“If we don’t have a reparative process soon for the Armenian Genocide, the damage to Armenia might become so great that we won’t really be talking about Armenia Republic in 50 years.”
Henry Theriault is the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), and associate vice president for academic affairs at Worcester State University.
Dr.Theriault was invited to Toronto in April 2019 by the Armenian Genocide Commemoration Committee to take part in the 104th commemoration ceremony as a keynote speaker. Despite his tight schedule, he made time for an exclusive interview with Horizon Weekly Toronto special correspondent Sarin Poladian.
Below is a transcript of our video interview with Dr.Henry Theriault.
By Sarin Poladian
June 6, 2019
– Turkey’s economy was built on the Armenian Genocide
– Time doesn’t make the impact of the genocide less; it’s quite the opposite
H.W: Dr.Theriault, your research focus is on reparations and denial of genocides, but also the prevention of the genocides. What are the recent trends in genocide studies today and the place of the Armenian Genocide studies within the field?
H.T.: One of the recent trends in genocide studies has been focusing a lot on gender, on the particular experiences of women and girls within genocide, obviously in terms of sexualizing violence, which we see again and again, and is one of the central kinds of violence that’s done in genocide. We see it with ISIS, where people actually argued that the ideology of ISIS is organized around sexual enslavement of women and girls; that’s an important topic. In my own recent research, I am actually looking at the way and which pre-existing patterns of gender violence within societies, actually somewhat train people to participate in genocide, that make it easier for them to participate in genocide as an overarching mass violence; those kinds of things like domestic and sexual violence that happen in everyday life actually have taught some people to become perpetrators and make it very easy for them to be participants in large scale genocides. But there is other work.
There has been a lot of attention on perpetrators and why perpetrators join at different levels of perpetrators, so a lot of the old scholarship was on high-level people, the most visible organizers, planners, the people who control and order genocide. We are seeing a lot of work on other levels of perpetrators and sort of the complex psychologies and situations that perpetrators come from. I would say that reparations and post-genocide victim-perpetrator relationships and justice have been present in discussions of genocide, but in recent years, they have become more and more prominent. There are other trends as well; new things are happening continually and it’s very exciting to see scholars and students really engaging genocide from all these different angles, ultimately with a goal which we all share of prevention. How do we understand genocide, so we can move forward and have effective tools to prevent genocide. I think one of the things that we are seeing is genocide not just as an aberration that happens once in a while based on particularly evil people sort of rising up in a society; it is really coming out of a lot of the dynamics that are common in our world, a lot of economic inequalities, and even things like global warming are factors in precipitating genocide. I think a lot of the work around prevention is looking at those big situations of the world to understand how that can lead to genocide. I should mention as one of the trends, there is a lot of recent work now on things like climate change and how that has affected different groups. Sudan is a really good example, where the expanding desert has made farmland less available for obvious reasons and at the same time, the populations have been increasing so that has created tension; for instance, Darfur had a role in the genocide that has happened there.
H.W: Scholars say denial is the last stage of the crime of genocide, and Turkey has engaged in a proactive policy of denial. Do you think we’ll witness Turkey’s recognition in our lifetime? Does Turkish acknowledgment really matter in terms of reparations?
H.T.: First I have to say, I don’t think denial is actually the final stage of genocide, that’s one of those truisms that’s not very accurate. Denial is really something that’s present at every period that the genocide is happening after genocide happens, and it’s really a tool and not so much a stage. And the question is it always has a goal, so people don’t deny just to deny, they deny for particular reasons. What I call the final stage of genocide is a consolidation phase. That’s when you take the results of the genocide, and try to make it solid so they can never be changed; for instance, you run everywhere from changing place names so that the victim group is erased. You see this in Turkey around traditional Armenian areas, where the names have been completely eradicated. You see this in North America with indigenous people and again there is resistance to that. We see in other places as well, but it can be much deeper. When you talk about changing land that was historically a group’s land, and make it so that is not even conceived anymore, that it could be their land; material gains that are taken and made permanent for the perpetrator group and other kinds of things.
There is a process of consolidation and denial that is really important for that. As long as you can deny that a genocide happened, people don’t question why you are trying to impose on a world a certain set of arrangements. Why, for instance, land used to be Native Americans’ land? That’s not even a question anymore, because history has denied it and people don’t question it anymore. This has always been US land; we don’t think about the past at all. I think with the Armenian case, in particular, Turkey is very much in a phase of consolidation. The goal was to get through 2015, the 100th anniversary, and then to begin pushing hard on denial. The denials that are coming out of Turkey, I mean the standard denial of 2015, but it wasn’t a huge fight in the same way that maybe in the past it would have been, but we’ve seen since then very strong denials. In fact, Erdogan’s recent statements in the past week have been very old school denial; accusing Armenians of genocide, and all these arguments from 20-30-40 years ago are coming back. I think what Turkey is hoping right now is that by pushing very hard in an aftermath of 2015; thinking that Armenians, sort of, have got 100 anniversary behind us, so we are moving on, and there is political support for Armenia around the world and that will allow them to sort of just freeze the benefits of genocide (the land taken, the wealth, the political control that Turkey has on the region and the marginality of Armenia). They will be able to consolidate finally, and then once that happens, there is no repair possible and the genocide will become a dead issue, an issue that cannot be political again. We’ve seen this with other groups and it’s a real danger for Armenians. Will Turkey change? I think maybe 6-7 years ago, based on the fact that I have connections to many progressive Turks, I was very optimistic that there was a chance that the democratization of Turkey would get to a point where there could be a general discussion of the Armenian Genocide and some kind of acknowledgment and reparative process.
Some progressive Turks were pushing for that. We started to see protests and demonstrations in Turkey with tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands of people, so I thought there was a chance. I think with Erdogan sort of backlashes against democracy in Turkey, that possibility has been surpassed dramatically. He is jailing the kinds of people who are leading that kind of movement and is very clearly reverting back, not just to a strong Armenian Genocide denial position but also very repressive Turkish government against not just Armenians, but Kurds, Turks, and others within Turkey. I think, unless something dramatic happens with Erdogan, unless he is pushed from power, which we know can happen, unless there is an opening of Turkey’s democratization, we may again be a decade away from even having serious discussions about recognition of the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s real first chance of engaging that history in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, it’s not a positive message at this point but I think that’s what we are at.
H.W: You studied the issue of reparation in the context of the Armenian Genocide, and you chaired the Armenian Genocide reparations study group and was the lead author of its final report: “Resolution with Justice – Reparations for the Armenian Genocide”. Will you present the key points of this report?
H.T.: I think the key point, from a legal standpoint, is while reparations need to be identified as reparations for the genocide not just pay off blood money, money to silence Armenians about the genocide; It needs to be recognised that whatever happens, it’s because of genocide. I think one of the denialist points has been that the Armenian Genocide happened before the genocide convention; therefore, there are no laws that apply to it, and talking about even recognition, let alone reparation is irrelevant. One of the co-authors of the report, Alfred de Zayas, really shows that if you look at the international law even at the time of the Armenian Genocide, genocide was illegal, and the concept “genocide” that comes later is a word that applies to what those laws were outlying in 1915. What’s more, if you look at the law that reparation is also legally required for mass violations of human rights and again, we didn’t have the term genocide in 1915, but we now know what the concept was. When Raphael Lemkin developed the term, he was looking at the Armenian Genocide and saying there is no word for what happened, we need a word for it and he was looking for other cases as well. I think that’s one important finding that the laws of the time and the legal framework we now have absolutely support justice, not just recognition but a real meaningful justice to the Armenian Genocide. So that’s one point.
Another important point is that time doesn’t make the impact of the genocide less; it’s quite the opposite. In fact, the longer that recognition for the genocide is delayed, the more the impact is felt for Armenians. I’ve pointed out in other work that understanding emigration from Armenia over the past 25 years, in part you need to really look at the genocide history not just the genocide in terms of the demographic reduction, the trauma and so forth, but the economic impact of the genocide, which I think Armenians are still feeling it dramatically. Yes, there was sovietisation. Yes, there was post-soviet corruption, war factor, and emigration. But the key result of the genocide among others was the taking of land and also taking almost all the wealth of Armenians. Armenians were left quite literally with nothing, so in the first republic, and then subsequently Armenians have had to try to rebuild based on this incredibly weak resource pool. I said today in my remarks earlier, that if you really look at Armenia today, it doesn’t have the land it needs to feed its people, to feed a full population of Armenia. That’s one example of how important reparations are, and the kind of thing we try to argue in our report. As time has passed, these issues have gotten more and more acute. In the same way, Turkey has benefited more and more from the genocide: the money, the resources, the businesses, and so forth, that took 100 years ago. It has been able to build on and it has built a robust economy, its entire economy.
Many experts, scholars, and activists in Turkey have said the republican economy was built on the Armenian Genocide, and we are seeing how that’s grown. At the same time, we see how poor Armenia is as a state because of this legacy, so that’s the idea of time passage has the opposite effect from what we expect, makes things worse, and that leads me to the third big point that is, Armenia today is vulnerable because of the genocide. It’s small as a country; it’s landlocked. If you go more broadly than that, Armenia’s identity itself takes incredible work to continue to just make as a minimum level of identity compared to groups that haven’t experienced genocide that are larger; they can just assume their language, culture, religious institutions, and continue on without any effort. On the contrary, Armenians have to make a tremendous effort just to keep a bare minimum.
I am of Armenian descent and I speak very little Armenian and that’s a function of having grown up in the US, in a place where there weren’t other Armenians, where my grandparents had to go to find work. We didn’t have the option of having the connection with Armenians. That’s just one example of how even Armenia’s identity over time has been really stressed. Armenia is very vulnerable. Reparations are crucial, so we can stop having to spend our efforts fighting denial. The land is necessary for the Republic. I think Turkey is obligated to make the kinds of support, to make sure there’s vibrant Armenian culture around the world. Turkey owes that. Artsakh shouldn’t be worried about an invasion by Azerbaijan, and Armenia shouldn’t be worried about military actions by Azerbaijan. Turkey should be the one guaranteeing Armenians protection. That is the kind of obligation that they have. I am very worried that, if we don’t have a reparative process soon, the damage to Armenia might become so great that we won’t really be talking about the Armenia Republic in 50 years, that Armenia’s identity will become so fragmented, so weakened, that it will go the way of a lot of other groups. Unfortunately, there are typical situations over 100 years after genocide; populations fade out of existence; that’s why I am personally very committed to this. The only other part that I would add is we offered a model for transitional justice that would include Turkey, and it would actually be about changing Turkey, tapping those good people in Turkey, who want to acknowledge the past, give reparations and want to have good relationships with Armenia as a state but also Armenians within and outside of Turkey. Things that are really possible with the right kind of Turkey, post-Erdogan Turkey, a chance of having truth commission that involves Armenians, Turks and others. The starting point should be that the genocide happened, that’s not in question, and try to understand what to do about it today and I think there’s a potential to involve Turks in that.
H.W: In April 2019, it was the 104th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. From a researcher’s perspective, why is it important not to forget the past genocide? How can it affect our future, in terms of preventions of genocides?
H.T.: This is a question we can probably spend a few hours discussing, but it’s really an important one. I would say in simple terms, one of the worst messages that can be sent by the world community about genocide is if you commit it, then deny it, then wait, and eventually, there will be no consequences. That is the key message of the Armenian Genocide. it’s not a message of the Holocaust, and I would say that wasn’t the message even in the case of Rwanda, but Armenia is probably the third biggest 20th century genocide that’s generally discussed. Not allowing that to be the message and to challenge that even 104 years later to not allow that to happen again. I think it’s crucial. Obviously, we can have criminal prosecutions, but the perpetrators are long dead, but we can do these other things that are important. Another point that the Armenian Genocide is part of the history of genocide, and I don’t advocate just looking at the Armenian Genocide at all, but it needs to have its place in this horrific 19th and 20th century that we have and now in the 21st century history. It’s really important to have a place in the discussion of genocide, which itself needs to have much more of a role in our understanding of contemporary and even modern human history. So, I think that’s crucial, and there are a lot of lessons that each case of genocide can teach us. If we don’t see the history of genocide, we would treat genocide as a once in a while aberration, rather than something that keeps happening.
By understanding the Armenian case and other cases as part of this continuum, we can start to take genocide more and more seriously, and hopefully, that will spur us to understand. We have to take action on a daily basis to stop genocide and to change the way the world works, so it doesn’t produce genocide whether it’s today’s ISIS, two days ago it was the Rohingya in Burma, so we can start dealing with the problem as a whole. Understanding the Armenian Genocide has an important role to play in that. Because the Armenian Genocide is such a reference case of the genocide, it’s one of the most known genocides among scholars of genocide after the Holocaust. When people write articles about other genocides, they use the Armenian case as a reference point, as a point that everyone knows it happened and understands and then they can use the frameworks to talk about the Armenian Genocide. It’s important to recognise the Armenian Genocide has a role not just in genocide studies but also for victims, in being this kind of case that people can relate to. In fact, in the aftermath of the Rwanda Genocide, a social psychologist began doing programs to help address the trauma of victims with Rwanda Genocide. One of the things they did was educating those people about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, so they realize what happened to them was not only to them, that other groups had experienced it and to try even connect survivors of the past genocides with the survivors of Rwanda, so they would have that connection they are not alone. It’s had very powerful results. This is another important reason to keep the focus on the Armenian Genocide still fresh even after 104 years later.