Speaking the Language of the International Community

When Armenians speak of “our lands” and demand their return, the sentiment is often lost on the international community, for two main reasons: (1) We live in a world of states and statehood; and (2) the Armenians were never the only ones who lived on those lands.

Whether we like it or not, our planet is divided up into territories that have the technical term of “states.” These are not the states of the United States, but independent, sovereign states. The United States of America is a state, the Republic of Armenia is a state, and so on. The United Nations brings together the states of the world, which currently number at 193. Of course, there are disputed territories, but as far as the international community is broadly concerned, there are at present only 193 states in the world.

The international community is built around states. This concept of having a specific territory with a single government that has sovereign power over that territory is a rather modern, European idea. It was the result of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, according to which the Continent was divided up and the rulers got to have exclusive rule over their territories. One major intention back then was to have specific religions (or rather, denominations of Christianity: Catholic vs. Protestant) be defined as official, national religions, so to speak.

This concept of the “nation-state,” as it is also called, was forcibly exported by Europeans all over the world as a result of imperialism and colonialism. Today’s states are in the end all quite accidental (i.e., not inherent, natural, or essential) occurrences on the world map. It is rare to find a state that somehow has well-defined, geographically natural borders, the inhabitants of which are members of a single culture, speaking only one language, practicing only one religion, having existed as a political entity for centuries and generations, etc. All of Africa’s borders are accidental decisions that Europeans made in the 19th and 20th centuries. The same can be said for the Americas and Asia to a very large extent. Europe’s own borders shifted countless times in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, following so many wars, especially the horrific first and second “world” wars.

It is easy to be skeptical about how Euro-centric or Western-oriented the international system is today. That is likewise an accident of history, simply the case. Perhaps it will slowly shift in the future, as we see such interesting phenomena as the European Union, which is a sort of “super-state,” or the ongoing events of the Middle East and fluid borders and ideas about statehood there. (Indeed, the Ottoman Empire was not really a European-style state when it collapsed, and the fallout from that is still being felt.)

But statehood remains statehood and the international community speaks only that language. Therefore, whenever Armenians bring up “our lands,” this idea is incomprehensible for the international community. The Republic of Armenia’s territory belongs to the Republic of Armenia. No problem there. But to say that Van or Sassoun is “our Armenian land” makes no sense at the U.N. or at any other international body. There never was a modern Armenian state until the 1918 Republic of Armenia. The present 1991 Republic of Armenia cannot have any claims stretching further back in time. That’s just the way it is because there is a system of international law in place (technically “public international law”—the regulations of states). Armenia joined that system as it was in 1991 and has continued to participate in it ever since. Changing the system drastically at once is quite impossible. Maybe tactics of changing the system can be employed over time, for future purposes. But, for now, it is important for Armenians to have a clear voice within that system. That may not necessarily always be through the Republic of Armenia, but it is necessary that whatever is brought up to the international community be expressed only in the language of the international community.

Bringing up the facts of the genocide, for example, or arguing for moral or, sometimes when relevant, legal implications—especially when invoking universal concepts of human rights—makes perfect sense. But to say that such-and-such territory is “ours” does not. It is a poetic, ideological expression, irrelevant for the international community.

This applies in the case of Artsakh as well. There was no Republic of Armenia as a state when the internal borders of the Soviet Union were drawn in the 1920’s. Much later, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh broke out when there was a well-established system of international statehood and public international law. The dispute is being settled in the way things are settled by the international community: through slow negotiations, trying to avoid violence at all costs. Even in this case, to claim that “Artsakh is ours” makes no sense for the people sitting in Vienna or Geneva, Brussels or New York. The states of Armenia and Azerbaijan are discussing the issue with the mediation of the states of the United States, France, and Russia, under the auspices of an international organization, the OSCE—that is the language of the international community.

The second reason that easily drowns out any claim that any land is anyone’s land is very simple historical demographics. It is a straightforward fact that it was not only Armenians who lived in Van or Sassoun a hundred years ago or even a thousand years ago. It was not only Armenians who lived even in Yerevan or Stepanakert some 30 years ago. The current demographic situation of Armenia is a historical anomaly. Armenian nationalists may be happy with this anomaly, but then they have to share in (or at least allow) the happiness that Turkish nationalists have with regards to the demographics of the Turkish state. It is essentially the same sentiment. If nationalists agree in principle that all states must have members of only a single nation as their population, then it follows that Turkey ought to have only Turks living within it, just as Armenia ought to have only Armenians.

Of course, that argument does not hold in moral or ethical terms (in terms of human rights, as the international community would say), nor has it ever been the case in history. It is shocking to hear such views by Armenians—that they would want to return to Van or Sassoun, but Azerbaijanis are not allowed to return to wherever they lived in Artsakh or Armenia. Armenian Americans. in particular. should recognize that they are living on someone else’s historical land, too. Sure, the Armenians in the United States are legal immigrants as far as the State of the United States is concerned, but the same nationalist sentiment expressed above just as immediately applies to the case of Native Americans. History can be quite messy.

However, to claim that:

(1) there is an Armenian heritage in the territory of the Republic of Turkey today,

(2) that Armenian heritage is ignored and often willfully destroyed by the state of the Republic of Turkey,

(3) the cultural expression of the ethnic and religious minorities in general, and the Armenians in particular, are suppressed in the Republic of Turkey,

(4) the experience of the Armenian Genocide is a fact—accurately qualified as genocide, from an academic and historical perspective (even if the retroactive application of the Genocide Convention of 1948 cannot be a direct legal course of action),

(5) the continuous denial of that genocide lends itself for the state of the Republic of Turkey to carry out policies that violate human rights,

(6) and that therefore this issue must receive some sort of meaningful treatment by the Republic of Turkey

—all of these claims are absolutely in the language of the international community and should ring out loud and clear every time an Armenian voice or any other voice for justice gets the opportunity to be heard by the world.

But to say, “These are our lands. Return them to us,” really makes no sense to the ears of world leaders and key decision-makers.


Nareg Seferian
Nareg Seferian has lived, studied and worked in New Delhi, Yerevan, Santa Fe, Boston, Vienna, Istanbul and Washington, DC. His writings can be read at naregseferian.com.


  1. To argue that any approaches, entreaties, demands, etc. in international forums must use the language of those forums is common sense and good advice.

    However, this article gets three items wrong.

    1- The term “NATION-state” (emphasis mine) is not accidental. The fact that imperial interests led to the creation of states that are maximally, rather than minimally, imperfect is a reflection of the cynicism of the great powers, and cannot, ought not, be used to question the legitimacy of the concept (there may be many other arguments against it, but those are a different matter).

    2- “It is a straightforward fact that it was not only Armenians who lived in Van or Sassoun a hundred years ago or even a thousand years ago.” Really? I’m pretty sure that not much else but Armenians lived in those areas up to a 1000 years ago. The fact it was no longer the case 100 years ago is a reflection of the forced demographic changes imposed by the invaders who became the rulers. Does this injustice not need remedy? From forced conversions, to kidnappings of children, small scale ongoing murder, impoverishment leading to expatriation, and outright massacres?

    3- “even if the retroactive application of the Genocide Convention of 1948 cannot be a direct legal course of action”- It is my understanding that this very same document confirms that no statute of limitations exists for genocide, and therefore there is no question of “retroactivity”

    • {“It is a straightforward fact that it was not only Armenians who lived in Van or Sassoun a hundred years ago or even a thousand years ago.” Really?}

      Good catch Mr. Yegparian.
      Well meaning Armenian writers inadvertently giving ammunition to our enemies and adversaries. Not the first time.

      Other ethnos simply take others’ lands and blatantly call it their own.
      An Armenian writer writes “…It is a straightforward fact that it was not only Armenians who lived in Van or Sassoun a hundred years ago or even a thousand years ago.”

      What fact ?
      Is that a joke ?

  2. I completely agree with Garen Yegparian. Nation-state was imposed in the Middle East and the Caucasus by Imperialist parties and Bolsheviks following the First World War. So the boundaries of nation-states are only theoretical and is not fixed in time as history has thought us.

  3. I do have the opportunity for people to hear the Armenian Story. Upcoming TEDx, as well as Armenian History / Genocide and the current denial by Turkey, as spoken at High Schools in NJ. I read the articles on the ICC (International Criminal Court) not being “equipped” to deal with retroactive acts of Genocide, but can this not be challenged? Is this not where we as Armenians should put our collective focus? Should there not be a collective effort to challenge the ICC on this and have their ruling on “retroactive Genocide acknowledgement and punishment” over turned?

  4. There are plenty of nations denying our rights on one pretence or another, lets not add our voice to those. We tend to argue our case based on logic, fairness and legality. This gets us nowhere. World powers tell us bounderies are fixed yet they see bounderies as very fluid when it suits their purpose. We must not forget that fact that our historical lands are where we lived for centuries and had some form of our own government before others forcibly took what was ours. That does not make it theirs and time does not change facts or legal ownership. We should continuously demand our rights and remind the world comunity of the facts. If we forget or give up the world is not going to suddenly remember our rights and will conveniently deny all knowledge.

  5. {There are plenty of nations denying our rights on one pretense or another, lets not add our voice to those.}

    Well said.

    Mr. Seferian means well, but his understanding of how this world works is flawed: there is the pretense of “International laws” and such, but the reality is very different.

  6. Question: Is acquiring lands by way of genocide legal?

    Question: Should the Genocide Convention of 1948 not apply to the Holocaust because it too occurred before the convention?

    Question: Has there been a period anytime in history where borders did not change or nations did not emerge? (Kosovo, Eritrea, East Timor, former Yugoslavia, Slovakia, come to mind)

    Question: Is Ataturk’s Turkey declaring war on the first Armenia Republic of 1918-20 (then recognized by the powers) and seizing 60% of its territory (Ani, Kars, Ardahan, Artvin, Igdir, etc.) legal and acceptable?

    Question: Which Armenian organization or group went to the UN or International body and asked for “Our Lands”?

    Question: Can ordinary Armenians refer to their ancestral lands as “our land” which were brutally taken away from us? (My friend says that his family and ancestors toasted “next year in Jerusalem” for over 1000 years as a tradition not to forget their lands).

    Question: Is it a burden for anyone if I keep claim for my lands which my family owned and lived in Western Armenia? Or am I supposed to bless it away and offer an apology to the occupiers?

    Just wondering why it is such a burden for some people with incomplete understanding, want me to give up claim for my lands.

    As a side note: Genocide Acknowledgment without Accountability is hollow and meaningless – it is worse than denial.

    No amount of apology or acknowledgment will ever be sincere or enough – it is Genocide acknowledgment with accountability that matters.

    Accountability is for lands Turkey acquired by way of genocide; reparation for the wealth of Armenians acquired by way of genocide; restitution of everything Armenian destroyed by way of genocide.

  7. Does the following comply with Mr. Seferian’s “legality” and “International Language”?

    Also, are Stalin’s drawn borders legal?

    I wonder if Mr. Seferian would like Armenians in Artsakh to relinquish claims, abandon self-determination, and offer the lands to Azerbaijan with an apology!

    – The Moscow Treaty from a news article” –

    March 16, 1921 in Moscow that the Treaty on “Friendship and Brotherhood” between Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey was signed, defining the Armenian sector of the Soviet-Turkish border.

    At the moment of signing the document, the sides weren’t full entities of international law: Turkey became a member of League of Nations in 1923, Soviet Russia was not recognized at all, and the USSR gained its membership to the League only in 1934.

    Hence, the treaty-signing sides were self-proclaimed formations and the treaty signed by them could not be internationally recognized.

    Kemalist Turkey received the right banks of Akhuryan and Araks rivers together with Mount Ararat as a gift from Bolshevist Russia.

    It was then that the two states held an administrative repartition of Transcaucasian republics.

    The territory of Soviet Armenia then included Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhichevan. The next day after “sovietisation” of Armenia Pravda (Truth) newspaper (issue No 273) published a letter by Joseph Stalin, then People’s Commissar of Nationalities, starting with a greeting “Long Live Soviet
    Armenia!”. The letter specifically touched upon that issue:

    “On December 1, Soviet Azerbaijan, of its own free will, gave up the debated provinces and declared the transfer of Zangezur, Nakhichevan, and Nagorno Karabakh to Soviet Armenia.”

    The Moscow Treaty was signed only 4 months after recognizing Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhichevan as parts of Soviet Armenia. However, due to Turkey’s insistence that issue was reconsidered by the very same Moscow treaty, and, as a result, two Armenian lands were handed over to Soviet Azerbaijan by

    So, the two parties of that treaty – Russia and Turkey – made a decision on transferring into possession to a third state – Soviet Azerbaijan – lands that were inseparable parts of a fourth state – Soviet Armenia.

    Despite the fact that none of the involved sides was an entity of international law, such a method of solving issues became a precedent: two decades later Bolsheviks and Nazis used that experience when signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when two parties decided the fate of a third state –
    Poland, in accordance with their wishes.

    Until now, no adequate response has been given to the Moscow Treaty between Kemalist Turkey and Bolshevist Russia on the “modern Armenian-Turkish border”.

    USSR leaders spoke against Armenia’s efforts to return its historic lands.

    In 1953, Pravda newspaper wrote: “The Soviet Union has no territorial claims against Turkey, as governments of Armenia and Georgia, for the sake of preserving good neighborly relations and for the sake of consolidation of peace and security, thought it possible to give up on their territorial
    claims against Turkey”.

    The issue of borders was no less acute during the tenure of the next Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

    In December 1973, according to Soviet-Turkish agreement, authorized representatives of three Transcaucasian countries had to sign a point “on invariability of borders””.

    Gurgen Nalbandyan represented Armenia in Turkey. On behalf of Soviet Armenia he refused to sign that provision “on invariability of borders” despite the Soviet leadership’s pressure.

    The new phase of development in that issue started last October 10 when Armenian-Turkish protocols on establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries were signed in Zurich, according to which, Yerevan and Ankara confirmed their “bilateral and multilateral obligations to respect
    principles of equality, sovereignty, territorial integrity and stability of borders”.

    It was that point in the protocols that was unacceptable for the majority of both Diaspora Armenians spread around the world and citizens of the Republic of Armenia.

    What Turkey was trying to achieve above all was the signing of such a point of great importance: On October 10 of 2009 the Moscow Treaty signed in 1921 was to received “international recognition”.

  8. Thank You Nareg for such an important article far from bias and as someone from Azerbaijan its great to see the such view point. You are absolutely right as We (Azerbaijani Turks) have exact same problem. We want to talk about imaginative lands and forget about the future of our kids. Same happening in Turkey now under the rule of “Sultan” Erdogan.
    I believe Karabakh has a potential to be a bridge of hope between Azerbaijan & Armenia. It can flourish with its Armenian majority and Azeri minority community. It can be a real democracy with armenian & azeri parliament members. Only people in Karabakh should decide where to stay and how to decide their future. But it only should happen after all misplaced minorities returned and voted after 10 or 15 years.

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