By Anahid M. Ugurlayan
On Dec. 9, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) participated in an historic day for the Armenian people. It marked the first United Nations (U.N.) observance of the International Day for the Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. This commemoration, which will take place every year on Dec. 9 going forward, was established pursuant to a U.N. General Assembly Resolution (69/323), passed on Sept. 11, 2015, that was sponsored by Armenia and co-sponsored by 84 nations.
Dec. 9 is not an arbitrary date—it also marks the date on which the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide went into effect 67 years ago. Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar and Polish-Jewish refugee, was the catalyst behind the convention, coining the word “genocide” after studying the horrors of the Armenian Genocide and before losing 49 members of his family during the Holocaust.
The program began with a moving performance by the U.N. Symphony Orchestra of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air.” In their welcoming remarks, Mogens Lykketoft, president of the 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, and Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the U.N., delivered a powerful message—one that was echoed by all of the speakers—that stressed the importance of honoring victims of genocide while also redoubling efforts to prevent genocide altogether by, in the words of Eliasson, “catching the tremor before the earthquake.” Indeed, the promise of “never again” has been repeatedly broken and continues to be broken around the world.
Ambassador Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, permanent representative of Armenia to the U.N., thanked the 84 nations who co-sponsored U.N. General Assembly Resolution 69/323, making this observance possible. Mnatsakanyan stressed that this day calls on all nations to remember the victims of genocide as well as the “admittance of past inaction” and “reclaiming justice.” He applauded the efforts of civil society, the media, and academia in raising awareness and knowledge of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Mnatsakanyan also noted that Dec. 9 was a “shameful reminder” that the international community cannot claim the elimination of genocide or genocidal tendencies despite the fact that there are many early warning signs in every instance, from violation of rights affecting vulnerable groups to hate speech to incitement to violence. He ended his remarks by stating, “We commemorate to prevent.”
The keynote address was delivered by Adama Dieng, U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide. He congratulated Armenia for its hard work in bringing the commemoration to fruition. Dieng stated that the seeds of genocide are being sown as we speak, citing the example of the Yazidis and other migrant groups, communities that are being destroyed simply because of their beliefs. He stressed the importance of acting now to stop genocide from being part of the present and future.
The keynote speech was followed by three panel presentations. The first, delivered by Pablo de Greiff, special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, explained that a multi-pronged approach must be adopted to prevent genocide, most notably by strengthening civil society, on which serious constraints have been placed by 60 countries as of late.
The second presentation was delivered by David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice. Specifically mentioning the Armenian Genocide, he noted that the list of genocides is long and that genocide can only end if states take responsibility for their actions and end denialist practices. Tolbert explained that transitional justice requires that truth tellers be immune from prosecution and that reparations be given as a form of redress. He stressed the importance of creating memorials to the victims of genocide and modifying curricula in schools to teach children about genocides.
Lastly, Elisa Von Joeden-Forgey, Assistant Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University, stated that there is no society that is not complicit in genocide and that there is no society that is not vulnerable to it. She explained that there are distinct patterns to genocide (e.g., targeting reproductive symbols of group life), and that education is key in preventing genocide. Remarks were also delivered by the chairs of General Assembly Regional Groups, specifically by representatives from Cyprus and Israel, both of whom echoed earlier remarks about commemorating genocide by preventing it.
The program ended with the U.N. Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Einekleine Nachtmusik.”
The timing of the International Day for the Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime at the U.N. on the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide is a powerful reminder of the commitment of Armenia and the Armenian people to genocide awareness and prevention efforts. The ARS was honored to be present on this historic day and thanks the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the U.N. for its leadership in making this commemorative day a reality. The ARS also thanks the Hovnanian School for allowing many of its students to attend the momentous event.