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Friday, May 1, 2015

Commemorating 100 Years of the Armenian Genocide

armenian.jpgOn April 24th, in memory of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the Institute for Global Studies, the Human Rights Program, the Department of Sociology, and the Ohanessian Chair hosted a conference to promote understanding of mass violence, in general, and the Armenian Genocide, in particular, and analyze the implications of such events in a public context. The first session of the conference consisted of three different speakers who spoke on the topic of survival, trauma and resilience.

According to the speakers, the Armenian Genocide that took place 100 years ago not only resulted in the death of 1.5 million people but also left long-term imprints on the mental health of Armenian citizens. The pain and suffering that this genocide caused is still present today and is the main contributing factor to post-traumatic stress disorder that is seen in many Armenian citizens. In order to begin the healing process, the speakers argued, it is necessary for the world to truly acknowledge the genocide that took place.

In the second morning session, the speakers focused on the issues surrounding Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide and the strained relationship between the two countries. Two students from Armenia spoke to the universal repercussions of denial, citing Adolf Hitler's speech to his armies prior to the invasion of Poland in 1939: "Who after all remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?" In addition to state actors, the first student called on civil society to harness the power of ordinary people and to promote global political will to act. This also requires a dialogue between academics from both countries, between the Diaspora and the Turkish people as well as their respective governments. Recognition would enable the Armenian people to heal from the trauma, but equally important, would enable peaceful co-existence between Armenia and Turkey. The second student discussed Turkey's modern form of denial by speaking to Turkey's rhetoric of the "shared pain" of Armenians and Turks, wherein a sense of a common loss during World War I has been developed as a way to divert the label of genocide. Ultimately, he found this comparison was untenable, as the Turks did not suffer systematic mass killing and deportations, which continued after the time frame of the First World War. The final speaker for this session discussed the "Armenian Holocaust" in the framework of international law, contextualizing the rise of international instruments such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide and international judicial systems to bring about justice. This stimulated a series of questions concerning the geo-political barriers to recognition, the uniqueness of each act of genocide and whether different forms of justice (such as truth telling) would be more effective.

The afternoon's first session consisted of undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota, Exeter University in the UK and University of Wisconsin, La Cross showcasing their work concerning mass violence. The first student presented her work from her senior honors thesis, which examined how transitional justice mechanisms affected social cohesion in the context of post-genocidal Rwanda. She focused her presentation on the punitive and restorative forms of justice implemented specifically in the traditional, Gacaca courts. Another student presented his preliminary work regarding the British perceptions of genocide and mass atrocities in the Sierra Leonean Civil war from 1997-2002. Through his work, he has been able to find that the Cold War context has failed to frame the conflict correctly. It is this failure that has motivated him to look at conflicts based on identity rather than ideology to better understand the civil war. The final student in this session discussed her research on the implications of translating texts of mass violence, using Elie Wiesel's Night as a case study. Though she argued that translation is a powerful tool for the production of knowledge, she demonstrated how this process can transform the essence of a piece of writing and how the text is "watered down" for readers who do not have a direct connection to the violence, creating greater disconnect. Therefore, according to her claims, series of ethical issues arise in the translator's ability to uphold the intentions of the author.

The fourth and final session focused on the causes of genocide and its prevention. The first speaker discussed patterns of past episodes of genocide to determine common causal agents and to predict and prevent future mass atrocities. She contended, through the eight stages of genocide, that all genocides are unique, but comparison is a useful tool in genocide prevention and explains the unique nature of each case. She also spoke to the already existing and deeply flawed warning systems, calling on the United Nations to seek a more effective method of predicting such acts. The final speaker of the day presented his early findings in comparing the genocide of Native Americans and Armenians by exploring the role of nationalism in this genocidal violence. He investigates this question through the rise of nationalism, the process of "othering" and the use of propaganda. His research indicates that nationalism served to reject individual cultural identity and is a key factor in the path towards genocide. In these cases he found parallel patterns of minority persecution, leading to dehumanization. Both cases also demonstrate the role of religious ideology in creating a cohesive message of majority "unity" and expansionist policies.

The conference concluded with some words from Professor Bedross Der Matossian who spoke to the double-edged sword of collective memory, which can lead to healing and peaceful relationships but can also lead to future atrocities, keeping the cycle of violence alive when abused. He reviewed the various theories regarding the causes of the Armenian genocide, concluding that the regime of the Young Turks was desperate to maintain an imperial form of nationalism and the territorial integrity of the Empire. Finally, he encouraged everyone to promote prevention through increased education and understanding.

-written by Marie-Christine Ghreichi and Anna Pogatchnik