BY ANAHIT SARGSYAN
While we all understand that one hundred is only a number, given the iconic roundup of the century, the Centennial provided the perfect opportunity to stop, reevaluate and re-plan. The worldwide commemoration ceremonies, coupled with unprecedented media attention, made it clear that raising awareness has ceased being the main issue in the Armenian Genocide recognition process. Certainly, raising genocide awareness is a strong foundation, yet it is still only a foundation, a platform, on which we should continue to build. It is also essential that we take a step back to explore the ways that we can practically use the recognition that we have achieved so far. This is a simple concept that most Armenians realized during the Centennial. However, what is not so simple is the attempt to understand what exactly the next step should be. Although it is compelling to consider that reparations should be the new focus of our attention, in reality, the question of “what’s next” requires a far more comprehensive approach. In fact, “what’s next” is not a single goal, but rather a chain of interconnected objectives that we should consider equally. Inevitably, this chain must start with a strong and reliable Republic of Armenia. It requires modifications in the way genocide is studied in the Armenian educational system. In addition, it demands an unprecedented focus on international law within Armenia. Working together, these will lead to increased credibility for Armenia in the international sphere as a qualified candidate to take the lead in the pursuit of remedies for the Armenian and other unrecognized genocides.
However, in order to even start addressing the popular “what’s next”, there are critical points of concern that we must be considered first; we need to know what exactly we mean by the word genocide. This may seem like a strange and simplistic question, but in reality, it gets very complicated. However, this is too crucial of a point to leave any room for ambiguity, because what most Armenians have come to understand by the word genocide directly connects to what they think they can and should demand. The fight for recognition is comprised of one of the most comprehensive “armies” we have ever had as a nation, which includes the Republic of Armenia, the Armenian diaspora, and the non-Armenians who support the issue. Given such diversity of categories, plus the differences within each category, the possibility of having different visions and imagining different objectives becomes amplified. Thus, it is imperative to state clearly what we mean when we use the word genocide and how that relates to what we are demanding.
How many Armenians, especially in diaspora, have been asked to explain what exactly Armenians demand from the world? The answer usually does not take long time to come out—we demand that the world to recognize what happened to the Armenian people during the WWI and beyond as genocide and condemn it. Not only have I been one of those people asked, but I have also been one of those people demanding calling the atrocities in WWI what they were, calling it a genocide. That was until one day one of my professors interrupted me and asked why the usage of the word genocide is so critical for us, Armenians. For example, why calling it a mass atrocity or massacre sounds so wrong to us, even though the word genocide itself implies to the meaning of these other words.
I had so many answers, yet I had none. Indeed, it is hard to find an Arminian that does not know the basic history of the Armenian Genocide, but it is very easy to confuse most of us with a question like that. Why exactly do we demand that it be recognized as genocide”? The logical destination of this question leads to the first ever definition of the word genocide by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPG), which not every Armenian might be perfectly familiar with. I was certainly not familiar then. Then again, why do we purposely choose to first expect and then to get disappointed every year when the President of the U.S. does not annunciate the word geocode? What results do we expect? What is the connotation of that word? In other words, in what sense does an Armenian use or want to hear the word genocide being used? What is our unified answer to these questions?
Ten Armenians would give ten different answers. For most Armenians, the word genocide has a deep emotional and personal meaning; for them it should be recognized as genocide because their parents and grandparents were tortured and murdered and their silent hurt has to be acknowledged by others. Other Armenians, especially in diaspora, who are the descendants of refugees who fled from the genocide, along with the emotional connotation, see the use of the word genocide intertwined with the loss of their homeland. During the centennial, these people remembered the Armenian Genocide and demanded their “homes in Western Armenia.” Other groups of Armenians vaguely explain their demand to use the word genocide, assuming that it suggests some kind of reparations for their losses, in addition to punishment for the Republic of Turkey. In the course of recognition, many Armenians still remember Adolf Hitler’s quote about Armenians and explain that they demand recognition because they believe that recognizing past genocides is a key step in preventing history from repeating itself.
Each of these points rushed through my mind within seconds while I stood there confused, trying to answer the professor’s question. The bottom line is that there is no single, unified answer available for us to use. When the Centennial Committee of the Armenian Genocide created the motto “I Remember and Demand,” it was clearer for us what were we remembering than what we were demanding. However, as we have done our best and climaxed our efforts to achieve international awareness during the Centennial, it has become more important than ever to finally face the complicated task of defining what we as Armenians can and should demand as well as what are the practical manners we can apply to the usage of the word genocide. In other words, it is time to wake up from the inertia of “calling it a genocide” and supply every Armenian with a unified answer to the question of why should it be called genocide, what are we demanding.
The widespread success of the Centennial Commemorations proved that when Armenians have a clearly defined set of directives, they could be unified to successfully fulfill their goals. In other words, it is time to busy ourselves with the task of defining what to demand and focus our great potential to explore the opportunities of how to demand it. The importance of this process cannot be undermined, as the lack of clarity in the usage of the word genocide from the Armenian side not only leaves “demanding” Armenians vague about what they are demanding, but it also allows the Turkish side to explain the term genocide in a way that makes the recognition of what happened to Armenians in WWI as genocide very close to impossible within Turkey. In an interview with CNN in April 2015, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu clearly stated the Turkey will never call what happened to Armenians during the WWI genocide “because it is a legal term”.
However, does the majority of Armenians even understand how genocide is a legal term or what is legally possible to demand? In reality, many Armenians not only do not have a clear understanding of legal sphere of genocide, but they have long imagined this as only a marginal solution in the face of the rooted pain and inclination to unrealistically high expectations. This is another part of the comprehensive approach that the post-Centennial “what’s next” should entail. As a new, free, ambitious and unprecedentedly informed and connected generation is rising in Armenia, it is so important to teach them not only about what happened during the genocide, but also what have we have achieved during the last one hundred years, and what are the fronts of the more focused, intelligent and legal battle that Armenia should be fighting against the denial. An Armenian student graduating from high school should not only have the dates and the names of the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide memorized, he or she should be equally familiar with issues such as the problem of reversibility of the CPPG, International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, as well as about other cases of genocide and how those were treated in international law.
Furthermore, the international human rights and human rights law must be given increasing amount of weight in the curriculum in higher education. The role of the Yerevan State University School of Law can be critical in execution of this process. Instead, YSU Law remains focused on selling its overpriced education to students, a considerable percentage of whom are only “studying” law because their families can afford it. The tiny percentage of students who are truly invested in the study of international law, naturally seek better possibilities of continuing their education abroad. But the question is: can we really afford this? How can we set goals as high as demanding reparations and leading the efforts in the international sphere aimed to reduce the vagueness surrounding unrecognized genocides, when we ourselves do not consider producing qualified and internationally competitive professionals an absolute priority? Instead, the genocide scholars are still taking naps at the conferences in Armenia and we still have to run to the British lawyers that we realistically can barely afford to present us in international courts, because our representatives are still only good enough for opening statements.
As previously mentioned, any “what’s next” question should begin with a strong and a more reliable Armenia. Starting from the definition of the word genocide to the international legal battle, the Republic of Armenia must be the epicenter. Considering the diversity of the fighters for the Armenian Genocide inside and outside of Armenia, Armenia has to be the core that unites the diaspora and Armenia. Thus, unification of ideas and tools being the objective, Armenia should be the initiator of a system that equally considers the diversity of opinions and uses the potential of Armenians all over the world, unites them and arms them with the understanding of what and how to demand. Here again, the Centennial served as a trigger. After April 24th, the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee served as a platform for the creation of the Pan Armenian Council, the agenda of which is very close to the aforementioned. Moreover, the president of the Constitutional Court of Armenia recently submitted a legal issues package on the elimination of the consequences of the Armenian Genocide to the Armenian President, which seems to be a promising step, although seemingly late, considering that Turkey has been very farsighted and generous in spending millions on exploring legal possibilities of denial.
However, these efforts will simply fade away if better and a more reliable Republic of Armenia does not emerge from the current inequality, economic crisis, and the devastating corruption in educational system and other areas. The failure of Armenia to play its role of the unifying platform will eventually mean failure for all Armenians and the Armenian cause. Thus, it goes back and it will always to back to the disturbing situation in Armenia. We can philosophize, demand, blame, march for justice, attempt to become unified and be heard. However, not only will our international image as a crumbling country not allow us to be heard, but the diaspora itself will become increasingly disappointed and suspicious of Armenia as a force capable of leading the national efforts and presenting our national demands. Needless to mention, more and more Armenians living within Armenia will have to care more about how to economically survive in the independent Armenia than how and what to demand. And again, we will go back to looking sad and “demanding” recognition in the air from the air through pop music videos that privileged people like Sirusho have learned to do so brilliantly.