Conference: The Armenian Genocide Legacy 100 Years On

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THE HAGUE – On 5, 6 and 7 March 2015, 22 experts gathered for a conference at The Hague Institute for Global Justice to look at the legacy of the Armenian Genocide from the perspective of law, humanities, media, arts and letters, politics and education. Speakers focused on the influence that the Genocide and its denial have had on research and practice in their disciplines. The conference was organized by Alexis Demirdjian (Centennial Project Foundation), the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and the University of Southern California Institute of Armenian Studies (USC IAS).

“On the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, organizations and State agencies around the world will acknowledge, reflect and consider its impact and relevance today. Discussions will ignite in academic institutions, classrooms, around dinner tables, in community centers and church halls, in centers of government and in the press. Much of these discussions in the past have focused on the Genocide itself, leaving little space to consider its relevance today. Addressing this issue, therefore, was the contribution of this conference and of the upcoming book to be published by the end of 2015,” said Alexis Demirdjian, an attorney who has more than a decade of experience in the various criminal justice institutions located in the city of The Hague.

Salpi Ghazarian, Director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, stressed the importance of continuing to explore the consequences of the Genocide and its role in the artistic, cultural, political and psychological developments for Armenians, Turks, Kurds and others who have experienced organized state violence against its people.

The event kicked off on Thursday, March 5th as part of NIOD’s Roads to Justice series, with the screening of Suzanne Khardalian’s film Grandma’s Tattoos, dealing with a family’s exploration of their grandmother’s past and their discovery of the sexual abuse she suffered during the Armenian Genocide. The screening was followed by a talk by Professor Ronald Suny of University of Michigan and analysis by Dr. Uğur Ümit Üngor of NIOD and University of Utrecht. Viewers were impressed by the various facets of this film, including the difficulty of victims to discuss sexual violence, the taboo aspects of violence committed against family members and the difficulty to discuss such subjects.

The conference drew over 200 participants from across the globe and media coverage from four outlets including two Turkish dailies. The conference was structured into five panels according to the outline of an academic book the speakers are currently drafting; including panels on the legal, cultural, historical and educational implications of the Genocide. Each speaker has contributed a chapter on the theme presented during the conference. The book is due to be published by December 2015. Mr. Demirdjian is the editor of this book.

Following opening remarks by the organizers, Alexis Demirdjian (Centennial Project Foundation), Salpi Ghazarian (USC Institute of Armenian Studies) and Dr. Nanci Adler (NIOD) Professor Ronald Suny presented the keynote address, and established the political and historical background of why, when and how the genocide of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire happened. In the context of national self-determination challenging the existence of empires, Suny highlighted how the Genocide was the result of choices made by the Ottoman leadership, and pointed to the decisions of the Young Turk government which precipitated events leading to devastation and destruction. Professor Suny’s book “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” is published this year by Princeton University Press. Suny highlighted that aligning with Germany, deceitfully attributing the losses at the battle of Sarikamis to the Armenians and other misguided decisions were some of the key moments which led to the genocidal massacres.  The Armenian genocide was not inevitable: “men make choices,” concluded Professor Suny.

The first panel, Legal Remedies and Judicial Explanations, included 6 human rights lawyers and was moderated by Matthew Carlson, Senior Legal Officer at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals. Geoffrey Robertson QC of Doughty Street Chambers in London looked at the law and the politics of genocide recognition and genocide denial, with special focus of the United Kingdom’s avoidance of the term genocide and its shifting speech in the last 20 years, using one euphemism or another. Robertson reported how one governmental note stated that: “Our position is unethical… but given the importance of our political, strategic and commercial relations with Turkey, this is the only appropriate option”. This was followed by Susan L. Karamanian, Associate Dean of George Washington University Law School, who assessed the procedural intricacies of bringing a case between Armenia and Turkey on the International Court of Justice and highlighted that the ICJ may not be the most appropriate forum, favoring instead individual initiatives at the national or regional level seeking compensation for lost land or property. Karamanian highlighted that this does not mean that law offers nothing, but instead, it’s a reflection on the ICJ as an institution which is incapable of handling large-scale human rights violations which occurred a century ago. Different approaches, including the treatment of minorities and on property claims may be more effective. Nolwenn Guibert and Sun Kim addressed the question of recognition, restitution and compensation; they explained how the Armenian Diaspora’s demands began with requests for recognition of the events as genocide, and gradually adding on other forms of compensation such as restitution and domestic claims against insurance companies and Turkish banks. Under the “satisfaction” form of compensation, Guibert and Kim conducted a review of decisions of national and international courts which have characterized the Armenian catastrophe as genocide. Najwa Nabti looked at the much-understudied issue of sexual and gender-based violence during the Armenian Genocide; she highlighted how the abuse of girls and women during the Genocide were as widespread as they were brutal. Nabit notes that the news of these horrors suffered by Armenian women and girls “helped pave the way for future prosecutions” of sexual violence. Highlighting their experience and the striking similarities with the targeting of women during the Balkans wars of the early 1990s, Nabti reviewed the jurisprudence of international tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Nabti referred to recent judgments, including an appeals judgment in the Vlastimir Djordjevic case, whereby military and political leaders were held responsible through circumstantial evidence, where the factual basis left “no doubt that in such an environment, sexual assaults were a natural and foreseeable consequence”. Alexis Demirdjian addressed the failure of the judicial systems during armed conflicts and compared how courts operated in three separate states: the Ottoman empire during the First World War, Germany under the Nazi regime and Republika Srpska in the early 1990s. Demirdjian reviewed how discriminatory legislation was adopted, how judges were purged from the courts to be replaced with judges who implemented the leadership’s ideology, and reviewed court cases to expose how although judicial systems functioned during these conflicts, they were corrupted in order to serve political purposes.

The second panel addressed the critical issue of Armenian identity, cultural narratives and the role of the media and was moderated by Dr. Nanci Adler, Director of Research at NIOD. Anthonie Holslag looked at how the Genocide has been captured by cultural narratives. He described the Ottoman leadership’s perceived threat to the “self-concept” as it was losing grounds in the Balkans and the Arab peninsula, and the ensuing creation of an internal enemy, the Armenians. He described how an ethnic group’s identity is destroyed layer by layer as well as its visible and invisible consequences. He concluded with the present day’s discourse in Armenian Diaspora of suffering and internalization of the genocide as well as its expressions through the art of Armenian-American painter, Arshile Gorky.  Esra Elmas of Bilgi University in Istanbul argued that the media in Turkey has an observable history of capturing Armenian-related news items through a nationalistic framework. She described how the 50th anniversary of the genocide raised awareness in Turkey but that it was faced by an absolute barrage of resistance in newspapers, echoing the official State position. She explains how the arguments and excuses which emerged at the time have been used profusely since by the government and in the media. Elmas completed her presentation with the reporting of Hrant Dink’s murder, especially how the murderer was photographed holding a Turkish flag, flanked by two policemen, glorifying post facto the murderous act.  Agos editor Ferda Balançar discussed the role of the paper in creating awareness in Turkey’s public. Balançar discussed the establishment of Agos in 1996 by the late Hrant Dink who intentionally wanted it to be a place where Turks and Armenians would create, write and produce the newspaper together. Balançar stated that Agos did achieve that goal and the larger goal of giving visibility and voice to Armenians in Turkey. He noted that Hrant Dink’s importance and impact was visible by the attendance of more than 100,000 people at Dink’s funeral procession. This talk was followed by Ayda Erbal who looked at the role of the Turkish state in controlling the dialogue around decisions to demolish the Monument of Humanity in Kars (Turkey). This monument was commissioned by the Mayor of Kars as a gesture of reconciliation with Armenia.  She explained how the Armenian community was erased from the discussion both in the building and demolition of the monument, and how the intent of the architect and the politicians involved was never meant to genuinely highlight the plight of Armenians in Turkey.

The final panel on Day 1, also moderated by Dr. Adler, looked at the impact of the Genocide on media studies and literature. Dr. Lisa Siraganian looked at Atom Egoyan’s representations of the Armenian Genocide through the production of Ararat in 2002. Siraganian studies how personal and cultural symbols become meaningful by analyzing works of art. Egoyan’s earlier films had delved into violence and denial, however Ararat tackled the issue of the Armenian genocide and its denial head-on. Siraganian argues that Ararat’s primary goal was to reveal the long term and traumatic influence of the genocide, rather than documenting the genocide itself. Arshile Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother again played a central role in the film. Egoyan tackled the problem that Armenian artists and writers “grappled for years, as they searched desperately for appropriate form and medium to give voice at least to the initial catastrophe.” Egoyan was simultaneously tackling the resistance to some of the affective dispositions inculcated within the Diaspora community, as portrayed in one of the characters in the movie, young Raffi and his resistance to feelings of hatred towards one of the perpetrators depicted in the film. Dr Marie-Aude Baronian looked at the Armenian Catastrophe from the perspective of Armenian artists Mekhitar Garabedian and Garine Torossian. Her talk dealt with the articulation of memory, genocide, images and Diaspora, in analyzing it from the perspective of contemporary artists. Instead of graphically presenting the genocide, these artists explore “the relationship between memory and images”. Armenians continuously feel the need to accommodate visual evidence in order to validate their narrative of historical past.

Day 2 began with a panel focusing on denial and discourse, moderated by Dr. Richard Antaramian, Turpanjian Early Career Chair in Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California. It opened with an intensive examination by Hannibal Travis, Professor of Law at Florida International University College of Law, of counterinsurgency as a tool of genocidal intent. He applied the jurisprudence of international criminal tribunals to the documentary evidence relating to the fate of Ottoman Christians. By juxtaposing the views of historians who deny the Armenian catastrophe as a premeditated and centrally orchestrated crime, to the defenses raised before modern tribunals, Hannibal Travis countered these claims to argue that Turkish government modern arguments are contradicted by numerous documents, if anything by the utterances of Young Turk leaders at the time. Sociologist Dr Levon Chorbajian looked at the pattern of Turkish denial and the state’s changing positions on the Genocide beginning in May 1915 through the interwar period. He highlighted the Turkish government’s interference in Hollywood’s production in the 1930s of Franz Werfel’s novel The 40 Days of Musa Dagh and how the project was abandoned due to political pressure. Dr. Seyhan Bayraktar looked at the changing discourse in Turkey on the Genocide, in the context of geopolitical considerations and Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. She described the framing of the “Armenian issue” in Turkey as a matter of contemporary terrorism and the government’s training of experts to refute “Armenian allegations”. The independence of the Armenian Republic in 1991 and the recognition by several states and academic institutions created shockwaves in Turkey which has maintained its stance on the issue of the genocide.

Following this session, the speakers took part in a guided tour of the Peace Palace. This 50 minute tour was also an opportunity for the participants to visit one of the judicial institutions which had been discussed and referred to on the first day. Built and maintained by the Carnegie Foundation, the Peace Palace hosts the International Court of Justice.

Dr Uğur Ümit Üngor opened the next panel on historical perspectives on the Armenian Catastrophe, also moderated by Dr. Antaramian. Dr Üngor’s comparative presentation dealt with certain facets of the Genocide by focusing on several themes such as the perpetrators, the elimination of elites, the mass appropriation of property and the widespread killings and how they relate to other conflicts, such as the elimination of the Bengali elite in 1971, the Soviet deportations of several ethnic groups. Dr Jakub Bijak looked at theories around population losses, stressing that Genocide is not a question about numbers, but rather a question of intent. Nonetheless, he highlighted the duty of demographers to provide the data which would serve historians and lawyers to establish the facts and responsibilities as appropriate. Comparing several past projects, Dr. Bijak gave a roadmap to apply modern state of the art techniques to solve the issue of disputed numbers and reach adequate estimates of the death toll during the Genocide. Dr. Lorne Shirinian, whose paper was delivered in absentia, shared a history of the experience of orphans and the orphanage system during and after the Genocide. He discussed his father’s journey to Canada and the difficulties faced by orphans in adapting in a new environment so far from home, without their families, while attempting to preserve their Armenian roots.

The final panel on literature, education and cultural heritage was moderated by Mr. Alexis Demirdjian. The panel began with Dr Barlow Der Mugrdechian who looked at  the theme of genocide in Armenian-American Literature. He explained how the initial group of authors and poets who arrived in the United States shortly after the First World War either wrote with nostalgia for their village of origin and stories of the past, or dealt with the horrors of the Genocide. However, these writers found it difficult to discuss the Genocide in its aftermath, despite its place in Armenia-American literature. Reviewing the work of writers such as William Saroyan and Levon Surmelian, and the next generation searching for their identity such as Michael Arlen and Peter Najarian, Der Mugrdechian concludes that third generation Armenian-American authors, further removed from the genocide, still explore memories and the Genocide remains a recurrent theme.  Canadian educator Joyce Sahyouni looked at the potential of genocide education as a means by which to tackle racism, discrimination and other forms of xenophobia. As a teacher of English as a Second Language, Ms Sahyouni assigned Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus to her high school students. She provided them background information on genocide and required them to write their own graphic novel within the framework of their English language course. Ms Sahyouni displayed some of the novels produced by the students and concluded by providing some suggestions to improve and build on her experiment. Dr Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous described the concept of thanatourism (grief tourism) and his history hike project in Lebanon which takes students on the Musa Dagh (or Mount Mousa) in southern Turkey as part of an Initiatives of Change process. The project was inspired by Franz Werfel’s The 40 Days of Musa Dagh. Dr. Sensenig-Dabbous provided some of the theoretical background to his project, including the concept of “dig where you stand” in historical and memory research. He described the hikes in 2013 and 2014, and lessons learned. Finally, Dr Nanor Kebranian looked at cultural heritage and the absence of cultural destruction in the Genocide Convention. She argued that the absence of cultural destruction, at the insistence of world powers including the United States, incorporates denial, as the very legal foundations criminalizing the act are constitutively encoded to pre-emptively deny its perpetration. The reason of this exclusion was politically motivated by concerns over self-incrimination. She highlighted the recent attempts at restoring sites of ruin such as the ruined city of Ani, once the capital of Armenia and the church of Surp Giragos in Diyarbakır. Dr. Kebranian raised the question of whether these local and regional initiatives actually constitute acts of reconciliation.

All panel recordings are available on video:


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In November, the papers presented at the conference were published by Palgrave Macmillan in a book entitled The Armenian Genocide Legacy, edited by Alexis Demirdjian.