Special to the Armenian Weekly
The Armenian Weekly recently hosted an event, “The Universality of Translating Reparations for Mass Violence,” featuring Dr. Henry Theriault and Alejandra Patricia Karamanian.
During his remarks, Dr. Theriault made a brief yet striking statement that deserves to be echoed: Armenians are always extremely proud of the many contributions we have made to this world, he said, including architectural innovations, wine, the first shoe, and so forth. However, he added, perhaps the most important contribution we can make would be to the global reparations movement.
Understanding our pursuit of reparations for the crime of the Armenian Genocide within the framework of a much larger movement, and as an important contribution to the world in the 21st century, can help define our nation’s own understanding of what constitutes justice for genocide.
We are experiencing an important shift in our pursuit of justice, and a new narrative has been gradually taking shape over the past several years: an evolution from recognition to reparations. The work for recognition carried out by previous generations is unassailable. We owe a great deal to the movement that took us from complete silence to near global recognition. Today’s conscious move toward the pursuit of reparations builds upon the work of the vanguard who achieved recognition by dozens of countries, 48 American states, the European Parliament, the Pope… The list goes on.
Now, this progression and strategic shift needs popular support. The pursuit of territorial restoration, monetary compensation, return of stolen properties, etc., is too often scoffed at and depicted as the pipedream of Armenian nationalists.
However, the Armenian pursuit of reparations is not divorced from a global reparations movement. It plays a critical role in justice for victims of human rights violations worldwide.
I would go so far as to say the Armenian pursuit of justice through reparations is particularly important for setting the right precedent in international human rights advances, because it demonstrates that no amount of time passed should negate state—and successor-state—responsibility for the crime of genocide. Thus, there is immense contemporary significance in the pursuit of justice for an international crime committed a century ago.
Here, I can predict pragmatic readers making the argument that our responsibility now is to what remains of Armenia—the current Republic—and that we should focus on strengthening and repopulating our developing state. It’s undeniable that growth and prosperity in Armenia are critical at this juncture. However, it is a disservice to our national potential to adopt such one-dimensional narratives. Our participation in the reparations movement and the development of Armenia should not be seen as conflicting—but, rather, as complementary to one another.
Moreover, the often-heard position of needing to develop current-day Armenia before seriously thinking about the return of lands sends a clear and dangerous message to all perpetrators of genocide. It can be translated as a victim group succumbing to the consequences of genocide. It says we have come to accept the current, illegitimate, status quo and our weakened condition has convinced us that we are undeserving of what was once ours.
Such collective negligence will have generational consequences. It can—and some might argue, already has—led to a dystopian society, in which acts of unspeakable violence are carried out with impunity.
We cannot abandon a universal obligation to human rights merely because of our current weakened political and economic position. In fact, our current fragility is in large part a consequence of the genocide itself.
This fight is for everyone, and it’s time to fully embrace it. Emerging from the farthest margins of political power, the Armenian nation, alongside a growing human rights community, can demonstrate resolve against even the most determined and pernicious deniers. Our position can serve as a beacon of hope for countless victim groups.
Our people have paid with their bodies, as have the people of the Caribbean, Cambodians, African-Americans, Chileans, and many others. The fight to be compensated, impossible as it may seem, is what will mark a new era in human rights.
And this fight is not strictly confined to the realms of law and politics. Justice for genocide belongs to all. It is a cultural fight, an ethical fight, a philosophical fight. Our passionate dissent might be defeated, but it also might change the world.
The Armenian pursuit for justice has universal relevance. More than our groundbreaking inventions and centuries-long influence on global commerce, our greatest contributing to the world in this modern age can be our leading role in the global reparations movement. Our contribution, our role as the ultimate victims’ advocate, can help push the idea of restorative and reparative justice beyond its current limited boundaries. Ultimately, this undertaking serves the greater purpose of not only challenging an illegitimate post-genocidal status quo, but also helping to deter future crimes against humanity.
This fight is pure, it is un-shameful, it requires love, dignity, and courage. This fight is what will push us toward the pinnacles of human achievement, and we have the opportunity to be its leading crusader.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Henry Theriault serves as the chair of the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group (AGRSG), which was established in 2007 by four experts in different areas of reparations theory and practice. Funded initially by a grant from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the members of the AGRSG are Alfred de Zayas, Jermaine O. McCalpin, Ara Papian, and Theriault (chair). The group’s final report Resolution with Justice: Reparations for the Armenian Genocide, is available here.