When it comes to discussion of the Armenian Genocide, there is one topic that has, for far too long, been the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Although the topic is on virtually everyone’s mind, it tends to be left largely unaddressed or ignored for one reason or another. This topic is, of course, that of reparations.
For some, the idea of reparations is a radical “dream”; an impossible and fanatic proposition which takes away from the more feasible task of achieving recognition. It is taken for granted that the most Armenians can reasonably hope for is acknowledgment and an apology from Turkey. Among many such individuals, the cause of reparations is looked upon with automatic disapproval and disdain. Hence, the topic itself is barred from any serious consideration.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who maintain that recognition without reparation is meaningless; that the Turkish government must pay for the crimes it has committed and not be allowed to walk away scot-free. In this case, also, we find many who consider the matter so straightforward, that they see no need in discussing it further or elaborating upon the reasons why reparations are so fundamentally needed.
We argue that, not only are reparations far from being an unreachable goal, they are the only practical means for effectively bringing the Genocide issue to any sort of a just resolution. Given its crucial importance to healing the wounds created by the Genocide, it is imperative that the merits and meaning of reparations be properly explained and expounded upon. This article will attempt to lay out some of the many reasons why reparations are so essential.
At the core of why reparations are necessary is the concept of justice. A colossal crime was committed against the Armenian nation and our moral instinct demands that we redress this in an adequate fashion. This major wrongdoing must be compensated for in order to restore some semblance of balance and normality.
To illustrate, let us imagine for a moment that someone tortures, rapes, and murders your family; invades and occupies your home; steals all of your wealth and belongings; desecrates your family heritage and possessions; and expels you by force from your home. Not only does the perpetrator refuse to give any compensation to your family, he aggressively denies that a crime ever even took place. The blame is deflected, instead, upon you and your offspring–who must struggle to even mourn or remember their family–while the criminal portrays himself in public as the victim.
After all of this, would it be enough for the criminal to simply give you an apology and say he will no longer inflict any further mistreatment on you? Of course not! It would be perfectly reasonable for all of us to want some sort of reparations; some form of payment for the damage that has been done.1
In this vein, the Turkish government has a moral responsibility to pay the huge debt it owes to the Armenian people. Just because Turkey has, as of yet, not paid this debt does not mean that the debt itself disappears. On the contrary, it is the Armenian people who are continuing to bear the brunt of this debt through the loss of years of human and material capital, dispersion in the Diaspora, the compromise of our historic homeland, a small and landlocked Republic, psychological suffering, and economic hardship. Indeed, a great deal is already being paid–the problem is that it is largely the victim rather than the perpetrator who is doing the paying.
For this reason alone, some form of reparations proportionate to the suffering caused by the crime is a must for anyone concerned with upholding justice and repairing the wounds wrought by the Genocide. As explained by genocide scholar Taner Akcam in a recent commentary about discussions of the Genocide within Turkey,
“The process of healing a past injustice must take place within the realm of justice, not [just] freedom . . . Today, however, in many democratic nations in the West . . . Injustices of the past are freely discussed, but the wounds from the past continue because justice remains undone. All of the powerful states’ relationships with former colonies; the massacres and genocidal episodes from colonial periods; slavery in America, etc., all of these remain unresolved in the realm of justice. Therefore, even if the %u218Armenian problem’ were to be discussed freely in Turkey it would nevertheless remain unresolved.”2
Closely related to the issue of justice is the maintenance of human dignity for the Armenian people.
It is well known that one of the principal features of genocide is the denigration of the target population’s humanity. Once again, as Akcam points out:
“Every large-scale massacre begins by removing the targeted group from humanity. That group’s human dignity is trampled on, and they begin to be defined by biological terms like %u218bacteria,’ %u218parasite,’ %u218germ,’ or %u218cancerous cell.’ The victims aren’t usually defined only as something that needs to be removed from a healthy body: they are socially and culturally demeaned, their humanity removed. . . Our humane duty is to restore the dignity of these victims and show them the respect they deserved as human beings. Reparations and other similar moves to heal past injustice work to restore the victims’ dignity and gain meaning as a way of repairing emotional wounds.”3
To ask that the Turkish government merely grant us an apology without demanding that they do anything significant to rectify our suffering–or worse, to seek “reconciliation” without addressing the Genocide at all–is the ultimate form of surrendering our human dignity. Giving up our rightful claims and simply seeking to have the perpetrator acknowledge what we already know to be true is equivalent to forfeiting our rights as a people; and, hence, indirectly accepting the success of the Genocide itself.4
Pursuing such an outcome will prove to be even more detrimental to the dignity, self-respect, and self-determination of the Armenian people than not having the Genocide recognized at all.
Finally, the matter of reparations has profound meaning for the security and viability of the Armenian Republic.
Let us not forget that the motivation behind the Genocide itself was to destroy Armenians as an entity in the region. The present borders of Armenia were purposely designed under pressure from Turkey as a way of reducing the country into one incapable of surviving on its own. Such a policy of aggression was fueled by an institutionalized prejudice against Armenian national self-determination which continues to manifest itself in Turkish society to this day.
Changing this reality will require more than a mere symbolic apology or recognition of historical facts. It will require meaningful compensation and tangible measures which ensure Armenia’s long-term sustainability, as well as programs to tackle the hostile attitudes in Turkish society against its neighbors and minorities.
As scholar Henry Theriault has pointed out, recognition alone is no guarantee of improved relations or a change in Turkey’s adversarial stance. Indeed, Ankara could stand up tomorrow and admit the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide, only to retract its statement or worsen relations the day after. In his words, “The giving of reparations, especially land reparations, transforms acknowledgment and apology into concrete, meaningful acts rather than mere rhetoric.”5
In addition, reparations are an important deterrent for future governments in Turkey–and potential perpetrators of genocide around the world–from repeating similar atrocities in the future. Failure to implement any sort of punishment for an act as horrific as genocide sends a signal to despots everywhere that they can commit such acts with impunity. This is certainly the lesson Turkish leaders have drawn as they have gone on to suppress and carry out massive ethnic cleansing operations against their own Kurdish minority.
As Armenians, we have a moral responsibility to prevent future atrocities and end the cycle of genocide. To give up our demands for reparations and simply seek an apology for the Genocide would be worst than not having it recognized at all. This is because we would be helping Turkey tell the world that a state can commit genocide, admit to it, and subsequently face no consequences whatsoever.
Resolution through Reparations
For these, and a host of other reasons, it seems clear that a lasting solution to the pain, loss, and enmity created by the Armenian Genocide will necessarily require large-scale reparations on behalf of the Turkish government. Otherwise, any hope of genuine reconciliation and regional stability will remain a hollow illusion.
To those who would still argue that, despite the merits, forcing reparations from Turkey is a hopeless and impossible dream, we would remind them that a mere twenty years ago, the same would have been said about those seeking the independence of Armenia. It would have been equally “unrealistic” to imagine then that a Turkish Nobel laureate and countless dissident intellectuals would be openly questioning Ankara’s narrative on the Armenian Genocide.
Today, the world is more aware than it has ever been about the facts of the Armenian Genocide, and we see the Turkish government increasingly on the defensive when it comes to this issue. The momentum towards moving beyond recognition and securing compensation for the countless losses incurred during the Genocide is also increasingly gathering pace. Thus, rather than being an impossible dream, the attainment of reparations appears, in many ways, the most probable in recent memory.
Furthermore, as we have shown, seeking recognition without reparation is potentially more harmful than not attaining recognition at all. As such, achieving reparations remains the most critical means for securing a just and lasting resolution. Concurrently, to turn away from reparations would be a disservice to all those who have suffered from the Genocide and those who continue to struggle to overcome it.
Editor’s Note: Serouj Aprahamian is an editor of the HAYTOUG Magazine, the official publication of the Armenian Youth Federation-Western Region. His article appeared in the special April 24 commemorative issue of the magazine, which can be found in community centers, schools and local book stores. To order a free subscription to the haytoug, visit: http://www.ayfwest.org/haytoug.php