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.