The Legal Possession of Territory, And on Salmast and Khoy

By Ara Papian

The renowned classical Armenian philosopher, Davit Anhaght (David the Invincible), once asked, “How can there be a limit to knowledge, when there is no limit to ignorance?” A similar kind of unlimited ignorance was seen and heard lately, when a young person with an air of authority stated, “Khoy and Salmast are also historical Armenian lands. Why don’t we ever mention them, while we always make territorial demands of Turkey?”

The youth was clearly unaware that claims to territory are based not on history, but on corresponding documentation pertaining to international law. In international relations, the legal possession of any territory is decided not on past history or a de facto situation, but with a recognised title to that territory. When, during a war, a country occupies another country’s territory, that territory continues to remain the territory of the occupied party as long as any document with regards to settling the title to that territory has not been signed. This is similar to day-to-day life. If you do not have any official documentation asserting your claims to a piece of land, that land does not belong to you, regardless of how long you have lived there or how many structures you have raised on it.

Now, on to Khoy and Salmast. The title to Khoy and Salmast of Iran (Persia) was recognized by a Turkish-Persian treaty on the 17th of May, 1639, and then reaffirmed by further treaties on the 4th of September, 1746, the 28th of July, 1823 and the 31st of May, 1847. There is no legal document by which the Republic of Armenia may claim title to Khoy and Salmast. What is more, the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) confirmed the frontier of the former Russian Empire with Persia as the frontier of the newly-established Republic of Armenia with Persia.

As for territorial demands with regards to Turkey, if we are to provide an accurate legal definition for this issue, then we are not demanding land from Turkey, but demanding Turkey end its illegal occupation of a portion of the territory of the Republic of Armenia. That territory is not decide as per history, but by a given legal Armenian title to the territory. And so, 63%, 66%, 100% and 75%1 of the provinces of Van, Bitlis, Erzurum and Trabizon respectively of the former Ottoman Empire belong de jure to the Republic of Armenia, not because they are “historical Armenian territory” or because a genocide took place there, but because, to this day, their legal title belongs to the Republic of Armenia, although Turkey has occupied that territory since 1920. This title was initially recognised on behalf of 50 (fifty) states by Great Britain, France and Italy on the 26th of April, 1920, and was then reconfirmed by the Great Seal of the United States and the signature of President Woodrow Wilson, officially enforced on the 22nd of November, 1920, and then reconfirmed once more by Article 16 of the Treaty of Lausanne on the 24th of July, 1923.

I don’t want to bring up any other issue, but I would like to answer one question, however, which is often raised. How are we to deal with that territory? This is to be decided by all of us, by the Armenian people, whether living in Armenia or the Diaspora, Armenian-speaking or not, Christian, Muslim, rich or poor. We can sell it, rent it out, gift it to Iceland, whatever, but we are the ones who decide. Whatever is decided, it has to take place with all of our participation. The Homeland belongs to us all; it is not divided according to office.

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