By Laura Boghosian
YEREVAN—In a wide-ranging lecture at the American University of Armenia (AUA), international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC accused Turkey’s Minister for European Union Affairs of lying, endorsed Armenian calls for reparations and restitution, and declared that the Armenian Genocide is not a subject for historians, but a matter for legal judgment.
Robertson, whose specialties include constitutional, international, human rights, civil liberties, and media law, is founder and head of Doughty Street Chambers, a leading human rights law practice in London. Robertson also served as a judge and president of the United Nations Special Court for war crimes in Sierra Leone. In 2008, the Secretary General appointed him as Distinguished Jurist on the United Nations Internal Justice Council.
Invited to Armenia by AUA, Robertson spoke April 23 on “Why Armenian Genocide Deniers Are Wrong.” A panel discussion, moderated by the dean of AUA’s law department, Thomas Samuelian, followed his address. Panelists were Robertson; Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Director Dr. Hayk Demoyan; and Dr. Yeghishe Kirakosyan, a founding member of the Yerevan-based International and Comparative Law Center.
‘Thinking about Thinking’
The event, entitled “A Legal Lens on Genocide,” was the third in the “Thinking about Thinking” lecture series co-sponsored by AUA and the Luys Foundation.
In his opening remarks, AUA President Bruce Boghosian explained that the purpose of “Thinking about Thinking” is to propose new ways of thinking about various topics, even the Armenian Genocide.
Discussion about the genocide is moving away from appeals to morality and toward the realm of law, he said, with lawsuits in recent years focusing on insurance claims and the return of property such as churches and land.
Boghosian stated that as genocide deniers persist in their arguments against objective reality, Armenians must study their evolving tactics, which he compared to the methods used by those who deny climate change or evolution.
“Another way in which discourse about the Armenian Genocide is changing,” said Boghosian, “is the movement away from regarding it as an isolated historical event, and toward understanding it as a historical process.”
Boghosian observed that the Armenian Genocide “began many years before 1915, intensifying with the massacres, economic deprivations and depopulation strategies of the 19th century.” And since genocide scholars characterize denial as the eighth and final stage of genocide, “it is ongoing,” since Turkey continues to deny the genocide.
The Armenian Genocide, therefore, “has the dubious distinction of being one of the longest ongoing genocidal processes in human history,” said Boghosian. “The Armenian Genocide is therefore not an event, but a process—a process fueled, as genocides are, by racial hatred and designed to rid the historical Armenian homeland of Armenians.”
This genocidal policy continues to the present, he charged, with the Turkish blockade of Armenia’s borders “in an attempt to further strangle it and induce emigration.”
“We are no longer simply asking for genocide recognition,” he concluded. “We’re demanding that the genocide stop.”
Turkish minister’s lies
Robertson began his talk by sharing an indirect connection to the Armenian Genocide. An Australian by birth, Robertson’s great uncle William was one of the thousands of Australians killed at the battle of Gallipoli.
“He had no idea that that landing would be used as an excuse, as a trigger, for the roundup of Armenian teachers and lawyers, poets, and intellectuals in Constantinople to begin a murderous operation so much more heinous than the crimes committed in ordinary warfare,” he said.
“Genocide is different,” Robertson stated, and it “cannot and should not be forgiven unless and until the nation that is responsible for it acknowledges that responsibility for the worst of all crimes and makes amends, as Germany has by now made amends for the Holocaust.”
Unlike the judgment at Nuremberg, “We have had no judgment on the Armenian Genocide, and perhaps it is time that we did judge it, because the nation responsible for it can not bring itself to own up, cannot recognize that what it did to the Armenian community in 1915 was not just mass murder, not just a crime against humanity, but was motivated by a desire to extinguish a race.”
Rather than acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, Robertson reported that just the week before, Turkish Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bagis told “a shocking lie,” when he claimed that Turkish officials were acquitted of massacring Armenians by a British judge in Malta.
“This is a lie, a pack of lies that must be unpacked.” There was “no difficulty at all in proving their guilt,” Robertson said, but “as international law then stood in 1919, a government and its officials could not be prosecuted for ordering the deaths and deportations that killed at least a million Armenians… They were not acquitted, they just couldn’t be tried.” The Turkish prisoners were eventually exchanged for British hostages captured by Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist forces.
It was not until the 1945 Nuremberg trials and the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 that a legal framework emerged for prosecuting government officials accused of slaughtering their own people, Robertson explained.
“The very idea that the Armenian massacres didn’t amount to genocide would have amazed Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the Genocide Convention,” said Robertson. In fact, it was because no one was punished for these massacres that Lemkin, who later coined the word “genocide,” began advocating for such a law.
“He studied the Malta proceedings and he realized that the law needed a new crime to cover the mass murdering of their own people by military and political officials,” said Robertson. “In his crusade for the crime of genocide from 1933 onward, it was always the Armenians that he used as the example for why we needed a law.”
“There is no doubt among lawyers today that the Genocide Convention was written on the backs and through the blood of those million or so Armenians who died,” he added.
The Armenian Genocide
In 2008, Robertson was asked by the London-based Armenian Centre to determine whether the Turkish deportations and massacres of Armenians beginning in 1915 constituted genocide under the standards of international law. The United Kingdom, like the United States, refuses to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide.
“I came to the conclusion that, beyond any shadow of doubt, the events of 1915 would be characterized as genocide today,” he said. “The evidence was overwhelming.”
Unless it acknowledges the Armenian Genocide, Robertson declared, “Turkey must not, and I hope will not, be allowed to join the European Union.”
Robertson then described how genocide law is evolving. “Genocide courts have been developing international criminal law in the last 10 years…we have been refining, defining, and developing the law of genocide in ways that bear directly on the issue of whether you can characterize the events of 1915 as genocide.”
Specifically, rulings interpreting the Genocide Convention by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) are relevant to the Armenian deportations, particularly the convention’s Article 2-c that defines genocide as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
“The other issue that we’ve dealt with in The Hague,” said Robertson, “is the question of what amounts to genocidal intent.”
Genocide deniers and ‘proof’
Robertson skewered genocide-denying historians Justin McCarthy, Bernard Lewis, and Heath Lowry for their argument that there are no documents that “prove” the Armenian Genocide.
“They have this concept of genocide being proved, of genocidal intent, being proved by an order that is written down. ‘Where is the order for destroying the Armenians?’ they say. There is no order written down by Hitler for destroying the Jews. There was no order written down by the Hutus for destroying the Tutsis. This is ludicrous. This is a ridiculous idea that is at the heart of a lot of the arguments of the genocide deniers. The courts in The Hague over the last few years have constantly ruled that the intention necessary for genocide can be inferred from other factors,” he stated.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) actually held that the existence of a plan or policy is not a legal ingredient of the crime, according to Robertson.
To illustrate how historians are ignorant of the legalities of genocide, Robertson read from the writings of Justin McCarthy, who admits that half a million Armenians died, but argues that Armenians died from sickness, exhaustion, and attacks of marauders on “rich convoys.”
“ICTY jurisprudence makes it absolutely crystal clear that any government that orders deportations knowing that people will die from sickness, exhaustion following long marches, etc., will be guilty of genocide,” said Robertson. “McCarthy just doesn’t understand the laws of genocide.”
“But notice the language…the rich convoys… What is he trying to say? That these people died because they were rich and they had all their rich objects on their backs? It’s very distasteful, disgusting, I think. And it does show the extent to which Professor McCarthy has become a propagandist, and a vey unattractive one… As far as McCarthy is concerned, I think we can see him as a rather perverse propagandist for the Turkish government.”
Governments like that of Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom that call for the matter to be decided by historians are wrong, stated Robertson. “They say this is a matter for historians. It’s not. Historians…are utterly ignorant of what genocide is in law. It’s not a matter for historians. Genocide is a matter for judges. But we hear time and again, this is a matter for historians.”
The Armenian government is right to reject calls for the genocide to be studied by a panel of historians as described in the protocols, said Robertson.
Genocide equivocating governments
Robertson called governments like that of the United States and the United Kingdom that do not recognize the Armenian Genocide for political and commercial reasons “genocide equivocators.” He then described how the “genocide equivocating” British government claimed that the evidence was not “sufficiently unequivocal” to characterize the Armenian massacres as genocide.
Secret government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act during his legal examination of the Armenian Genocide revealed the true reasons for the UK’s position: Memoranda clearly stated that political and commercial relations with Turkey were the reasons for the government’s admittedly unethical policy, given Turkey’s “neuralgic” reaction to charges of genocide.
“So there it is, in black and white. We’re lying, we’re being unethical,” admonished Robertson, “but we need Turkey [which] is crazed, insane, when it comes to allegations of genocide.”
In his 2009 report, Robertson accused the Foreign Office of misleading parliament on the Armenian Genocide.
Reparations and restitution
Robertson next discussed legal tools, such as the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act or the European Court of Human Rights, which Armenians might employ for reparations and restitution of property taken by the Turkish government during the genocide.
“The laws that confiscated and appropriated Armenian property, they’re still available today for actions for restitution,” he said.
“The issue of the Armenian Genocide can no longer be left to history. It certainly can’t be left to historians,” he concluded. “It is a matter for judgment, applying the developed law of genocide to the evidence. And in my judgment, there can only be one outcome.”
Hayk Demoyan opened the discussion by pointing out that Turkey began its genocide denial as early as 1915-16, when it published books with photos of Armenian victims re-captioned as Muslim dead.
Turkey, he said, is preparing for 2015 with new skills and more sophisticated approaches to deny “the historical and legal facts of the Armenian Genocide,” such as hiring and paying new academics, establishing new chairs, and restoring Armenian monuments as part of the general plan.
Yet despite the favorable international publicity reaped by Turkey with the restoration of Akhtamar, other Armenian cultural monuments are being systematically destroyed.
Demoyan said that metal detectors are being openly sold in Turkey with written instructions, in Turkish, that say if you want to find treasure, you should search for it in the foundations of Armenian churches or on the land of former Armenian cemeteries. In Ani last year, an Armenian queen’s burial site was desecrated, khatchkars were broken to pieces, and tombstones crushed, he said, yet “no one is punished.”
Demoyan charged that current Turkish officials continue the genocide by not punishing, for example, the policemen who posed with Hrant Dink’s assassin and by blockading the border. When a country imposes a military blockade, he said, the next step is a declaration of war.
“Armenian statehood for Turkish leadership always was anathema,” said Demoyan, adding that he believes the border is closed not due to Azerbaijan, but rather by a fear of the existence of Armenians on ethnically cleansed Armenian territories.
Later, in the question and answer period, Demoyan said Armenians must be ready if Turkey decides to recognize the genocide.
If Turkey accepts the historical facts, it would have to accept the “legal responsibilities for crimes committed,” said Demoyan. The challenge will be for Armenians to agree on what we want, he said.
“We cannot speak with different languages. We cannot claim different things. We have to claim a common thing,” he concluded. “Genocide is a crime and there are still consequences of this crime. And these consequences must be eliminated… We have to be ready…with a common agenda. State and diaspora structures must [work] together in order to develop one language, one claim.”
Yeghishe Kirakosyan began his remarks by examining recent scholarship on the concepts of state responsibility and state succession as determined by the Permanent Court of International Justice and other international tribunals.
Modern Turkey could be held responsible, he said, for violations that took place at the beginning of the 20th century and could be brought to justice. Kirakosyan explored the various avenues open to Armenians to pursue claims against Turkey, such as state claims commissions and international courts.
Moderator Tom Samuelian observed that many countries have benefitted from the Armenian Genocide and its denial, and asked, “Why not make them all pay?”
The discussion was concluded by Geoffrey Robertson, who declared, “There has to be restitution… We all want reconciliation… But you cannot have reconciliation without truth and acknowledgment of truth.”
Visit to Genocide Memorial
Earlier in the day, Boghosian and AUA’s leadership team escorted Robertson to the Armenian Genocide Memorial, where he laid flowers. In a televised joint press conference, Demoyan presented Robertson with the Fridtjof Nansen Medal for his legal examination of the Armenian Genocide. The medal is named in honor of Nansen, a Norwegian humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who aided Armenian refugees following the genocide. Also receiving a medal was Jussi Bjorn, who recently discovered memoirs describing the 1915 Moush massacres handwritten by his grandmother, Norwegian missionary Bodil Katharine Bjorn.
One of Robertson’s many books is Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, which analyzes the development and application of international human rights law and opens with Hitler’s quote dismissing the Armenian Genocide as a forgotten event.
Robertson has argued cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the Privy Council, and the House of Lords, and has appeared in cases in countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Malawi, Fiji, Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia. He has led numerous human rights missions to countries such as South Africa and Vietnam on behalf of Amnesty International and is visiting professor in human rights at Queen Mary College, University of London.
Over 20 years ago, Robertson successfully defended author Salman Rushdie when British Muslims brought a suit alleging blasphemous libel following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Robertson also hid Rushie in his home after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushie’s assassination.
Today, Robertson, who holds dual British and Australian citizenship, represents fellow Australian Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of Wikileaks.