Genocide Recognition and a Quest for Justice
In the immediate aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, most of the wretched survivors were scattered throughout the Middle East. They had no food, no shelter, and barely the clothes on their back. The first generation of survivors firmly believed that their nightmare would soon be over and that they would be able to return to their ancestral homeland in Western Armenia, from which they were so brutally uprooted.
On Aug. 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed by more than a dozen countries, including the Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Turkey, and Armenia. These countries, large and small, committed to restoring justice to the long-suffering Armenian nation. The Treaty of Sèvres recognized Armenia's independence and asked U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to fix the borders between Armenia and Turkey. Unfortunately, this treaty was never ratified; the European powers abandoned their "Little Ally."
The newly established Republic of Armenia lasted only two years before being swallowed up by the Soviet Union and Turkey. The destitute refugees, abandoned to their tragic fate, were forced to settle down in permanent exile. In those early years, their first priority was survival, fending off starvation and disease.
Gradually, they rebuilt their lives, in new homes, churches, and schools. Engaging in lobbying activities or making political demands was the last thing on their minds. Every April 24, they would commemorate the start of the Armenian Genocide by gathering in church halls and offering prayers for the souls of the 1.5 million innocent victims of what was then known as the "Meds Yeghern," or Great Calamity.
President Barack Obama, for reasons of political expediency, revived that old Armenian term in his first two annual April 24 statements, even though, for the past 60 years, ever since Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide," Armenians have referred to those mass killings as "tseghasbanoutyoun" (genocide).
The succeeding generation, particularly after 1965--the 50th anniversary of the genocide--tried to break the wall of silence surrounding the greatest tragedy that befell their nation. Tens of thousands of Armenians, in communities throughout the world, held protest marches, wrote letters to government officials, and petitioned international organizations. The Turkish government, along with the rest of the world, initially turned a deaf ear to Armenian pleas for recognition of the long-forgotten genocide. But, as media outlets, world leaders, parliaments of various countries, and international organizations began acknowledging the genocide, Turkish leaders, astonished that the crimes perpetrated by their forefathers were still making headlines after so many decades, began pumping major resources into their campaign of denial, funding foreign scholars to distort the historical facts, engaging the services of powerful lobbying firms, and applying political and economic pressure on countries acknowledging the genocide.
Since 1965, the legislatures of more than 20 countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, Russia, Poland, Argentina, and Uruguay, have recognized the genocide. Even though it is commonly assumed that the United States has not acknowledged the genocide, the U.S. House of Representatives in 1975 and 1984 adopted resolutions commemorating the Armenian Genocide. On April 22, 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued a presidential proclamation that specifically mentioned the genocide. The legislatures of 42 out of 50 U.S. states have adopted resolutions acknowledging the genocide. In fact, the U.S. government first acknowledged the genocide back in 1951, in a document submitted to the International Court of Justice, commonly known as the World Court. Furthermore, the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a report in 1985, prepared by special rapporteur Benjamin Whitaker, acknowledging that the Armenian Genocide met the UN criteria for genocide. The European Parliament also adopted a resolution in 1987, recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Hundreds of Holocaust and genocide scholars have issued joint statements confirming the facts of the genocide.
After so many acknowledgments, the Armenian Genocide has become a universally recognized historical fact. Regrettably, despite such worldwide recognition, there are still a few major countries that have not yet recognized it. Those siding with the Turkish denialist state are not doing so due to lack of evidence or conviction, but, sadly, because of political expediency, with the intent of appeasing Turkey.
Armenians no longer need to convince the world that what took place during the years 1915-23 was in fact "the first genocide of the 20th century." However, a simple acknowledgment of what took place and a mere apology would not heal the wounds and undo the consequences of the genocide. Armenians are still waiting for justice to be served with a restoration of their historic rights and the return of their confiscated lands and properties.
In recent years, lawsuits have been filed in U.S. federal courts, securing millions of dollars from New York Life and French AXA insurance companies for unpaid claims to policy-holders who perished in the genocide. Several more lawsuits are pending against other insurance companies and banks to recover funds belonging to victims of the genocide.
In 1915, a centrally planned and executed attempt was made to uproot from its ancestral homeland and decimate an entire nation, depriving the survivors of their cultural heritage, as well as homes, lands, houses of worship, and personal properties. A gross injustice was perpetrated against the Armenian people, which entitles them, as in the case of the Jewish Holocaust, to just compensation for their enormous losses.
Restitution can take many forms. As an initial step, the Republic of Turkey could place under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul-based Armenian Patriarchate all Armenian churches and religious monuments that were expropriated and converted to mosques and warehouses or outright destroyed.
In the absence of any voluntary restitution by Turkey, Armenians could resort to litigation, seeking "restorative justice." In considering legal recourse, one should be mindful of the fact that the Armenian Genocide did neither start nor end in 1915. Large-scale genocidal acts were committed starting with Sultan Abdul Hamid's massacre of 300,000 Armenians from 1894-96; the subsequent killing of 30,000 Armenians in Adana in 1909; and the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-23.
After the genocide, the Republic of Turkey continued the forced Turkification and deportation of tens of thousands of Armenians. Most of the early leaders of the Turkish Republic were high-ranking Ottoman officials who had participated in perpetrating the genocide. This unbroken succession in leadership assured the continuity of the Ottomans' anti-Armenian policies. The Republic of Turkey, as the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, could therefore be held responsible for the genocide.
An important document, recently discovered in the U.S. archives, provides irrefutable evidence that the Republic of Turkey continued to uproot and exile the remnants of Armenians well into the 1930's, motivated by purely racist reasons. This document is a "Strictly Confidential" cable, dated March 2, 1934, and sent by U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Skinner from Ankara to the U.S. Secretary of State, reporting the deportation of Armenians from "the interior of Anatolia to Istanbul."
The U.S. ambassador wrote: "It is assumed by most of the deportees that their expulsion from their homes in Anatolia is a part of the Government's program of making Anatolia a pure Turkish district. They relate that the Turkish police, in towns and villages where Armenians lived, attempted to instigate local Moslem people to drive the Armenians away. … The Armenians were told that they had to leave at once for Istanbul. They sold their possessions receiving for them ruinous prices. I have been told that cattle worth several hundred liras a head had been sold for as little as five liras a head. My informant stated that the Armenians were permitted to sell their property in order that not one of them could say that they were forced to abandon it. However, the sale under these conditions amounted to a practical abandonment."
The U.S. ambassador further reported: "The Armenians were obliged to walk from their villages to the railway and then they were shipped by train to Istanbul. … The real reason for the deportations is unknown. … It is likely, though, that their removal is simply one step in the government's avowed policy of making Anatolia purely Turkish."
In the 1920's and 1930's, thousands of Armenian survivors of the genocide were forced out of their homes in Cilicia and Western Armenia and relocated elsewhere in Turkey or neighboring countries. In the 1940's, these racist policies were followed by the Varlik Vergisi, the imposition of an exorbitant wealth tax on Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. And during the 1955 Istanbul pogroms, many Greeks, as well as some Armenians and Jews, were killed and their properties confiscated. This continuation of massacres, genocide, and deportations highlights the existence of a long-term strategy implemented by successive Turkish regimes from the 1890's to more recent times in order to solve the "Armenian Question" with finality.
Consequently, the Republic of Turkey is legally liable for its own crimes against Armenians, as well as those committed by its Ottoman predecessors. Turkey inherited the assets of the Ottoman Empire and, therefore, must have also inherited its liabilities.
In recent years, Turkish officials, ignoring the verdicts of the 1919 Turkish Military Tribunals, have claimed that the Armenian Genocide could not be considered a genocide since there was not a court verdict to that effect. That argument was taken away from them once and for all on Dec. 12, 2007, when Switzerland's Federal Tribunal, the country's Supreme Court, confirmed a lower court's conviction of Turkish Party leader Dogu Perincek for denying the Armenian Genocide. This is the first time that the highest court of any country passed such a judgment on the Armenian Genocide, setting a precedent for all future legal action on the issue.
Finally, since Armenians often refer to their three sequential demands from Turkey--recognition of the genocide; reparations for their losses; and the return of their lands--Turks have come to believe that by denying the first demand--recognition--they will be blocking the other two demands that are sure to follow. Yet, commemorative resolutions adopted by the legislative bodies of various countries and statements on the genocide made by world leaders have no force of law, and therefore no legal consequence. Armenians, Turks, and others involved in this historical, and yet contemporary, issue must realize that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, or the lack thereof, will neither enable nor deter its consideration by international legal institutions.
Once Turks realize that recognition by itself cannot and will not lead to other demands, they may no longer persist in their obsessive denial. Armenians, on the other hand, without waiting for any further recognition, can and should pursue their historic rights through legal channels, such as the International Court of Justice (where only states have jurisdiction), the European Court of Human Rights, and U.S. Federal Courts.
Justice, based on international law, must take its course.