After the US recognition of the Armenian Genocide, priorities among the Armenian youth have dramatically shifted. What exactly do we stand for now? The once noble cause of genocide recognition has been accomplished.
One of my good friends, Mischa Gureghian Hall, is a current Global Studies student at the University of California, Los Angeles and an aspiring barrister, pursuing international law and human rights.
During our time at Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School, we were involved in clubs and organizations on and off campus that revolved around political issues and advocacy, specifically those centered around the Armenian Cause. Though we both want to pursue law, our interests differ, which provides for interesting points of view when discussing Armenian issues.
Differences aside, our common ground is our desire of furthering the Armenian Cause. Please enjoy this section of a conversation between Mischa and I as we try to answer the polarizing question: what is the role of youth in the Armenian Cause?
Melody Seraydarian: As an Armenian, the suffering of the victims of the Genocide courses through our blood. Though we haven’t faced a fraction of the emotional and physical distress of our ancestors, the legacy of violence is passed down generation to generation. Unfortunately, we now live in a world where recognizing the crimes is not at the top of the to-do list. Realistically, and as sad as that sounds, it makes sense. Why would countries take the moral high ground and acknowledge their bits of the blame when ignoring is so easy? Regardless of the deep wound left in our people, salt is rubbed in it year after year. What do you think?
Mischa Gureghian-Hall: Throughout our childhoods, we’re always been told about our parents’ work in the Armenian Cause, but as most of us can attest to, that work has primarily been towards the aim of achieving US recognition of the Genocide. Our parents, and the generation before them even, worked tirelessly toward this goal; it was undeniably the central mission of Hai Tahd for the last half century.
M.S.: Agreed. However, a lot has happened since then. The US recognized the Genocide, which was a large part of our fight.
M.G.H.: Yes, this April changed that. With the Presidential recognition of the Genocide, and Congress’ recognition a year prior, that long fought for goal has been accomplished. And while this was, and frankly still is, momentous, it poses a new challenge for the younger generation of Armenian activists, namely—what now?
M.S.: I definitely think the Genocide was at the forefront of our cause mainly because it has been so many years of unacknowledged injustice. It really does affect people emotionally. Just our luck, the Armenian Genocide did occur at a time when the term “genocide” didn’t even exist in the legal world, and in effect, was left unrecognized. We owe it to our ancestors to keep at our holy fight but also realize that our problems in Armenia and even in the diaspora go above and beyond the Genocide and its recognition.
M.G.H.: What has been the goal of Hai Tahd for so long is now accomplished—this means shifting the goalposts. The Armenian youth of today will be the leaders of the Armenian Cause in 10 to 15 years, so it now falls on us to reimagine Hai Tahd; what will be our core struggle? What will be the hill we are willing to die on? Both metaphorically and in an unfortunately real sense, literally.
M.S.: The pandemic coupled with the Artsakh War showed us that we get so distracted with the big picture that we fail to recognize the smaller issues that pile up right under our noses.
M.G.H.: Exactly, and as dark as the war in Artsakh was, it opened up the eyes of Armenian students that there is more to the Armenian Cause than recognition of the Genocide. As important as that issue was, the war in Artsakh and the international response to it laid bare how empty words are, and President Biden’s refusal to cut aid to Azerbaijan shows how hollow recognition, as a statement, always has been.
M.S.: I can definitely appreciate the Biden administration for what they did, regardless of what their intentions are. I’m not sure what angle they are playing, but I choose to be cynical and prepare for the worst. The fact that we are still talking about the Genocide is proof that the gravity of it does not go away with time. We are angry, and we will only get angrier. I’m glad the US has decided to include human rights in its foreign policy. However, none of that can erase the unfathomable pain of intergenerational trauma.
M.G.H.: If you look in the history books, America has recognized the Armenian Genocide in submissions to the International Court of Justice and the UN War Crimes Commission; President Reagan in a way recognized it.
M.S.: To no avail.
M.G.H.: Did any of those recognitions make a real difference? They failed to act then, and they’re failing to act now. More than anything, I think this confirms what has been evident for a while—that our demands must go beyond the ceremonious, we must demand more than just correct diction and categorization of the Genocide
M.S.: Agreed. I think it is our job to shift the focus to building our country up. As sad as it is, no matter how loud we scream, our cries will be ignored. To the people of the world, the Genocide is a thing of the past. If this is the attitude we are facing, we should hold on to the crimes perpetrated in our hearts and minds, but instead devote our time and energy to recover from a war. International law violation after violation at the hands of the Azerbaijani forces seriously harmed our people, yet we are so hellbent on avenging a century-old war. I am, by no means saying it isn’t important because it goes beyond importance. However, our people are hurting now. Our people are struggling now. We must act now.
M.G.H.: Definitely, the issue however that bogs down most activist movements, is that complex topics, for example infrastructure, governance and economic development in Armenia, become hard to rally around. Genocide recognition was an easy calling to rally around; issues such as war crimes by Azerbaijan, on the other hand, are harder to build a campaign around.
M.S.: That is so sad to think about.
M.G.H.: Yes. I think Artsakh is a great place to focus on, though, for Armenian youth in terms of shifting the goal posts of our activism away from genocide recognition. It’s a topic that those of us who attended Armenian school have always grown up learning about and one that all of us witnessed firsthand, to varying degrees, last fall.
M.S.: That should be our sole focus, as well as the number of issues that plague our country on a daily basis, such as violence against women and children. The Artsakh War was three months of frenzy and nationalism, and it completely faltered. Why?
M.G.H.: On the point of violence against women and associated issues, I find it so sad that our people have faced so many extraterritorial problems and, to put it mildly, threats to our very existence, that we have been left no time to address domestic issues that in any other nation would be at the top of the national agenda.
M.S.: Yes, we fight small wars everyday, too.
M.G.H.: And exactly, where did that passion go? Unfortunately, it seems our people are only energized either when an issue is really easy to understand, or a threat is very immediate. In terms of Artsakh, the unfortunate truth is that we can’t accomplish what we want alone. As much as the international community has failed us, this way showed that we lack the resources and power to fight that battle—both literally and metaphorically.
M.S.: Not to mention we are maybe a third of Azerbaijan’s population.
M.S.: And our very unfortunate geopolitical location.
M.G.H.: That’s always been a struggle for us.
M.S.: What could help in your opinion?
M.G.H.: The one thing I think that could supercharge a lot of our priorities in regards to Artsakh would be some level of international legitimacy for the Artsakh government.
M.S.: I also think it has a lot to do with our government, their overestimation and their lack of transparency. There is a reason why we collectively felt betrayed when the ceasefire was signed. It was not a ceasefire. It was a capitulation. So many of our questions were left unanswered, protests left ignored, and tears left unwiped. How did we get it so wrong?
M.G.H.: We’ve also had a lack of politicians that operate in good faith. Our political establishment, at least since our independence, has been plagued by identity politics and rampant corruption. Those in government have put, and continue to put, Artsakh on the back burner. It seems it’s only NGOs that are fighting for tangible change, like the Armenian Legal Center which has brought several successful cases against Azerbaijan at the European Court of Human Rights. Do you see the Armenian government making any effort to achieve any comparable results?
M.S.: The power of the people is unparalleled, and Armenians continue to show that. On another note, in my opinion, I think domestic issues deserve equal attention, if not more.
M.G.H.: I agree in part. Domestic issues are no doubt important, but the crisis in Artsakh, in my view, deserves more attention. I don’t mean performative attention like we’ve been seeing. I mean actual tangible action towards international recognition. I’d like to see more Armenian groups working towards Congressional hearings here in the US, and comparable legislative inquiries abroad. With international recognition comes a better stage to fight from.
M.S.: That’s an interesting angle, actually. Do you have any examples?
M.G.H.: Take Palestine, for example. Early this year, a formal war crimes investigation was authorized into the situation in the Gaza Strip. Palestine is disputed, but it has received enough international recognition as a State that it not only became an observer nation at the UN, but managed to lodge successful claims for war crimes and crimes against humanity against Israel. While the developments with the Israeli case are slow moving, it’s still progress. Besides Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, you see virtually no non-Armenian groups even using the words “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity,” let alone the Prosecutor of the International Criminals Court, as you see with Palestine.
M.S.: Why is that?
M.G.H.: I think there are two real reasons. Firstly, as you mentioned before, the Armenian government has been ineffectual in tackling the issue of Artsakh. The government could take the easy first step in joining the statute of the International Criminals Court which would at least allow debate on the potential prosecution of Azerbaijani crimes. The second reason I feel is that we have focused on recognition of the Genocide to a degree that has blinded us to other, more tangible, avenues towards justice.
M.S.: At the end of the day, however, as twisted as it sounds, it’s exciting. There’s a new journey for us to fight.
M.G.H.: At the end of the day, it’s a daunting yet exciting task to spearhead the next generation of Armenian activism. The opportunities before us to make impactful and long-lasting changes which benefit both the homeland and diaspora. The upcoming priorities of the Armenian youth—be it the recognition and strengthening of Artsakh, or the tackling of issues such as women’s rights, infrastructure and corruption in Armenia, will undoubtedly usher in a new era of “baykar” amongst the Armenian people.
M.S.: Our past shortcoming is our present call to action. Now is the time to avenge our ancestors and the martyrs we lost this year. Now is the time to focus on building our country from the ground up. Now is the time to pressure the international community to choose the good instead of the convenient. The future lies in our hands, and it is up to us—the youth—to tip the scales in the right direction. Let’s get to work.
Author’s Note: This is part of a new series at Hye Key called “Thought Talk,” inspired by a form of debate used at the Junior State of America, an organization that I was a part of back in high school. A thought talk is an open discussion about an important issue and serves as a comfortable atmosphere in which everyone can articulate their ideas. I am hoping to speak with friends who have similar and dissimilar opinions regarding Armenian issues to share with Weekly readers.