though the law as written said nothing about a genocide.” A Kurd who died in bed and had a life insurance policy could have filed a claim under this California law, said Minassian.
“Unless we Armenians as a society get together and change legislation or influence the administration . . . our courts are not available for any kind of genocide-related reparations at this point in time based on the federal government’s position,” he believes.
Expanding on the Abandoned Property Laws discussed by Kurt, Minassian said they were “incredibly sophisticated . . . because even to this day it is almost impossible to go to court and get restitution. Relocation turned into exile.”
Turkey, he added, never removed the citizenship of the individuals whose properties they seized. They did not want these people to return to Turkey “as a pure American citizen, or pure French citizen or pure British citizen,” and claim their property. Instead, they wanted to maintain jurisdiction over them, telling them you’re our citizen and we can arrest you.
Minassian concluded that as long as these Abandoned Property Laws are in force, there is an opening for lawsuits. Even if a Turkish court were to strike down each case, he stated, the plaintiff would be able to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
In the question and answer period, both Kurt and Minassian discussed the difficulty of obtaining documents from the Turkish archives. While researching in Ankara, Kurt asked unsuccessfully “14 or 15 times to get records for the liquidation commission which was established in 1915.” Minassian added that those property records are classified as top national security matters.
Samuelian stated that church properties, however, are a different matter, as there are “lots of documents and the church has them, an inventory that is well known.”
Churches that are still intact could be re-consecrated and maintained as churches, he said, while compensation could be paid for those that have been destroyed since titles to them still exist.
Significantly, church claims involve more than buildings, Samuelian pointed out. “There’s a lot of land. The largest landowner among the Armenians was the church.” The church, he declared, maintains the right to these properties under both Turkish and international law. The Turks, he said, just have to begin “acting like reasonable, law-abiding members of the community of nations, which they haven’t been.”
Closing Discussion: Where Do We Go From Here?
Moderator Dikran Kaligian, managing editor of the Armenian Review, launched the discussion by stating that the Armenians and Progressive Politics conference “is not your typical academic conference.” Although it has an academic aspect, he said, “That’s not the purpose of our conference here. And you can tell that by the panelists that we have. We have journalists, filmmakers, activists—and academics, of course—because the purpose is not just to discuss theories… but it’s actually trying to do something practical and to try to move forward.”
“In the morning we heard about some of the obstacles to justice for the Armenian cause,” including the media, government, politics, and Turkish-Armenian relations. The reparations panel “started to talk about what we can do about it—the road to justice… Reparations… is vital from a legal point of view and from the point of view of justice.” The purpose of the APP conference, he concluded, “is to create a movement that will move us forward to justice for the Armenian cause, will move us toward working with other groups, other ethnic groups, other political groups, to try to find ways to move this cause forward.”
“We live in a particularly rich and complicated landscape for activists,” said panelist Antranig Kasbarian, executive director of the Tufenkian Foundation. “Ten to 20 years ago, a conference like this probably would have been unimaginable in the diaspora, the idea of bringing together progressive Armenians and Turkish intellectuals to talk with a common frame of reference with different points of view.”
Unlike early attempts in which dialogue itself was the goal, the purpose of dialogue is looked at more critically today. “Is it dialogue that is simply seeking somehow to break a wall or is it a dialogue actually seeking justice?” he asked. “Is it a dialogue that simply seeks to avail itself of abundant funds that the U.S. State Department puts out for reconciliation initiatives or is it dialogue that really stems from an interest rooted in justice?”
Kasbarian noted that anyone can be an activist. “There is some intervention you can make in this landscape, to play a role toward justice—and not justice just for Armenians, but justice within a wider context embracing Armeno-Turkish relations.”
Carla Garapedian added that many of the people in the room are the children or grandchildren of survivors who did not have the luxury of having these conversations; their total effort was about survival.
“I feel like I’m standing on their shoulders,” she said. “I feel I have absolutely no choice given the education I was given… I have no choice but to defend the voices of the survivors and the eyewitnesses of the genocide… We cannot ignore these people, because they were murdered and a crime was committed… Justice must be done to them.”
Despite the difficulties inherent in changing current reality, Garapedian stressed, “that doesn’t mean that human agency, individuals, and ideas can’t change things. And that’s what gives me hope.” The day’s conference, she concluded, had given her inspiration.
Bilgin Ayata encouraged Armenians to create a physical presence on their lost homeland by visiting Turkey. Claiming the land and having exchanges about what is justice is very important, she said.
Intensifying and building upon Kurdish-Armenian exchanges would be particularly fruitful, she continued. The key obstacles and challenges for Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish progressives are not very different, she believes, so it is important for them to meet.
Thomas Samuelian said he fears that a “pseudo apology” will come from Turkey next April 24, and that it will cause confusion and difficulties. “If that is what comes, then we have to redouble our efforts to articulate our claims as solidly as we possibly can, [but] it will be very hard to get public attention in any way,” he predicted.
We’re not doing this just for Armenians, he emphasized. “The impunity toward genocide is the major threat to humanity . . . We have to shoulder the burden, but we don’t have to shoulder it alone. We should be reaching out to lots of others.”
“We should remember that redemption is really important for Turkey,” he pointed out. “We want Armenians to have a neighbor that is a good citizen of the world… Right now, there’s a certain unhealthy attitude towards Armenians and a fear of Armenians, and what we might demand and what we might do.”
“But you have to do something to be redeemed,” he added, other than simply admitting guilt or apologizing. Turkey must do something concrete, such as land reparations or financial compensation, in order to fulfill international obligations.
“It’s up to Armenians to encourage and help shape the solution because, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be the creativity or the interest with what no doubt looks like the petty problems of a small country in Washington, or New York, or London, or Geneva, or anywhere else. We have to shape it and we have to sell it… to persuade people that there is a way out of the Armenian Genocide predicament,” Samuelian concluded.
Following these brief remarks by the panelists, the floor was opened to the audience for questions and discussion.
Elaborating on Turkish denial, Aris Nalci told the audience that Turkish teachers’ handbooks instruct them to teach their students that Armenians worked for the Russians against the Ottomans during World War I, and that students, including Armenian pupils, should be made to write about this.
Henry Theriault pointed out that even if Turkey did recognize the Armenian Genocide next year, it could easily backtrack later as happened in Australia. In 1997, he said, the Australian government labeled as genocide the taking of Aboriginal children from their families and apologized, accepting responsibility. A subsequent, more conservative government, however, rejected the apology and went in another direction, as Turkey likely would, he said.
A Turkish student from Turkey saw hope because most demonstrators in the Gezi Park protests were under 25, so he believes the youth of Turkey are moving the country toward democracy. He also discussed the apology to Armenians made by Turkish citizens and the thousands who marched at Hrant Dink’s funeral. “So I think that all these things should tell our Armenian friends that there is hope in Turkey for change,” he said. He ended with a plea for those present to work for the release of Armenian intellectual Sevan Nisanyan, currently jailed in Turkey.
Responding to a comment about the hypocrisy of the United States recognizing Kosovo but not Nagorno-Karabagh, Dikran Kaligian observed that the United Nations charter includes both the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. The United States selectively enforces these principles based on its own interests, he said. In the case of Kosovo, a U.S. ally, America chooses to champion self-determination. With Karabagh, however, territorial integrity is given priority, as Azerbaijan and Turkey are both U.S. allies.
A high school student made the point that fighting for justice needs to be instilled in the youth “because we’re the ones who are going to have to change it in the future; but we can’t do that unless there’s some kind of seed planted there.”
George Aghjayan, who has traveled to Western Armenia numerous times, said he could not imagine a people “would no longer have a right to the land that they became a people on.”
He spoke about Armenians who have been Islamized and are still living on the land, and that we must watch how they are treated. “Islamized Armenians still have a sliver of identity after 100 years and are willing to acknowledge that sliver. That identity should be allowed to come out,” he said.
He reported that on any given day one can find over 100 people walking through Sourp Giragos, “many of them still wearing their Muslim attire.” Muslim women, he said, “are lighting candles for their Armenian grandparents.”
Also discussed were the possible dangers arising from Armenians failing to be united in their demands of Turkey, as well as the need for Armenians to cease being insular and begin forging connections and alliances with a range of other groups.
In closing the conference, Kaligian announced that people who would like to be part of continuing discussions and possible actions could join an APP email list. Those interested can send their names and email addresses to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Begun in 2006, APP conferences explore issues from a progressive perspective and have been held in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires. A project of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Eastern USA, this year’s meeting was co-sponsored by Alternative Radio and the MIT Armenian Society.
For more information on APP, including panelists’ biographies and past conferences, visit: www.armenianprogressive.com.
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