Entering the Reparations Phase: Who is leading?

Posted on April. 29. 2021

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly

Regardless of whether President Biden honors his commitment to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, the battle for recognition has clearly swung in favor of the truth. As the nation count increases, the defiant Turks are slowly moving into an isolated corner. Virtually no one, except the Turks, Azeris and a few bought off “scholars,” challenges the veracity of the Genocide. Take a moment to absorb the gravity and importance of that body of work. It wasn’t that long ago that American and European politicians would question what happened from 1915 to 1923. Thankfully, those days are a part of our painful past. The entire matter has been reduced to use the term “genocide”—a portent term that enables punishment as the result of a crime. This is a political issue and not an historical one. The Turkish coverup has been exposed as very few are buying their lies. It is a remarkable accomplishment that has resulted in a significant change in the landscape. Even in the United States where the federal Executive Branch has danced around the issue for years (atrocity, massacre and horrific have been some of the descriptors), our advocacy has delivered recognition in 49 of 50 states and completed a coup in 2019 with both houses of Congress overwhelmingly saying, “Yes, it was genocide.” In a fitting irony of the despicable Turkish policy of extermination and expulsion, the children of the survivors scattered around the globe, rebuilt their identity and worked to gain genocide recognition in their host countries. The seeds that were scattered with the intent to die, blossomed and have not forgotten the cause of justice. Around the globe, new generations will continue to speak for those who were silenced.

It is the belief of many that a critical mass of support has emerged that will ensure eventual universal recognition. Yes, it will take time, and we must remain vigilant, but the trend is clear. That raises the question. Is that it? Are you satisfied that justice has been served because the truth is endorsed? The majority of Armenians feel that reparations from Turkey is what equates to justice. The recognition process is an enabler…a means to an end. It is also true that perhaps a plurality of that group has invested the time to gain a comprehensive understanding of the reparations process. Many have what we would characterize an “intellectual” understanding which remains at the conceptual level. We all have a responsibility to self-educate. From a broader context, we are entering the reparations phase in our journey for justice. It is imperative that all Armenians invest in being well-versed on this topic.

Dr. Theriault chaired the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group that in March 2015 published its final report, “Resolution with Justice: Reparations for the Armenian Genocide.”

In 2015, Dr. Henry Theriault of Worcester State University and the current president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars chaired a reparations study group that published the results of their findings called “Resolution with Justice.” It is an excellent guide on the history, legal aspects and options for reparations. I encourage all to read its content to become informed participants. The relationship between recognition of the Armenian Genocide and reparations assumes that as the number of nations accept this historical fact, it will either force Turkey to admit its responsibility or create an environment where it will be generally accepted by all. Most legal scholars consider the Republic of Turkey to be the successor or continuation state of the Ottoman Empire. This is not simply based on the government successor status from the Sultan to Kemal Ataturk, but also a continuation by the Kemalists of the violent, discriminatory and racist policies of the previous regime. Many Armenians lament the belief that Turkey will never admit to the Genocide, but are under the mistaken impression that an admission of guilt is required for a reparations case to proceed. Obviously, the easiest path for the Armenians is for Turkey to come to terms with its responsibility and since genocide is a punishable crime, a reparations agreement is formulated. Given the modest probability of that happening in the near term, there are other options for the Armenians to pursue. The critical factor is to build a solid legal case, and with each nation recognizing the Genocide and the continuation of a vast scholarly foundation, our probability of success inches forward. There are no statutes of limitations on the crime of genocide. Proving that the Armenian experience applies to the definition according to the 1948 UN Convention may be obvious to Armenians, but it is a significant legal hurdle. There have been those who argue against its applicability since the term was not yet defined, and the international convention came some 25 years later. This is the core of the importance of nations recognizing the genocide from a legal standpoint since we are building a case of applicability.

Thus far in the struggle for justice, the diaspora has driven the campaign. This is not surprising since the diaspora is a byproduct of the Genocide, and Armenia was not a sovereign state for many years. Starting with the great “reawakening” in 1965 with Uruguay, there has been a 50-year campaign in host nations where Armenians settled to lobby for recognition. The reparations process has been primarily limited to lawsuits involving family losses and insurance claims. There has been some success, but it has been focused on individual or group claims and not on collective, communal or national losses. In 2015, the Great House of Cilicia filed a suit against the government of Turkey to recover the confiscated seat of the Holy See in Sis, Cilicia (currently named Kozan in Turkey). It was rejected in Turkish lower courts and then rejected by the European Court of Human Rights based on not exhausting the Turkish court systems. A hearing will take place in Turkey next month as the lawsuit will be resubmitted to the Turkish courts.

In the Diaspora’s battle for recognition, two major changes have occurred over the last 30 years: the success of the recognition phase and the emergence of the Republic of Armenia. This poses several challenges to our nation in order to effectively manage the reparations phase. The diaspora has been able to successfully advocate because it is a decentralized process by definition. That is, each national community advocates for their place of residence. This has kept the responsibilities and organizational approach clear with very little overlap and confusion. The reparations phase will be a new and more complex encounter. The pursuit of reparations will be more expensive and require a funding process that will support the requirements of multiple and protracted legal battles. Investing in a legal arm with our advocacy organizations would be a prudent measure to ensure its timely maturation. One of the significant challenges is an internal relationship matter. The Republic of Armenia is recognized as the sovereign and legitimate voice of the Armenian people. In the hall of nations and international relations, it is the RoA that speaks for Armenia. This has not been an issue in the recognition phase because the process has not required international litigation and has been primarily confined to political, not legal, processes. The question of the readiness of Armenia to take on this opportunity given the state of the nation and the geopolitical environment is real and urgent. Would the RoA ever consider abrogating the Treaty of Kars and make territorial claims on Turkey for the crime of genocide? Would they avoid this tension and simply pursue the matter through the courts? Perhaps they would be against the entire matter because of pressure from Russia or fear of military responses? It would seem awkward and dysfunctional for the diaspora to pursue this matter unilaterally unless it was delegated to them by the RoA. Then, of course, there is the matter of what the diaspora is as an entity other than the aggregation of organizations and individual communities with significant cultural differences.

Preparing for the reparations phase will require major changes in our funding activity and the relationship between the diaspora and Armenia. It is quite possible that the diaspora may continue to the center of passion for reparations while the citizens of Armenia may be more concerned about economic survival and national security. In the next 10 years, this issue, in that scenario, has the potential to create different perspectives between Armenia and the diaspora. This is why it is essential to address this matter now and not wait for the fallout or for a missed opportunity. I would suggest that the Diaspora High Commissioner of the Republic of Armenia Zareh Sinanyan facilitate dialogue on this strategic issue. It may take several years to establish the appropriate infrastructure for a sustainable campaign. Armenians have spoken for decades about “reparations” being the closure point for justice. This process begins with an internal discussion that defines the parties and what we are demanding. An international reparations study group with participants from the Armenian government and diaspora should be created using the 2015 report led by Dr. Theriault as a guide. 

Soon we will attain de facto world recognition of the Armenian Genocide, regardless of whether Turkey takes responsibility or not. Then what? If it is truly justice we desire, then we must begin building the foundation of the next phrase. That starts with a frank discussion between representatives of the diaspora and Armenia. The diaspora is organized geographically and organizationally. There are some international groups, such as the AGBU and ANC, that transcend geography and reduce the complexity of diaspora representation. Other groups may be focused on one continent but are major contributors to the pursuit of justice. The representation of the Russian diaspora, which is large but is not well integrated with the other traditional diaspora locations, will be the most complex to include. The diaspora must become easier to define and communicate with the RoA on matters such as reparations and long-term issues of national importance. There are many options that will result in improving our ability, but all will lead to a better understanding of how the greater Armenian nation will approach the reparations phase to ensure “Resolution With Justice.” Let’s take those foundational steps!

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