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What kind of justice for the descendants of the Armenian genocide?


Standpoint of Turkey 

What kind of justice for the descendants of the Armenian genocide?
Cengiz Aktar


Cengiz Aktar

Political sciences professor, member of the board of directors of Hrant Dink Foundation and columnist for Taraf newspaper.

On the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian genocide, Cengiz Aktar says that it is imperative to discuss the kind of a justice can be instituted for the descendants of the victims. According to him, Turkey can compensate for the losses in many different ways. Also, denouncing those responsible for the genocide that have been honored until today can constitute the moral aspect of the reparation. According to the author, it is not necessary to recognize the genocide to set them up. The state remains here the main actor and interlocutor in terms of the demands of the Armenians.

The Armenian genocide is The Great Catastrophe of Anatolia as well as the mother of all taboos in these lands. As long as it is not talked about, not known, not understood, not settled, its curse will continue to remain with us. Nevertheless, the centenary is a historical opportunity to break the taboo, to hear the Other and in this way to start a collective healing.

We need to discuss which kind of justice for the descendants of the victims of the Armenian genocide. There are two sides to this issue; actions the individuals can take and those the state can take. Even though both have played a role in the genocide, what they can achieve and their current positions are very different.

On the state side, the approach is one of defending its entrenchment at all costs. The society is different. The society perhaps knows very little about the genocide, but it is willing and enthusiastic to learn more. Therefore, in the last 10-15 years in Turkey there are two different processes at work. Of course the question still remains: To what extent can efforts to revive memory in the society meet the expectations of the Armenians after hundred years? Such small steps, major and minor initiatives, albeit meaningful in terms of Turkey’s position, may not have the same effect for the Armenians. "Are we going to wait for another hundred years for the efforts of society to influence the state one day?” is a legitimate question. This anxiety is utterly understandable, but unfortunately the situation in Turkey is this.

There are ways to boost the pace of this process, but there is a structural specter hanging over this issue. That is the state is the primary perpetrator of the genocide. There is continuity between the state of Ottoman Empire and the state of Turkish Republic. Contrary to popular belief, the genocide doesn’t end with the creation of the Republic in 1923. A “white genocide”, a soft ethnic cleansing has been at work since.

Therefore, the state is here the main actor and interlocutor in terms of the demands of the Armenians. The state has to accept the crime it has committed. We are faced with a state that appears to have made certain consents with The Treaty of Sèvres, but the same state has done away with all its previous undertaking with The Treaty of Lausanne. It is not the same as the German state, who lost the war. And that is the main problem. It is in vain to expect such a state to accept its crime, so efforts that society engages, albeit long-term, are very “healthy”, valuable and sustainable.

In the context of all these impossibilities and the dynamics at work at the society, what can be done about justice? We know of the “three R”; “recognize, repair, restitute lands”. It is important to read these three together, but we must note that these are not terms born from one another or necessarily interconnected.

In the light of these three terms, the most extreme demands are being made by Tashnak Party in terms of restitution of lands. This kind of demands is not realistic in the present context of Turkey. Besides, we must not forget that there is an overlap between Western Armenia and   Northern Kurdistan. Let us put the matter of lands on the side and focus on the relationship between recognition and reparation.

There is an assumption that unless the genocide is recognized it is not possible for the descendants of the victims of the genocide to be compensated financially. I have not been able to understand this relationship, except regarding some legal restrictions in the USA.  If a state wants to, it can compensate its (former) citizens, whose identity records it erased, whom it prevented from coming back to the country and whose property it seized, whether it is genocide or another crime the victims experienced. It can simply say, “These were my citizens or the citizens of the country that I have succeeded, they were mistreated and I am compensating them”. There is no such necessity as to designate the event that is the reason for compensation as ‘genocide’. Therefore, it is not understandable to associate this to the recognition of the genocide. Again in this context, there are land seizures that started with 1894-96 massacres. Especially in terms of “six vilayets” these lands either become property of the Treasury or they are distributed to individuals who own them today. It is not necessary to recognize the genocide in order to be able to take steps with regard to this matter. As we know, Syriacs were massacred alongside the Armenians. In 2007, while returning a piece of land that unrightfully passed to his family from Syriacs, the Kurdish citizen didn’t say, "This is not called genocide; I am not returning this land”. This is a meaningful example. Maybe there are other examples, we don’t know. In this respect, there is a major “care and willingness” problem here.

The restitution of properties controlled by the government could be a starting point

There are many ways shapes for reparations. It can be reparation for individual or the collective rights. There are two main interlocutors of compensation. One is the state. Churches, monasteries and schools that belonged to -according to its definition in the Ottoman state- “the Armenian millet” and were under the control of the Patriarchate, were seized. Some of these properties are still under the control of the state, some have been distributed. It is possible to compensate for or to return the properties distributed to third persons. Within our current circumstances, how feasible is a property return by the government? In Turkey, there are churches, monasteries that are under the control of the military and are not used. The only “positive” aspect to it is the fact that these structures haven’t been demolished thanks to the military that use them. The use of churches as storehouses cannot be accepted anymore. As an initial step, these properties can be returned, this is not impossible at all. If the military is using some of these structures as storehouses TOKI (Office of public housing) can build other facilities instead for the military. Returning the churches is also one of the demands of the Armenian Catholicossat of Sis (Kozan) that functions today in Lebanon Antelias. Within this framework, there are broader initiatives as  well. What was the number of the large buildings, churches, monasteries, schools, hospitals; poorhouses in 1915 in Anatolia, in what condition were they? There are studies on this subject conducted by Hrant Dink Foundation. Similiarly Hrant Dink Foundation is organizing a conference on 20-21 November 2015 on what Anatolia went through in terms of economic conditions after the annihilation or the forcible departure of Armenians and non-muslims. This will be a reserach that aims to elaborate and dwell on what I word as “The Armenian genocide is the great disaster of Anatolia”.

Another point in question could be the compensation for all financial and moral losses. There is a very important example there: Germany and the European Jews. The method is obvious, there are strategies for doing this, and there are many ways of calculations. There is also the life insurance issue that has not been resolved yet. In essence, life insurance will be paid by insurance companies. It is absurd of Turkey to create obstacles with fear of “the genocide will be recognized”. Here, it is important to recall that recognition is not a prerequisite for compensation.

The second type of interlocutor is the individuals. Some of these individuals who currently own the properties have bought them from the government, to some the government has given the properties and some went and seized the properties themselves. There are two important points here. The ones given by the government to the individuals can be compensated in the way I have described above. Like the example I gave earlier about the Kurd who returned the land to his Syriac neighbor, individuals can make a move themselves about properties they seized by acting on their own. This is not impossible. The courage for facing the past in Kurdistan can facilitate this. In the same way, returning the properties they received from the government can come to the fore in Kurdistan. I think the Kurdish people are an important and valuable interlocutor in this respect.

Armenians have filed lawsuits using the titles in their possession, individually or via structures like National Congress of Western Armenians dedicated to this cause. These lawsuits are now being accepted in courts and their numbers will increase.

There are things that can be done for today

There are things that can be done about for today, besides attending to the problems of 1894-96 and 1915. There are Syrian and Iraqi Armenians who were forced to flee or were exiled from their homelands and living in very dire circumstances. Turkey can welcome them. This is a kind of compensation, a way of apologizing. Unfortunately, in the refugee policy that Turkey has been exercising for the last three and a half years, which is open only to Sunni Arabs, there is no place for Armenians, Ezidis and Kurds. Armenians sometimes go to Armenia over Turkey. As far as we know, there are a few Armenians, and those are taken care of by the Church. The situation is the same with the Syriacs. The Syriac Church in Midyat takes care of them. This is a shame for this state.

Another difficult but key issue is the equal citizenship. Armenians in Turkey are citizens but they are not equal citizens. Solving this problem is also part of the compensation. Opening the Armenian border is also part of the quest for justice. Opening the border should not be seen as merely “trade will start again and we will earn money”. Reopening the border also means that Armenians living on the Turkish side can go to their ancestors’ lands; blend with the people in there. In this respect, it is possible to talk about a symbolic compensation.

Giving back citizenship to people who lost it after 1915 can also be a one of the ways of compensation. A similar step that can be taken concerning the Non-muslims, who have been deprived of nationality with a random decision after the coup d’état of 1980. As part of a regulation after the coup, those who held other nationality were automatically deprived of Turkish nationality. This is an easier question to solve compared to that of 1915.

Another step which can be taken, perhaps with a little more difficulty than the ones I have mentioned so far, is the issue of denouncing those responsible for the genocide; who up to now were shamelessly honored. This is the moral aspect of the compensation. Armenians I have come across in different parts of the world have always said this: “We are now passing away, a simple utterance of apology will be enough; in order to account for the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and our own suffering.” Yet Turkey does not do that. On April 23rd 2014, a very restricted text was issued. It was perceived as “better than nothing”. Nevertheless it mentions no state responsibility and made the killers almost look like the Martians who had come from the planet Mars and committed the genocide. Until the responsible persons are revealed, it is important at least not to honor them. There are tens of Enver Pacha Streets, Talat Pacha Boulevards. Taking symbolic steps like giving them different names, changing altogether the names in Istanbul Kurtuluş and Samatya districts, would be very helpful. Since 1915 in Turkey, the state has been rubbing salt into the wound. It is the same with school books. It is as necessary to remove the wound as to remove the salt dimension. There is a horrible tale created by turning inside out a crime that was committed, by denying it and constructing enormous lies on it. It seems that shattering this tale, breaking the mold on this issue will carry out a significant function in terms of moral reparation. The state is able to do it if it wants. It is not necessary to recognize the genocide for this. It is only a matter of conscience.

Lately, there is a fear attached to pronouncing the word "repair" in Turkey. Repair is one of the words that almost take office of "bogeyman". It causes the reaction "How we thus pay billions of dollars?” Still, we must find ways to talk about the reparations. What is experienced is a great extortion and looting. The capital changed hands since the time of the Union and Progress Party in the Ottoman Empire. It is a process started in the mid 1800s, which accelerated in the 1910s with the Union and Progress Party and continued throughout the period of the Republic. The exchange of Muslims and Orthodox between Greece and Turkey, the wealth tax hard hitting non-Muslims and military mobilization of non-Muslims during the Second World War, the fact that Armenians were massacred in 1915 and Greeks were driven out of Anatolia in 1955 and in 1964 all these have had profound economic impacts. Collective compensation needs to be discussed. It will be difficult for Turkey, which is enriched and boasts of enrichment, to avoid this topic ad vitam aeternam.

Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


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