Justice Denied Enables Repetition

AYF protest, Harvard Square, April 23, 2019 (Photo: Knar Bedian)

It’s pretty common for us to hear, “It’s been over 100 years and three generations ago. Let it go. Time to move on. Besides, you have Armenia to focus on.” We have all heard it, perhaps even from a fellow Armenian weary of this decades-long struggle for justice. The nuances bring out an important point. What is justice? For some, our survival is justice. Simply the fact that the complete annihilation failed is an accomplishment. For others, perhaps the majority, justice is connected to recognition. The humiliation and frustration of a crime not acknowledged, in theory, are alleviated with public acknowledgement. The assumption is that the more countries formally recognize the Genocide, more books will be written, more of the population will be educated and, of course, Turkey will be pressured to admit its responsibility. I can appreciate the sincere thinking behind both paths. The question becomes: what will bring closure for our people?

There is some truth to the notion of our abundant focus on the genocide. We have become a “genocide-centric” society. The emergence of the Republic of Armenia has provided some needed balance, but in the diaspora, the Armenian Genocide is a common thread. Why? The obvious answer is that most of us are descendants of the survivors who were violently expelled from their native land. If we are prepared to explore the issue deeper, we may find that the absence of justice prevents closure. It energizes our devotion to finding solutions. Only then will the dark cloud of a “victim people” be lifted. This is becoming increasingly controversial as Armenia and Artsakh consume more of our resources. But is Artsakh any different than the genocide? After all, the defense and liberation of Artsakh was to prevent a second genocide. The pan-Turkic mentality that fueled the genocide was nurtured during the ensuing times as Turkey attempted to assimilate Kurds and Azerbaijan set out to extinguish Armenians from historic Artsakh.

So back to the original question: if justice is currently denied, how do we define justice? In its simplest form, the responsible party must be held legally accountable for the crime of genocide. Territorial and financial compensation are two of the most common forms of reparations for the loss of life, of the ancestral homeland and personal/communal property. The reparations are not just for the injured party. Until the perpetrator compensates the victim, they feel little motivation to truly reform. War crimes are usually associated with regime change as in Germany, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. This “cleaning the leadership slate” affords that society the opportunity to make amends (reparations) and to embark on a new path. Armenians and Turks were denied this opportunity as the decisions of the war crimes trials after World War I were never implemented. The result was that the Turks launched a comprehensive campaign of coverup, re-education and propaganda to avoid responsibility. They also continued oppressive policies toward non-Turkish minorities despite the Treaty of Lausanne. Clearly the lack of accountability has created a “we answer to no one” mentality, enabling atrocities such as Dersim 1937, Greeks in 1955, Cyprus in 1974 and others.

Justice is closure for the Armenian people, but it’s also the most effective deterrent to prevent repeating those crimes. In the absence of justice, they are free to continue their rampage of violence. Is it any wonder we are here in Syria in 2019? Turkey bullies the Greeks over the Aegean Islands, occupies northern Cyprus for 45 years, sets its sights on Syria as “Ottoman” territory and jails thousands of its own citizens. Let’s not forget that the estimated three million victims of the Armenian, Pontic Greek, Western Greek and Assyrian Genocide were CITIZENS of Ottoman Turkey. The same goes for Dersim and the Greek attacks in 1955. There is a long repetitive pattern of horrific crimes that started with not being held accountable over 100 years ago. It becomes part of the mentality and leads us to today.

If we abandon the cause of true justice, then we are sending a message that time will dissolve the crime.

We should never accept the “argument” that it was a different government or different times. The thread of continuity is clear and horrific. Justice denied encourages repeat activity. If we abandon the cause of true justice, then we are sending a message that time will dissolve the crime. It is not just for our cause, but for the prevention of the next victim.

Turkey hides behind its duplicitous NATO membership and labels anyone that opposes them domestically or elsewhere a “terrorist.” Naturally, that gets an uninformed party’s attention, but offering transit routes to ISIS early on and using terrorists now as their “allies” in the Kurdish onslaught cannot be misinterpreted. We know the truth because we are victims of this mentality and others are victims. There have been no implications for their violence. 

This matter in Syria is an opportunity to examine our position on these issues. One hundred years of justice have been denied because of ambivalence, self-interest and geo-political alliances. Artsakh also offers us an opportunity for a fresh perspective. Despite the incredible evidence of atrocities, cultural genocide and political oppression by Azerbaijan, the powers would have Artsakh “return” the liberated territories thus rendering it indefensible and dependent on foreign “peacekeepers.” At the end of the day, it is our responsibility to defend our God-given rights, in times of war, peace and fragility. Do we really think anyone will care if we capitulate on the path to justice for the Armenian Genocide? Many would probably be relieved that they don’t have to deal with these seemingly small and “old” Armenian issues. Political friendships are volatile and are all about self-interest. We need to think more in those terms. We are witnessing just how volatile it can be. Who can make sense of the “sides” in the Syrian conflict? It changes as the proxy dynamics change. Two things, however, are constant: innocent people are dying at the hands of “self-interest,” and Turkey continues to be a violent bully.

At face value, focusing on self-interest may seem in conflict with reaching out to others. Let me briefly address that. If we view compassion for others as a human responsibility, then it is in our interests. We must also keep in mind the value of goodwill, friendships and alliances that can form through self-interest. For example, the Aurora Prize was created four years ago as a gift from the Armenian people (through the benefactors) to those in our world who have been devoted to saving lives in the face of adversity. It has succeeded, in my view, in creating a new perspective or image in our nation. While remembering our misfortune, we recognize the good in others.

This concept elevates our image beyond a victim mentality to adding value for the benefit of humanity. This increasingly high profile event has earned Armenia a new place in the world community, and that’s the point. While doing something good for the cause of humanity, we can also see the benefit to self-interest. Friendships, collaboration, respect and a new level of visibility on our reality are just a few of the “benefits” the Armenians receive. Giving to others is good. It can be the best way to receive.

repetition is enabled when accountability is absent.

What I have learned is that there are many ways to contribute to the cause of justice. All of them start with the courage to be heard. Turkey is a classic example of the notion that repetition is enabled when accountability is absent. Prevention and justice for the Armenians (and others) can and must be pursued in parallel. They complement each other as justice denied is connected to repetitive patterns. If Turkey had been held accountable for its crimes, it may have become a different society. The shame of the Nazi regime and the aftermath has greatly effected the psyche of the German people to this day. For most people, it shakes their core as to how this could have happened. This is the best remedy for prevention. In Turkey, the opposite occurred. Kemal Attaturk was perceived as a heroic liberator despite the atrocities committed against the indigenous Christian communities. It augmented the Young Turks’ crimes and sealed their fate to establish a web of denial and repeat atrocities. Why? Because it was convenient for many to forget, not to get involved, to ignore reality. And so it continued…

In 2019, with many genocides and atrocities in modern human history, we are witnessing yet another with our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. No blackouts or delays. Everyday, we see that horror, and the crime will go unpunished unless the civilized world puts humanity in its definition of self-interest. Perhaps the chances are small, but the voices of those who have been victimized must  speak. Let’s not have silence on our conscience as we seek to prevent these tragedies. The Kurds, the Yazidis, the Christian communities, those victimized in Africa—all those at risk are worthy of our voices. 

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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