The Civilitas Foundation
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VARTAN OSKANIAN’S REMARKS ON APRIL 24 IN BEIRUT
Delivered by Vartan Oskanian, President of the Board of the Civilitas
Foundation, in Beirut, Lebanon, at the United Commemorative Event,
April 24, 2009
On this April 24, I have come from Armenia where I live and whose citizen I
am, through Syria where I was born, to Lebanon where I’ve always felt at
home, to say this.
All of us together live in an interdependent world and we should act like
All countries live in a global community and we should all sustain it.
All neighbors should cross borders to build cooperation and understanding,
not close them and fuel hostility and fear.
This is today’s world, this is the world I want to live in, and my years
the foreign ministry simply reinforced my conviction that Armenians, whose
country has been trampled through history, must initiate regional
cooperation and must work for rapprochement with all our neighbors and
transcend all complex issues of the past.
I know this as a student of history, as a diplomat, as someone who believes
that politics is the art of the possible.
This year, after 94 years of commemoration and remembrance, this year, we
cautiously thought we might note April 24 a bit differently, a bit more
hopefully, a bit less bitter, slightly less alone in our grief, less
distrustful of neighbors, less guarded about our choices, less abandoned in
our search for justice. This was the year when we wanted to look our
neighbor in the eye and see the beginnings of a willingness to recognize the
burden of history. But it didn’t happen. On the contrary, today, I am filled
with more suspicion, more misgiving, than I have since our independence.
I am by nature an optimist. In all the years that I’ve addressed audiences
on April 24, I have been careful to say that we do not link the government
and people of today’s Turkey with the Ottoman perpetrators.
In all the years since independence, we have spoken about establishing
normal bilateral relations with Turkey, without conditions and in a spirit
of compromise. In response to our desire to transcend this together, Turkey
has offered years of delay, doubletalk and, most recently, gestures.
Being willing to open a border with an intransigent neighbor is a
compromise. Extending a hand to cooperate with a government that finances
the denial of the genocidal actions of its predecessors is a compromise, a
serious, grave, potentially consequential security compromise.
We expect the world to understand the real implications of a genocide that
goes unrecognized and uncondemned. We expect governments to realize that
living next door to a powerful neighbor, historically unrepentant, endlessly
challenging political and historical truths is cause for security concerns.
Let’s for a second look back and see what demands and conditions they have
repeated consistently since our independence.
First, that Armenia and Armenians relinquish genocide recognition. Recently
this was fashioned in the form of a proposal to establish a historical
commission. Clearly the purpose was to question the veracity of the genocide
and also endlessly delay the process, by an open-ended discussion. What
historical commission are they talking about? Let’s face it: outside of
Turkey, the question is not at all a historical one. It is only in Turkey
where history is questioned. If there are still countries who are reluctant
to recognize the Armenian genocide, it’s because of their concerns about
political and economic consequences and not because they question the facts
of the genocide.
I have no problem with establishing an intergovernmental commission which
crosses open borders, meets under normal circumstances, and discusses
various issues, including issues of the past — not to prove whether they
were genocidal or not, not to question history — but to find ways to
transcend history together. But accepting a commission or a subcommission to
study genocide and determine whether what happened was indeed a genocide or
not is absolutely not an acceptable option.
Their second demand is that Armenia and Armenians renounce any territorial
demands of Turkey. This could eventually manifest itself in the form of
reciprocal recognition of borders as part of the establishment of diplomatic
relations. To provide an accurate assessment of this, we must distinguish
between historical realities and political realities. The world recognizes
us, Turkey and Armenia, with our current borders and that’s a political
reality. For Armenia to normalize relations with Turkey, we must recognize
Turkey’s current borders. But this political reality must not eclipse our
right to talk and discuss our historical past or in any way dim our hopes to
achieve justice, one day.
Let’s not forget that it is a historical reality that Armenians lived on
these lands for thousands of years, and Armenia’s borders changed a great
deal over the millennia. No one should be surprised that Ararat is on our
state seal. At one time, an Armenian kingdom stretched from sea to sea. The
last change came at the beginning of the 20th century. By the provisions of
the Treaty of Sevres, the territory of Armenia was 10 times what it is
today. Turkey defied the treaty which had been signed by its own government,
and by force, created a new de facto situation, which led to the signing of
the Treaty of Lausanne which defines our current borders. Once again, I do
not see a problem with recognizing current borders, but without
relinquishing our history or our hopes for the future.
Finally, Turkey expects a Nagorno Karabakh resolution. The problem is that
their expected solution is diametrically different from what we expect.
There are no overlapping areas of agreement. Furthermore, since Turkey
understands that a comprehensive solution to Nagorno Karabakh is distant,
they insist that territories under Armenian control around Nagorno Karabakh
be returned to Azerbaijan. If in the case of the previous two
pre-conditions, some middle ground could have been found through some
diplomatic formulation to achieve understanding, in this case there is none.
The very territories that protect us from a repetition of 1915 in 2015 are
the territories that Turkey wants us to relinquish so that they open the
Our losses from the genocide are enormous and incalculable – territorial,
human, cultural, psychological. These are unrecoverable.
But of course over time, instead of healing, they are becoming deeper and
heavier because of Turkey’s policy of denial.
Denial of genocide is continuation of genocide. Turkey insists that labeling
the events of 1915 as genocide is an insult to the Turkish people. It seems
to me that a mature society that believes in free speech is beyond insults.
But be that as it may, it can safely be said that the Turkish state created
its own image, its identity, its modern history based on something less than
reality. Now, with that gap in public knowledge, they are afraid that their
own people will be insulted by the truth. Fortunately, there are more and
more in Turkish society who are looking for ways to come to terms with their
own and our shared past. Let’s not kid ourselves, their numbers are small,
but they are wise, sincere and courageous. Inspired by the memory of Hrant
Dink’s commitment, and moved by their own morality, they are working to
traverse the chasm between us. No one expects this will be quick or easy.
But we have always known for it to be successful, it would have to come from
within Turkish society.
Their greatest obstacle is their own government. It is absurd that 94 years
later, Turkey continues to insist that the claims of genocide by Armenians
have never been historically or legally substantiated.
In addition to denying their history and their responsibility, Turkey is
also ably manipulating the Armenian government’s well-intentioned overtures.
I don’t want to doubt that the desire of the Armenian government was sincere
when they wanted to normalize relations with Turkey. But from that point of
departure to today, the situation has changed so much, so many preconditions
have been placed and sounded that the whole process is shrouded by a veil of
uncertainty. The last expression of this was the two foreign ministries’
announcement, just two days before the anniversary of the genocide.
If such a statement on the eve of April 24 is pure coincidence, then this is
testimony that our authorities are indifferent to our collective emotions.
This is incomprehensible. But if this was done intentionally, at someone’s
proposal or perhaps insistence, and with expectations of something in
exchange, that means that we have turned the genocide recognition issue into
an object of give and take. That is no longer incomprehensible, but
Every Armenian administration since independence has managed to resist the
combined efforts of Turkey and Azerbaijan to extract concessions from
Armenia. I hope that today’s Armenian leadership, too, will also have the
necessary wisdom, courage and determination to do the same.
In the 20th century alone, there have been 15 genocides; each group of
victims have their own names for the places of infamy. What the French call
`les lieux infames de memoire’ are everywhere. They are places of horror,
slaughter, of massacre, of the indiscriminate killing of all those who have
belonged to a segment, a category, an ethnic group, a race or a religion.
For Cambodians they are the killing fields, for the children of the
21stcentury, it is Darfur. For Armenians, it is the desert of Der Zor.
I was in Der Zor earlier this week, and I saw that only luck and sand stood
between life and death for our grandparents. I asked, how is it possible
that 94 years later, we are still publicly calling for acknowledgment and
recognition, so that by 2015, we can gather together only for remembrance.
What are the values of humanity if we the victims are still explaining to
the world and to the descendants of the perpetrators that we want nothing
more of them than a recognition of a wrong done in the past, and a
willingness to do right in the future?