Resolution with Justice: Theriault Discusses Armenian Genocide Reparations Report

Henry C. Theriault

Special for the Armenian Weekly

by Rupen Janbazian

While recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the government of Turkey has been a priority for Armenian communities around the world, the notion of legal consequences that can emerge after recognition has generally been unaddressed or ignored.

Certainly, the question of reparations for losses suffered both by individual victims and the Armenian nation as a whole during the genocide has been studied by many scholars and academics over the years. However, the discourse was generally limited and included only abstract notions of territorial and monetary return. Although there have been several examples of valuable works treating the issue, none have approached the topic of reparations with a comprehensiveness and detailed analysis like that put forth by the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group (AGRSG).

The AGRSG was assembled in 2007 by four experts in different areas of reparations theory and practice. In September 2014, the group completed its final report, “Resolution with Justice—Reparations for the Armenian Genocide,” a wide-ranging analysis of the legal, historical, political, and ethical dimensions of the question of reparations for the genocide. It also includes specific recommendations for the components of a complete reparations package.

According to the study group, its final report “will give Turkish and Armenian individuals as well as civil society and political institutions the information, analysis, and tools to engage the Armenian Genocide issue in a systematic manner that supports meaningful resolution.”

Funded initially by a grant from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the members of the AGRSG are Alfred de Zayas, Jermaine O. McCalpin, Ara Papian, and Henry C. Theriault (chair). George Aghjayan serves as a special consultant.

I recently had a chance to talk with Theriault about the group’s final report. Below is the full text of our interview.


Rupen Janbazian: The AGRSG was formed in 2007 with the mission to produce an in-depth analysis of the reparations issue raised by the Armenian Genocide. Why and how was this project conceived?

Henry C. Theriault
Henry C. Theriault

Henry C. Theriault: My primary scholarly focus in the early 2000’s was genocide denial. In this connection, I had been researching and writing about Armenian-Turkish dialogue since about 2001. I was especially concerned about the encouragement of a negotiation to determine what the accepted history would be, by such initiatives as the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC). As I studied and analyzed dialogue issues more, my concerns expanded to include (1) the exclusion of long-term justice issues from most discussions about dialogue as well as concrete attempts to create dialogue between Armenians and Turks; and (2) the ignoring in the design of dialogue projects such as TARC, as well as proposals for other dialogue models, of the power differential (actually, asymmetrical domination relation) between Turks and Armenians within any dialogue context.

It became clear to me that, beyond simply ending denial, resolution of the Armenian Genocide issue requires real long-term justice in the form of reparations, including land. Only in this way can the outstanding harms, which remain devastating for many Armenians around the world, from the current vulnerability of dispersed Armenians in Syria to the poverty in rural areas of the Armenian Republic, be addressed. And, only in this way can the great power, wealth, and identity differential that resulted from the genocide be ameliorated.

I began specifically working on reparations for the genocide (and other cases of mass violence and oppression, such as the land expropriations that were central to the genocides of indigenous Americans) in 2005. In December of that year, I co-organized with famed South African human rights activist Dennis Brutus an international symposium on the global reparations movement. “Whose Debt? Whose Responsibility?” featured speakers from South Africa, Japan, and around the United States and covered reparations cases for African Americans, South African blacks, Native Americans, the Armenian Genocide, and Asian Comfort Women, as well as the question of debt relief as a form of reparation for colonialism in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Over the next year, reparations become the central concern of my scholarship, and I began to consider innovative ways to approach the Armenian case.

Jermaine McCalpin, at the time a Ph.D. student at Brown University, had given a tremendous paper on reparations at the 2005 conference, and I had thought at the time how great it would be to work together on a project. I had also become aware of Alfred de Zayas’ pioneering work on the Armenian case and soon learned of Ara Papian’s innovative engagement with the Treaty of Sèvres. I realized the potential of a team composed of this kind of range of experts to develop a proposal for long-term justice for the Armenian Genocide. Once I was able to get a small grant to support this work, I invited each of these exceptional thinkers to join with me in researching the issue, with an eye toward making a set of useful policy recommendations. They agreed and we began our work.

R.J.: The members of the AGRSG come from different academic backgrounds. What is the importance of having a variety of perspectives when assessing the topic of post-genocide reparations?

H.C.T.: This is a huge benefit of our group. From the beginning, we realized the value of being able to join concrete international law analyses with consideration of the ethical issues raised by the Armenian case. Too often, an international lawyer might produce a strong case on a human rights issue, but not be able to explain why his/her society or international organizations should act on the case, when ethical arguments can often motivate a broad range of individuals and even political leaders to take up an issue and turn legal possibility into reality. Just as often, in my field of philosophy, I have read compelling ethical arguments that remain academic exercises because they are disconnected from the legal and political realms in which the issues must be addressed if actual resolutions are to be enacted. Similarly, while general legal principles can be usefully applied to the genocide as a whole, the case for land return becomes that much more compelling when it is based on prior international arbitration and agreement.

Thus, Ambassador Papian’s contributions gave the legal arguments a powerful additional basis in the Wilsonian arbitral award of land to Armenians in the post-World War I period. Having a political theorist with a focus on transitional justice was just as indispensable. It is one thing to make a legal, historical, and ethical case for the rightness of reparations, but how can this rightness be made to matter in the political realities of Armenian-Turkish relations? My abstract concern with ethics and work on dialogue initiatives based on bad models had caused me to ignore this dimension of the issue; my view was that the case should be made on legal and political levels regardless of attitudes in Turkey. But this ignored a crucial potential lever in the reparations process, Turkish people themselves who wished to engage the genocide in a forthright manner with a goal of justice. As we have seen more and more Turks embrace this possibility in recent years, it would make no sense to ignore this development. Through Jermaine’s influence, the potential for Turkish transformation became an important element of the report.

I would also add that the geographic and cultural diversity of our group has been important as well. For instance, Dr. de Zayas has for decades been focused on human rights issues across the globe, and worked in the central institution trying to support them, the UN Human Rights Commission. Ambassador Papian has a deep understanding of regional political and security issues. And Jermaine brings to the table work on a number of truth commissions, particularly those in South Africa, Grenada, and Haiti, as well as the expertise gained through his writing of a 100-plus page proposal for a Jamaican Truth Commission. My own concerns about reparations for indigenous Americans, the Comfort Women, and other cases added further to the insights, historical information, and models available for our report. While the result is a report specifically focused on the Armenian case, it is informed by a host of cases across the globe.

R.J.: According to the report, the legal case for reparations is complicated and faces many obstacles. What are some of the biggest challenges that arise when analysing such a complex matter?

H.C.T.: This question could generate its own report, there are so many. Here, let me focus on two. First, any reparations scheme involving substantial material reparations, especially land, raises complex implementation questions. For instance, if land in the eastern areas of today’s Turkey is returned to Armenians, what will the status of its current inhabitants be? What about other groups who might also have claims to parts of the territory, such as Assyrians and Kurds? Is there a sufficient Armenian population to populate territory returned? And so forth. While these concerns are addressed by and, in fact, helped shape the specific proposal made in our report, this required complex analyses and adjustments.

Second, clearly the resistance by even well-intentioned Turks to any kind of material reparations, especially land, will be, at least initially, strong, while many people typically dismiss reparations for historical injustices as out of hand. The truth commission aspect of our proposal is meant to address the first problem here, while the broader question of whether the goal of reparations is just a pipe dream is addressed in the report as well. One important point to keep in mind is that ethics-based movements for political change have in fact dramatically impacted our world, as evidenced by the U.S. civil rights movement, India’s independence movement, and other such movements. The press for Armenian Genocide reparations, as part of the emerging global reparations movement, does have true potential for success, but getting people to see this takes some work.

R.J.: How does the AGRSG respond to those who believe that reparations, especially a return of land, are impractical and unlikely?

H.C.T.: Beyond what was discussed in response to your previous question, there are other ways the report addresses these challenges. For instance, we point out that the current system of international borders is based on the principle of “territorial integrity” in a way that discounts human rights and historical justice concerns. Those committed to the latter concerns should be willing to see territorial border changes. We also point out that the very notion of land in eastern Turkey being fundamentally “Turkish” land is itself an artefact of the genocide, when the land was depopulated of Armenians through mass expulsion and killing and thus Turkified. The land became “Turkish” through genocide, and maintaining an absolute view of the issue today—maintaining that the land is somehow in its very essence Turkish—is, in effect, supporting the genocidal ideology that led to this view of the land in the first place.

The report also allows for inventive alternatives. For instance, Ambassador Papian came up with an alternative model for land reparations, which would allow Turkey to retain formal title but turn historically Armenian lands into a demilitarized zone open to Armenians who wish to move to and develop economic opportunities there.

Ultimately, the strongest point in this regard is that history is filled with examples of popular movements that drove great political changes against strong powers and in an atmosphere of dismissal. Ethical rightness does matter and can be the basis of such change in the case of the Armenian Genocide, especially when it is supported by a strong legal and historical case and can be enacted by an innovative political process, as our report provides.

R.J.: Is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Republic of Turkey necessary for the return of Armenian property confiscated or lost during the genocide?

H.C.T.: If we are talking about descendants filing lawsuits for individual property losses during the genocide, then recognition of the genocide is not required. As long as an expropriation of property can be shown to have violated law at the time or to have been done without proper legal support, then a lawsuit might proceed. It would succeed because the context of genocide is not essential to the case: The same laws would apply whether or not there was a genocide occurring, though of course it was the Armenian Genocide that caused the particular property losses we are discussing. Of course, there was legal cover given to expropriation of Armenians’ property, though the legality appears to have been challenged at the time and is called into question in some recent scholarship. More to the point, even if there is proper legal support for such cases, as we explain in the report, without political support, the cases are not likely to succeed. This is especially true of domestic cases in Turkey.

But, our report is specifically not concerned with individual reparations for specific lost property. It is concerned with group reparations for the genocide itself. The kinds of property confiscations interest us only insofar as they would be part of a general group reparations settlement. We use estimates from the genocide period to make a determination of the amount of compensation for such property losses—except for land, which is considered separately.

It would seem that a group reparations process for the genocide could occur only if either (1) outside powers compelled Turkey to make reparations; or (2) Turkey recognized the genocide. But there is a third possibility, that pressure for reparations could produce a truth process in Turkey that will spur recognition.

R.J.: The AGRSG supports a truth commission when dealing with the memory of the Armenian Genocide. How does this differ from the historical commission proposed by the failed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission or the “joint historical commission” proposed as part of the 2009 diplomatic protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia?

H.C.T.: The “joint historical commission” issue is a bit complex in the protocols, as there seems to have been some backtracking on that by the Armenian president. For those who are interested in the detailed answer to this question, Part 7 of the report, which develops the Armenian Genocide Truth and Rectification Commission idea, explains specifically why it is fundamentally different from and superior to these other approaches. In short, our idea for a truth and rectification commission is not based on any notion that the facts of the Armenian Genocide are in question—they are not—but, following the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission model, aims to provide a highly public process through which the history of the Armenian Genocide can be engaged in depth, to at once educate the Turkish public about what occurred and provide Armenians an opportunity to bear public witness to this history. What is more, the issue of reparations is contained right in the title, in the word “rectification.” The ultimate function of this commission is to help develop a reparations plan for the Armenian Genocide. This was, by the way, supposed to be what happened in the case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission—its final stage was supposed to be about reparations. But this final stage never occurred. Our approach builds reparations into the entire truth commission process.

R.J.: The final report of the AGRSG was published in September 2014. As the chair of the AGRSG, what purpose do you hope the report will serve?

H.C.T.: The goal is four-fold. First, I hope that the arguments and evidence presented in the report will be compelling to Armenians in the Republic and in the diaspora, and motivate them to pursue reparations as a crucial component of any resolution of the genocide. Similarly, I hope that the arguments, both the legal and ethical ones, will convince third-party supporters of genocide recognition as well as third-parties who are lukewarm at best to the issue that reparations are both right and reasonable. I am particularly concerned about the tendency to dismiss reparations not just in the Armenian case but in many others as well.

Third, the report provides legal, ethical, and political arguments and approaches that can be translated directly into legal and political initiatives by the Armenian Republic and Armenian institutions around the world. My goal is that these entities use this valuable report in this way. Finally, the report provides a mechanism—the truth and rectification commission—through which the Turkish public can engage the genocide in a meaningful way. The contents of the report offer compelling arguments for contemporary Turkish responsibility for reparations (which is not at all the same thing as blame for the genocide itself). I hope that Turkish readers will take these seriously, at once overcoming resistance to a proper sense of responsibility and at the same time embracing the truth commission model as a healthy and productive avenue for dealing with the genocide today.