The announcement by US President Joe Biden on Saturday recognizing the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces during the First World War as genocide not only honors the victims and their families, it is also a victory in “the fight against denialism and attempts to whitewash past crimes,” the UN was told on Monday.
Mher Margaryan, Armenia’s permanent representative to the UN, added that the decision by the administration in Washington is a contribution “for which we are deeply grateful.”
His comments came during a panel discussion organized by the Armenian mission at the UN to reflect on the legacy of US-based humanitarian organization the Near East Foundation, and the effect it has had on the evolution of humanitarian multilateralism. The foundation, which was established in 1915 to tackle the humanitarian consequences of the Armenian genocide, is one of the world’s oldest international philanthropic organizations.
“We are paying tribute to this outstanding effort, initially established with the support of the American people to help alleviate the suffering of the Armenians,” Margaryan said.
It is estimated that the systematic massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 led to the deaths of about 1.5 million people. The killings and mass deportations of Armenians, and other mass atrocities around the world, prompted Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term “genocide” and initiate the Genocide Convention, which sets out the legal definition of the term. It was unanimously adopted by the UN in December 1948 and came into force in January 1951.
Margaryan said that although there has been a lot of discussion over the years about the failure of the world to prevent the Armenian genocide, “100 years on, the ability of the international community to properly identify and react to humanitarian crises is still being considerably challenged.”
He added: “Only recently, Azerbaijan and Turkey unleashed brutal, senseless violence against the Armenian people, amid the global pandemic, in an attempt to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force with the involvement of foreign terrorist fighters and mercenaries, accompanied by numerous, extensively documented war crimes.”
The envoy said the continuing detention of prisoners of war and civilian hostages by Azerbaijan, in contravention of international humanitarian law, as well as “the widespread, state-led campaign of dehumanization of Armenians (show that) genocidal ideology does not merely belong to history.”
Savita Pawnday, deputy executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, said that genocide denial “aggravates the injuries of the past and sows the seeds of future injustice.”
While conceding that Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide was largely symbolic, she said that accepting the truth of genocides can help to prevent their recurrence, and is a first step toward securing justice for survivors and other victims and acknowledging the patterns of discrimination that can lead to genocide.
“Finding solutions becomes easier (with acknowledgment of genocides), whereas denial aggravates the injuries of the past and sows the seeds of future injustice (in a) world where 18 million people are currently displaced by conflict and war,” Pawnday said.
She called on all UN member states to officially recognize the Armenian genocide and “end one century of indifference and denial.”
One form denial can take, she added, is the characterization of atrocities as a “humanitarian crisis.”
“We all know that current humanitarian crises cannot be solved by blankets and bandages alone,” said Pawnday. Addressing the UN in general, she added: “Speeches do not prevent atrocities. Timely political action does.”
She highlighted the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar in recent years by the military junta in the country, during which more than 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee across the border to Bangladesh. She said it was once described by a deadlocked UN Security Council as “‘a humanitarian crisis taking place in Bangladesh’ rather than a genocide perpetrated by the Tatmadaw.”
Pawnday added: “In the multilateral sphere, viewing the crisis through a humanitarian lens is seen as apolitical and a neutral way to build consensus. Yet the reality on the ground is that humanitarian assistance is deeply political.
“The international community has become complicit in giving some perpetrators a free pass. The failure of the Security Council to adequately respond to the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya has created a climate of impunity that the generals exploited.
“The February coup is the price that the people of Myanmar are going to be paying for very long time for the international community’s failure to uphold human rights and to hold those generals accountable.”
Sarah Lea Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now and the moderator of Monday’s event, said it had been painful for the Armenian diaspora to have to “beg” for US recognition of the genocide.
But she added: “I am very grateful that (Biden) has finally taken this step, taking the genocide issue off of the political table.”
Khatchig Mouradian, a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University in New York, challenged the widespread implicit perception of Armenians as passive recipients of violence on the one hand, and of western humanitarianism on the other.
In his book, “The Resistance Network,” he demonstrates how Armenians coordinated a “robust self-help, humanitarian resistance effort” even during the darkest hours of the genocide.
Ultimately, he said, this effort raised tremendous funds, particularly from US schools, families and Congress. He described it as “one of the bright spots of a dark history.”
Armenian activists are a crucial part of the story and should not be sidelined in the way they traditionally have been, Mouradian added, because they were the intermediaries and activists who defied fear and the Ottoman authorities, and through whose efforts aid reached those who were suffering.
“It is important to integrate this in the narrative because it has a lesson,” he said. “Every time the accomplishments of human rights organizations are being counted, it is a helpful exercise to ask: What about the local activists and humanitarian workers? Is their work being suppressed or erased from the narrative?”
This, he said, is important not only when it comes to holding the perpetrators of atrocities to account, it also helps to determine the form and future of humanitarian actions.
“What kind of world we’re going to (pass on to our) children is very much conditional on how we see ourselves — as individuals or groups or organizations — intervening,” said Mouradian.
“Do we see ourselves as leaders, and the locals are supposed to work for us and follow us as we engage in humanitarian action? Or do we stand next to the locals, allowing them to chart their own future?”
Hugo Slim, a researcher at Oxford University, called for changes to the current global humanitarian system, which he described as an “imperial, Western club system, financed almost entirely by OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and driven in New York and Geneva by the Western groups.”
He added: “It is operated colonially by a big group of big agencies who dominate the resources and policy, and who function as an imperial elite upon a subject people around the world. Governments become contractors to this rather imperial system.”
The Near East Foundation was called The American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief when it was founded in 1915. It organized the world’s first major international humanitarian relief operation, supported by the US government, in response to reports of the atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. It helped save more than 132,000 Armenian orphans and more than a million refugees, and helped establish more than 400 hospitals, schools, orphanages and processing centers for refugees.
Renamed the Near East Foundation in 1930, the pioneering organization defined many of the strategies employed by leading international humanitarian groups.