Henry Theriault: Armenia is suffering from legacy of Genocide; Armenia’s long-term security and viability depend on reparations

Nvard Chalikyan from Panorama.am has spoken with Professor Henry C. Theriault – Chair of the Philosophy Department at Worcester State University and Chair of the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group (AGRSG) about the recently published report of the Group titled Resolution with Justice: Reparations for the Armenian Genocide (Armenian and English versions of the full report are available here).

Part 1 (08 April 2015)

Dr. Theriault says that the issue of Genocide reparations is gaining greater popularity and that recognition should only be a part of broader reparations process and not an end in itself; he believes that the present-day Republic of Armenia is suffering from the legacy of Genocide and that Armenia’s long-term viability as the secure and permanent home of all Armenians depends on territorial reparations; he also explains the group’s formula for calculating the reparations package presented in the report.

Nvard Chalikyan: Dr. Theriault, there seems to be a lack of discussion on the reparations aspect of the Genocide, which the AGRSG Report addresses in detail. How much support does the issue of reparations have in general? How popular is it nowadays? 

Henry Theriault: The reparations issue has recently acquired greater importance and acceptance in general. This is true not only for the Armenian case but for many other human rights cases around the world. It is important to put the question of the Armenian Genocide in the context of a wider area called Genocide Studies where many cases are examined together. This is not just an individual group concerned about its own history but it is a much bigger issue in history that concerns everyone else in the world. I link the question of the Armenian Genocide to human rights, social justice, civil rights, and gender issues in the US and across the world. Our report is actually very applicable to other groups, as we tried to present a universal case.

While some ten years ago many Armenians did not consider reparations as a practical issue to be talked about, there has been a major shift in this direction, especially within the last five years. Now there is a tremendous interest in the Armenian community and readiness to advocate for reparations, much more than we had expected when beginning the study group’s work. The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), for instance, has changed its strategy a good deal from a focus on recognition towards emphasising reparations; many Armenian scholars have gotten involved, many studies have been conducted and books published on the subject, and in Turkey major work is now being done (by Ugur Ungor and Mehmet Polatel , for instance). 

And, the recently adopted pan-Armenian declaration by the State Commission on the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide talks about reparations, specifically “preparing . . . a file of legal claims as a point of departure in the process of restoring individual, communal and pan-Armenian rights and legitimate interests.” So there is a positive trend in this direction. 

N.C: Chapter 3 and Chapter 8 of the Report identify steps for a comprehensive reparations package, among which are recognition, apology and return of property. What is the sequence of these steps? Can reparations be considered only after recognition or should we be pushing for reparations without further delay?

H. Theriault: These points of the Report identify different key aspects, but their order is not in time. Recognition is there as part of reparations approach because we think that without recognition by the perpetrator group and others that the harm happened, there is a danger that the point of material reparations will be lost. As one of the report’s co-authors, Jermaine McCalpin, has emphasized in recent speeches, reparations is not “hush money.” On the contrary, it is only meaningful if all concerned acknowledge the injury that was done and understand how and why the reparative measures taken now promote justice. This is especially true for territorial returns.

At the same time, even though recognition and apology should be a part of the overall process, what we want to emphasize is that on their own or as an end result they are absolutely inadequate. It doesn’t help produce justice to push for recognition without pushing for reparation. Thus, we tried to reverse the usual logic – we see reparations as the most central issue which includes both material and symbolic acts, with recognition as part of reparations, but only a part. The idea of giving up a broader reparations process in favor of recognition alone is an old and a very problematic idea.

In terms of the timing, if recognition is understood as a step towards justice and reparations then it can come first, but if it is treated as the central goal then it is very dangerous to put it first.

Still, we should keep in mind that from the Republic of Turkey’s standpoint, one major reason for not recognizing the Armenian Genocide is because they fear that reparation claims will immediately follow recognition, and their primary concern I believe is reparations. We could see this clearly in the case of the Armenian-Turkish protocols. It is very telling that of the very few specific Armenian-Turkish relations issues addressed, the territorial issue, i.e., the point about confirming the border, was on the top of the Turkish agenda. It does tell us a lot about what their concerns are and shows that it is all about territorial issues ultimately. Going forward, we must be very careful to include reparations as an issue in any political discussion of the Genocide with Turkey.

N.C: By recognition do you mean recognition by Turkey, by the international community or both?

H. Theriault: Ultimately both. Many people in Turkish civil society today recognize the Genocide but it is a real question of what would get the Turkish state to do so. Historically for the most part (Australia being an exception) countries have recognized genocides or mass human rights violations only when external actors pushed them to do it. So, there is a role for the international community in pushing for recognition. What is more, the Armenian Genocide is not a Turkish-Armenian issue. Going back to the work of Raphael Lemkin in creating the concept and word “genocide,” genocide affects all of humanity and is thus the concern of all of humanity.

N.C: The Report presents specific calculations of financial, material and territorial compensations that are due to Armenians. Based on what data are these calculations made? How reasonable and realistic are they?

H. Theriault: First of all, in the Report we tried to present numbers based on historical data and on the work that was done previously, in the aftermath of the Genocide, by those with direct data on what happened in the genocidal process. We took data from the Paris Peace Conference for instance, where there was a real historical effort to catalogue the Armenian losses and to calculate a reparation package based on evidence. We also used the New York Life settlement method to get an idea of what appropriate compensation for deaths would be. By “appropriate” here I do not mean that compensation can in any way make up for the deaths, but that compensation funds can help Armenians as a group – in the Republic, Diaspora, and Turkey – with resources that can promote Armenian security, identity, and well-being, against the very significant impacts of the Genocide on Armenians today.  

In terms of territorial compensations we tried to come up with a formula based on a realistic approach to Wilsonian boundaries. Woodrow Wilson’s Arbitration Award (Ara Papian addresses this) likewise presents a detailed process which formulated the appropriate territories necessary for Armenians surviving the Genocide to reconstitute in a sustainable way the group. It must be stressed that the need issue is really important because the Republic of Armenia today is suffering from the consequences of the Genocide. We must not forget that the hardships and the limitation of resources in Armenia today are in large part a direct result of Genocide.

Of course, the issue of territorial return is very complex, and in the report we offer four possible approaches to it that include three different territorial determinations and an alternative political approach that could work with any of the territorial determinations.

As for how realistic the size of the proposed financial compensation is, it is a limited, conservative estimate of what would be appropriate. The numbers we are presenting are very reasonable and actually represent a middle point. There are certainly higher estimates that would be legitimate.

N.C: How is the present-day Republic of Armenia suffering from the consequences of the Genocide? How can reparations actually mitigate this?

H. Theriault: This is a huge topic, but I can single out two major issues. First, when Ataturk militarily conquered the bulk of the 1918 Armenian Republic’s lands and forced the remainder into the Soviet Union, that not only stunted the potential population (think about how many Armenians later left just to go to Russia, for instance) but it also created a situation where Armenia just cannot sustain a bigger population, cannot sustain the kind of agriculture that’s necessary for full independence. Thus the impact of that legacy is quite demonstrable today; but it also goes way beyond that. We must not forget that, in fact, the Wilsonian Arbitral Award gave Armenians at least partial reparations for the Genocide, but the Turkish nationalist movement that established the current Turkish Republic took the portion of the awarded lands that the 1918 Republic actually possessed away – that is, Turkey took away the reparations given to Armenians.

The second thing to stress is the way Turkey is currently a threat to Armenia. Just going back to the blockade in 1990s when Turkey was interfering with shipments of food aid from the US – it was scandalous. Turkey is also able to interfere in a significant way with Armenia today and to harm the country economically and politically, while supporting Azerbaijan is a whole other dimension. All of this is the legacy of the Genocide as well, and specifically that the Genocide is unacknowledged and unrepaired. Could Germany, for instance, treat Israel in this way?

So if we are talking about calculating the land that’s necessary, it really has to be focused on what the Armenian Republic needs in order to be permanently viable for its population and any Turkish and Diasporan Armenians that would like to resettle. Territory is not only a historical justice issue but it is also a very legitimate human rights issue for the present. My analysis of the situation has led me to conclude that the future viability of the Armenian Republic as the secure and permanent home of Armenians as an identity group depends on territorial reparations.

N.C: From your words can we conclude that the present territory of the Republic of Armenia is not viable for the long-term survival and prosperity of the Armenian people, and that the Genocide reparation is actually a question of security of Armenia and Armenians in the long run?

H. Theriault: Yes, absolutely…

Azerbaijan’s treatment of Armenians was the result of Genocide not dealt with

Part 2 (10 April 2015)

According to Prof. Theriault, the fact that Azerbaijan thought it was all right to attack Armenians and got away with it, was a direct consequence of the Armenian Genocide not dealt with properly. Among the obstacles to Genocide reparations he mentions Turkish denialism coupled with Turkish anti-Armenianism. He also notes that present-day Turkey is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire and is fully responsible for its acts.

Nvard Chalikyan: Prof. Theriault, so from your words can we conclude that the present territory of the Republic of Armenia is not viable for the long-term survival and prosperity of the Armenian people, and that the Genocide reparation is actually a question of security of Armenia and Armenians in the long run?

Dr. Henry Theriault: Yes, absolutely. I must say that I have been incredibly impressed with what Armenians in the Republic have been able to do since 1991. It’s stunning to me that there is a vibrant country there today. At the same time, for its long-term viability more territory is necessary. I do not believe there is a doubt about that, especially because Armenia has hostile countries, Turkey and Azerbaijan, on the either side, while Georgia is not a very good neighbor (think of its treatment of Armenians in Javakhk) and Iran is unpredictable. Armenia thus needs a secure, stable, and adequate territory; it’s absolutely important.  

One possibly controversial element of reparations the report puts forward is that a perpetrator state (in this case, Turkey) is actually responsible for the protection of the victim group (in this case, Armenia) until such time as the negative effects of genocide on their security have been repaired and the state is not under threat. Vulnerability is the legacy of genocide, and it is the perpetrator group’s responsibility to ensure that the vulnerability does not result in further harm to the victim group. Thus, beyond simply stopping its anti-Armenian policies or supporting military aggression against Armenians, Turkey must take responsibility and make sure that nothing happens to Armenia.

N.C: (That I believe would require a complete restructuring of Turkey’s current policies which unfortunately seems quite unlikely at this point)… And how do you think the question of Nagorno Karabakh fits within the framework of the Genocide legacy and of the Armenian question as such?

H. Theriault: The first thing to be noted is that there were clear human rights violations as well as massacres against the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan; Azerbaijan was also bombing civilian areas in Karabakh during 1990s. All this never would have happened if the Armenian Genocide had been recognized and dealt with properly. There is no way the global community would have accepted Armenians being targeted in this way by a group that proclaimed its ideological or political connection to Turkey. 

The fact that Azerbaijan even thought it was all right to treat and attack Armenians like this and was able to get away with it is a direct consequence of the Genocide not being dealt with. It has to do with impunity and also the apparent acceptability in Turkey and Azerbaijan of not only anti-Armenianism but also of seeing Armenians as legitimate targets of state violence. The Azerbaijani government takes actions that indicate that its leaders think that it is acceptable to kill Armenians.

N.C: According to many critics it is unrealistic to receive reparations (especially territorial ones) from Turkey. In your view what are the major obstacles and challenges in making the reparations package a reality? 

H. Theriault: Obviously the biggest problem is Turkish denialism coupled with Turkish anti-Armenianism. There is both a flat refusal of the history and of the obligations that it implies. The anti-Armenian demonstrations that recently took place in Turkey are likewise quite disturbing. If legitimate Armenian concerns and Genocide survivor discussions are met with a popular aggressive response, that means no good public conversation can get started, and that is another major obstacle.

Unfortunately there is also a third obstacle, which is political. There is a real resistance internationally to seeing the legitimacy of reparations and positive ways of addressing the legacies of genocide. Take Guatemala for instance – 30 years have passed after the genocide of about 200,000 Guatemalan indigenous people in 1980s; there has been a truth commission report that detailed the evidence, but the question remains unaddressed. Today’s leaders of Guatemala include some involved with the Genocide, while the victim group has no access to a reparative process; even recognition is not very clear at this point. The 2013 conviction of major perpetrator ex-President Rios Mott was overturned, in fact, and the recent second trial does not appear promising. And case after case of genocide is like that.

I think there is a presumption in our world that victim groups once they are done with have no rights and no recourse because they don’t have power, and it is really all about power. Whereas it is precisely because of the effects of genocide that victim communities are so weak. That is exactly what the international community needs to understand and change. 

Actually Armenians are in a better position relative to most groups who have experienced genocide, but what the Armenians have in terms of geopolitical and regional power and material resources is much less than what they would have had had there been no genocide and relative to the resources and power of the often oppositional Turkey that Armenia now has to engage. 

N.C: One of the arguments against reparations (that can persist even after Genocide is recognized) is that the modern Republic of Turkey is not responsible for the acts of their Ottoman ancestors. There is also an argument of the passage of time. How valid are these claims?

H. Theriault: A lot of academic work has been done on the first issue in recent years (Professor De Zayas, co-author of the Report, is a specialist on this) all of which without doubt confirm that Turkey is the continuing state or the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. Note that West Germany had responsibility for the Nazi Genocide of the Jews and others, while it was a completely different state. International law is very clear on this. 

In this regard I very much appreciate Ungur’s and Polatel’s work because they have actually identified families in Turkey whose resources came from Armenians in the Genocide, so you can trace the direct line and see exactly where their wealth came from; there is no mystery in this. 

As for the passage of time argument, 100 years is not even a large number in such cases. Native American groups in the United States to this day suffer from the consequences of the genocide, often after 200 years and more. There are many other cases like this. So this is not a good argument. If consequences of the past harm still affect the victim population today, then it doesn’t matter how much time has passed: the harm is outstanding and must be repaired.

On top of that, an absolutely critical fact is the Genocide did not end in 1918 but continued till 1923, including the burning of Smyrna and other acts. Turkish nationalist forces actually continued the Genocide in the process of creating the Turkish Republic – they prevented Armenians from returning to the places they were deported from, they killed tens of thousands of Armenians, they employed the same genocidal policies, etc. In addition, a number of major Genocide perpetrators became high-ranking figures in the Turkish Republic. It is also worth noting that Turkey continues its anti-Armenian and anti-minority policies to this day, confirming its own connection to the process of genocide that represented the major assault against Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.

N.C: Judging from your own experience, how would you say the Turks recognizing the Genocide approach the reparations issue?

H. Theriault: The process typical Turkish people would have to go through to be able to talk about reparations may be very long and complex, given that their government and educational system obviously are doing everything to prevent that. 

It is pointless to engage in dialogue unless Armenians can have equal footing with Turks

Part 3 (16 April 2015)

Nvard Chalikyan: Judging from your own experience, how would you say the Turks who recognize the Genocide approach the reparations issue?

Prof. Henry Theriault: The process typical Turkish people would have to go through to be able to talk about reparations may be very long and complex, given that their government and educational system obviously are doing everything to prevent that. But I can say I have had the good fortune in the last five years to connect with a number of Turks working on these issues and they completely understand that reparations are central for dealing with the Genocide. For instance, I just gave a talk as part of the Hrant Dink commemoration in Ankara in January 2015 and reparations were on the agenda. Even in 2010 when I was in Ankara at a big conference on Armenian Genocide held there, I was stunned by how openly many of the Turkish speakers were discussing reparations, treating it as a fundamental issue.

Of course, there are other Turks who recognize the Genocide or at least that there was harm done to Armenians in 1915, if they won’t use the correct term, and who stop there. On the one hand, I can understand. After all, just recognizing the Genocide, even without the term, can provoke negative reactions, even legal prosecution, in Turkey. At the same time, it seems that recognition of the Genocide in a true sense means not just recognizing the historical facts but their wrongness and, thus, the obligation that wrongness entails for today’s Turkey. Accepting the need for reparations is, really, part of genuine recognition of the Genocide.

While perhaps some of these Turks might say that reparations could possibly be discussed later, but doing so now will just alienate Turks, I disagree. I believe that holding back from discussing an issue in its full sense prevents progress on the issue. Martin Luther King did not spend his days as a leader asking for better segregated schools for blacks or some half-way measure like that. Even though much of white America absolutely did not want to hear that segregation should be ended completely and blacks’ full equality recognized, Dr. King made this clear again and again. This pushed whites to rethink their positions, instead of allowing people to avoid the hard issues. Similarly, average Turks need to be exposed to the issue of the Genocide in its fullest light, not some easy, reduced version that will make them feel comfortable. Serious engagement with genocide is never comfortable.

I believe there is a significant number of Turks who have an internal conflict between a genuine sense of morality – they want to do right by Armenians – and the impact of nationalist forces on their psychology and individual identity. This impact is strong, and makes it psychologically difficult to question the official version of Turkish nationalist history. As long as such individuals are presented with unchallenging approaches to the Genocide and not pushed to a level of discomfort, they can balance these conflicting psychological demands. It is pushing the issue that can help them finally tip the balance in favor of good ethical principles . . . trend that can also free them up to rethink and reconfigure Turkish identity in positive new ways. 

N. C: What percent of Turkish scholars and activists who recognize the Genocide do you think accepts that Turkey should pay reparations, and what percent of them would consider land reparations acceptable?

H. Theriault: The issue of group territorial claims is quite complicated – the percent of those who would accept group land reparations is extremely low. There is small but higher percentage for substantial material reparations, including return of individual or community properties such as churches to their owners but retention within the Turkish state. I believe that overall the number who accept material reparations is steadily increasing.

As this and my answer to the previous question suggest, there is a distinction between those scholars who are actually dealing with the issue (and use the word “genocide” in public) and those so-called “progressives” who are very soft on the issue. The latter avoid hard questions and often try to resolve their sense of what is right with not displeasing the powers that be. I’m not sure this balancing act is possible. In Turkey Baskin Oran is a good example of this. 

There seems to be a growing debate between the stronger scholars in Turkey I have worked with and so-called “progressives” who aren’t dealing responsibly with the question. As the former push the issue, there does seem to be a trend toward a real discussion in Turkey not just about acknowledging something in 1915 but how this should be done with meaning. 

N. C: Doesn’t the Turkish government use these “progressives” to control the discussion on the issue? Is there an agenda?

H. Theriault: I am not an expert on the details of the internal political dynamics of Turkey, but there is certainly an agenda on the part of the government; they are trying to play a very careful game by appearing to be open, but keeping things under control and not allowing them to get beyond a certain limit. For instance, there is another Turkish scholar, Halil Berktay, a sort of “progressive” scholar whom I have written critically about. His treatment of the Armenian issue appears to be imperialistic, even though he is supposed to be progressive, possibly even a Marxist, and all of that. It is interesting that he is becoming one of the leaders on this issue; the government seems to be working with him at some level and he seems to be an important voice in relation to the Turkish government’s efforts to deal with the Genocide. It’s obvious that they are picking that kind of scholar or activist over those whose engagement with the legacy of Genocide is more open and positive. 

N. C: In your view what risks does the Armenian-Turkish dialogue have for Armenians?  

H. Theriault: To put it in very simple terms, any dialogue initiatives have been meant to prevent frank discussion about recognition of the Genocide, let alone reparations. If that is the goal of the dialogue, then it is both pointless and insulting for Armenians to engage in it. Even some apparently well-intentioned Turks seem interested in having a dialogue simply to feel good about themselves morally; they want Armenians to like them, but they don’t want to admit what happened. 

There is another important point to note. Conflict resolution models treat dialogue between a victim group and a perpetrator group as if they were equal in power. This is incredibly dangerous. The problem is that Turkey has the power while the Armenians don’t have the power, and when they engage in a dialogue they are in a very uneven relationship. Unless there is a mechanism to give Armenians equal footing with Turks, it is pointless to engage in that kind of dialogue. I think the Republic of Armenia probably needs to do a better job of using international law and international public relations to get itself support for balancing the power issue in dealing with Turkey. 

That said, if the power imbalance and problematic agendas can be addressed, dialogue can be very productive. The Report addresses the question of dialogue by proposing the idea of Armenian Genocide Truth and Rectification Commission (AGTRC) designed to give a real alternative to a sort of false dialogue just discussed, of which perhaps the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) is the best-known example. There are many people in Turkey who understand that there is a human rights issue they need to deal with. With these people Armenians should talk on a societal level. 

That doesn’t mean that they all need to agree; they just need to have a common framework of respect for human rights and acknowledgement of the history of the Genocide to open the possibility of moving forward. The AGTRC could be the mechanism for providing opportunities for this kind of productive dialogue. We consider it, in fact, the best route toward a productive inter-group relationship with dialogue that can actually transform Turkish society away from its legacy of genocide and the various ways in which genocidal elements remain present within its institutions, social practices, etc. 

N. C: What is the role of the Republic of Armenia as a state in raising and pursuing the question of reparations internationally?  

H. Theriault: It would be very helpful if Armenia could develop legal and political cases internationally. It should of course also consolidate the support and expertise of the Diaspora in pursuing these cases – working together will create tremendous opportunities to change global public opinion. The US, Argentina, and other countries can also actually present legal cases to the ICJ or other appropriate courts, but obviously Armenia is the right state to take the lead on this. Otherwise, when Diasporans raise the issue in their countries it becomes very difficult to be taken seriously as people want to know why the Republic isn’t taking an advocacy role on this issue.

The question of whether and how to present the case in ICJ, European Court of Human Rights, or another avenue is a complicated one, as it can also backfire. For the Republic of Armenia it is now more important to pursue political advocacy. Armenia also needs to be working with other countries which are concerned about human rights issues and maintain the position that their willingness to support Armenia on this issue is an essential part of their relationship with the Republic. It is difficult to do that but it is really important. There are countries that the Republic can work with.

Henry Theriault is Professor in and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Worcester State University in the United States. He has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts. His research focuses on reparations, victim-perpetrator relations, genocide denial, genocide prevention among other topics. He has published numerous journal articles and chapters in the area of genocide studies and given many lectures worldwide. Dr. Theriault is also a founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed Genocide Studies International and co-editor of Transaction Publishers Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review.

Interview by Nvard Chalikyan

Source: Panorama.am