BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, though in this case, it’s probably a journey of a thousand parsecs. This journey is the one that will get reparations due us from Turkey and our occupied lands returned. It’s going to be a long tough effort, and seemingly impossible, but the re-independence of Armenia following the collapse of the Soviet Union is the perfect example of what can happen.
That example was just one of many arguments presented on the diplomatic, ethical, legal, philosophical, political, and practical aspects of this struggle presented at a conference titled “The Law, Ethics, and Politics of Making Amends: The Armenian Genocide and the Reparations Movement” held on October 23 at UCLA. No doubt you’ll have read the news reports on this which drew somewhere between 150 and 200 individuals to its four panels of experts.
One of the most interesting ideas presented at the conference was that our struggle for reparations from Turkey could be seen in the context of the “truth commissions” established in over 30 countries to address troubling, difficult, and divisive aspects of their history as they move forward in developing their democracy. Course in our case, it wouldn’t be one country, but two— Armenia and Turkey. The most obvious benefit of this is that we would have the experience of others to draw from.
Of course it won’t be easy since even the most “advanced” segment of Turkish society doesn’t “get it”, as pointed out by one of the panelists. While intellectuals and others have made great progress, the bulk of Turkish society and government has not. Even those who are leading the charge to do the right thing in Turkey, are still doing so, I’d argue quite understandably, from a Turkish perspective and sensibility. But these are the people we’ve engaged, so far, to any degree. I suspect it’ll be another generation before they understand it’s not all about them.
Meanwhile, the legal case and undergirding of our demands must be formulated and developed. Precious few are working on or speaking to this aspect, though we were fortunate enough to hear about some of the basics. What’s more important is that this conference was addressing the legal (and other) issues in the context of seeking reparations. Some of these issues were addressed at a conference, “International Law and the Armenian Genocide: Recognition, Responsibility and Restitution” three years ago that was also a milestone, but this time, there was much more explicitly a sense of purpose rather than a more detached, academic endeavor. I like this progress, especially since the first panel was composed of the very same people who are preparing a report titled “Resolutions with Justice: Reparations for the Armenian Genocide”.
Part of the legal case, or support for it, will have to be a tabulation of what we’ve lost, be that people or property. The demographic angle was also addressed during the conference through examples of existing population data and the social/religious infrastructure of the Armenian Church, though not so much the property. Interestingly, Taner Akcam has done important work in identifying, from Ottoman archives, Armenian property losses.
How and where, i.e. in what forum, to pursue these legal remedies is another issue. And the example of the Holocaust reparations movement, largely though American courts, was described and could be used as a model for our needs. But first, the laws necessary to this must be passed in the Congress and perhaps even by the states. Then, the fairly unique nature of the American legal system would enable the pursuit of restorative justice.
This concept, restorative justice, is the crux of it all, and a good way to explain to our non-Armenian neighbors what all the fuss is about. The parallel between our case and that of Toyota’s malfunctioning braking systems should be drawn. People have been injured and died because those braking systems malfunctioned, something that is Toyota’s responsibility to prevent, fix, or make amends for. How much more responsibility does a government have towards its citizens/subjects? And, how much more atonement must a government make when it is itself responsible for calamities that befall its people.
And this responsibility doesn’t go away, as some would like it to, after the passage of time and changing of governments. The intergenerational transfer of responsibility was addressed during the conference.
All these and more discussions mark the beginning of a more serious phase of our struggle. No longer can we content ourselves with scraps thrown our way such as are the commemorative resolutions we fight so hard to pass in the halls of legislatures the world over. The appetizer is just about eaten, and aromas from the kitchen evoke the coming of the main meal. Get busy, read the report when it comes out, comment about it (as requested by its authors), and let’s get serious about the many parsecs we must travel to reach home. I’m excited!