Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Remembering the Armenian genocide

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian attended this week’s international conference in New York marking the Armenian genocide

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The forget-me-not flower has been chosen to symbolise the centennial of the Armenian genocide this year. The motto “I remember and demand,” together with the flower symbol, is being used for events organised across the world to commemorate the 1.5 million victims of massacres committed by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

The five purple leaves of the flower symbolise the five continents where the genocide survivors found shelter when they escaped the events, eventually forming a diaspora. The flower also has four colours, each conveying a certain meaning. The black in the centre symbolises the horror of the genocide. The inner light violet stands for the present, while the outer violet of the flower symbolises the future.

The inner yellow stamens symbolise eternity, the sunlight which brings hope to live, exist and create, while the 12 cyclical pillars in the design are in the shape of the Genocide Memorial, the Dzidzernagapert, that stands on a hill in the capital of Armenia Yerevan today.

It is said that in the Middle Ages, this flower was considered the symbol of God’s presence. It is widely used today as a pin worn by Armenians.

Last week’s conference, organised by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Eastern US Centennial Committee, bore the title “Responsibility 2015.” According to conference committee co-chair Haig Oshagan, who made the opening speech, responsibility extends to individuals and nations to know their pasts, being a way of understanding the present and future. There is a responsibility to explain the genocide to the current generation, he said.

“It’s our duty to understand what happened to our ancestors and pass it on to the new generations,” Oshagan said. “Our demands for reparations are based on the notion of responsibility. A nation cannot claim impunity for a criminal, and the opposite of impunity is accountability or responsibility. This has to do with everything from recognition to reparations, and the foundation is that Turkey is responsible for these crimes and we will demand reparations for them.”

He continued, “I think what we do as activists comes from our sense of responsibility to our nation. The work we’re doing is voluntary. We all feel we’re in some way responsible. So it seemed appropriate to call the conference ‘Responsibility 2015’.”

The opening session was presented by UK human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, counsel in a case that refers to the Armenian genocide that went to the European Court of Human Rights in January. Robertson appeared in court with international lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney.

In his opening presentation, entitled “100 years of Human Rights Violations,” Robertson called on Turkey to recognise the crimes carried out against the Armenians under Ottoman rule as genocide; in other words, intended to target the continuing existence of the Armenian people.

Asked by the Weekly why a historian should label the process by which more than a million Armenians lost their lives in 1915 “genocide,” Robertson said, “As historians don’t know the law, it’s quite clear that a number of denialist historians deny the genocide. They don’t understand what genocide means, and they profess no understanding of the law or have no experience in applying it, so they are not qualified to answer the legal question of whether or not these crimes were genocide.”

Robertson referred to US government policy at the time, which had not hesitated to condemn the massacres in 1915. “[The] news was fully covered in the New York Times, and some of the evidence for Ottoman government guilt comes from the cables and memoirs of US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and his consular officials,” Robertson said.

Former US presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan all went on record to condemn the massacres. But on Armenian Remembrance Day (24 April) in 1990, President George Bush Sr. suddenly dropped the word and, in later years, neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush picked it up or went beyond the words “mass killings” or “massacres” to describe the genocide.

“Barack Obama, a legal scholar who had studied the case closely enough to know what he was talking about when he spoke of genocide during his campaign in 2008, reneged on his promise to use the word when he became president, thus breaking his promise to Armenian citizens living in the United States who had already voted for Obama,” Robertson said.

It was earlier announced that British writer and Middle East correspondent for the Independent newspaper Robert Fisk would be among the speakers at the conference. But Fisk, known for his strong support for recognition of the Armenian genocide, cancelled his appearance as a speaker only a day before the conference started, citing unforeseen circumstances, according to conference organisers.

One of the panels at the conference was entitled “Building Solidarity” and included investigative journalist David Barsamian, novelist and activist Nancy Krikorian, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division Sarah Leah Whitson, and researcher Elyse Semerdjian as speakers.

The panel said that there was no better time to discuss international solidarity as recognition of the Armenian genocide was imminent. “We also have ongoing struggles that we should be concerned with, about human rights abuses in the West Bank in Gaza, Syria, ethnic cleansing by IS [Islamic State], and the US policy regarding human rights abuses happening inside the states and abroad,” said panel discussant Semerdjian.

“The escalation of human rights abuses around the world is worth thinking about in terms of solidarity. As global diasporans, we have intersectional identities that raise the possibility of linking activists outside our community.”

Whitson talked about her personal experience of working for human rights and the importance of activism. She believes she has a cause to defend — the Armenian cause — and this made her choose her career and stand up for her people’s rights, “as no one else will do it for you.”

“My participation in the many protests, mostly linked to the Armenian genocide, allowed me to bring back a sense of an inner responsibility, an inner obligation, of what it means to be a human and what a responsibility it means to be in a country like the United States where we’re not in the middle of war and I have all the benefits and privileges of an education. I have to exercise the privileges of being in this society by being a voice for justice,” she said.

In college, Whitson expanded her interests to focus on the Middle East. She studied Arabic and spoke it well as her Armenian family was from the Middle East. She spent most of her summers in Arab countries and lived there for years so had a good opportunity to learn Arabic at an early age.

“I continued that focus on Arabic in college, then I went to continue my studies in Egypt and then became involved in Palestine activities at Berkeley University. Generally questioning American foreign policy in the Middle East was the focus of my studies,” she said.

Whitson sarcastically thanked the “Bushes” who inspired her to be a full-time activist after the US-led war in Iraq and the Second Gulf War, which gave her a sense of responsibility as a human being to speak out and challenge things that deeply impact other people, among them the US military campaign in Iraq.

She has led dozens of advocacy and investigative missions throughout the region, focusing on issues of armed conflict, accountability, legal reform, migrant workers and political rights. In Moscow, Whitson put together a delegation of public health experts and lawyers to travel to Iraq to investigate the impact of the First Gulf War and the US bombing campaign on civilians in Iraq.

Data collected on the mission documented the US bombing campaign, important since there were few journalists on the ground. The mission also underlined the importance of facts and information, even though the US government denied that there had been an increase in mortality as a result of the campaigns.

“It was an incredibly empowering experience because it showed me, and I hope it shows everybody and reminds everyone, that you don’t have to be in the White House or the state department to shape policy to have a voice to be heard. What you really just have to do is to know the facts, gather your evidence and exercise your voice,” she said.

Novelist Nancy Krikorian, a board member of Project 2015, which deals with Armenian genocide centennial commemorations in Istanbul, believes that as an Armenian activist with the knowledge of a history of injustice, and as a US citizen, she needs to stand up and have a voice in the US media, to be an anti-war witness and an anti-war voice.

Kricorian was involved with the “Codepink: Women for Peace” campaign before the Iraq war. She attended demonstrations and organised local and national campaigns. “When you care about other people’s struggles, they care about your struggle,” Kricorian said, adding that Armenians should care about the Palestinian cause and build mutual solidarity. “Armenians in Jerusalem, for example, suffer from occupation like Palestinians do,” she said.

The conference programme made it clear how the issues tackled deal more with the present and the future than with the past.

“The conference did not limit itself to the consequences of the Armenian genocide and the long shadow cast by its denial. It looked at crimes that have happened before, like against the Herero [in Africa], the Holocaust and Darfur,” Khatchig Mouradian, editor of the US-based Armenian publication the Armenian Weekly and head of the conference committee, told the Weekly.

“After all, responsibility also applies to us Armenians. Scattered around the world, primarily as a consequence of the genocide, we cannot remain indifferent to the challenges facing other people.”

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