Behind the Turkish government’s denials of the century-old Armenian genocide lurks the possibility that survivors and their descendants could be deemed legally entitled someday to financial reparations, perhaps worth tens of billions of dollars or more.
The Turkish authorities take the position that there is nothing that needs to be repaid. Moreover, no judicial mechanism exists in which claims of such magnitude, from events 100 years ago, could be litigated. But Armenian activists have nonetheless increasingly focused on the issue of compensation in recent years.
They have followed precedents set by victims of other atrocities of modern history, most notably Holocaust-era claims against Germany. They have drawn parallels between their struggle for reparations and those of Native Americans and African-Americans. They have commissioned studies to evaluate plundered and seized assets, including land that is now part of Turkey.
Many have also been energized by what they see as an increasing acknowledgment — mainly outside Turkey but also among some Turks — that from 1915 to 1923, in the tumult of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide committed by members of the generation that created the modern Turkish state.
“My parents and grandparents used to say, ‘We’ll never see justice done,’ ” said Nora Hovsepian, an American lawyer of Armenian descent from Encino, Calif., and the chairwoman of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America, an advocacy group for the Armenian diaspora. With more international acceptance that genocide was committed, she said, “I think the tide is turning.”
For human rights historians, the Turkish government’s outrage at recent calls to acknowledge the genocide from Pope Francis, the European Parliament, Germany and Austria is intertwined with the reparations question. Such an acknowledgment by Turkey, such historians say, would not only reverse a century of denials, but would also weaken Turkey’s legal defenses from compensation claims.
“If you deny something, it is not given existence by you,” said Jermaine McCalpin, a scholar of transitional justice at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. “If it’s not given existence, there’s nothing to resolve.”
Mr. McCalpin, who was invited to deliver a speech on Friday at genocide centennial commemorations in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, served on an international panel that completed a large-scale study last month on calculating Armenian reparations.
He said the reparations question was challenging partly because the events happened so long ago. “But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing,” he said in a telephone interview.
“You’re talking about a long historical trend of denial,” Mr. McCalpin said of Turkey. “To admit or recognize a genocide also requires acknowledging a wrong, and that is where reparations come in. You acknowledge, and then you move to repair.”
The study by the panel, the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group, was funded in part by Armenian advocacy organizations. It includes recommendations and formulas for determining the components of a possible reparations package, including inflation-adjusted compensation for property, death and suffering, based in part on historical precedents. Depending on the method of calculation, the total could exceed $100 billion.
The chairman of the panel, Henry C. Theriault, a genocide scholar and the chairman of the philosophy department at Worcester State University in Worcester, Mass., said the question of reparations was “obviously a pretty central one.”
He also said an official Turkish acknowledgment of genocide, while not critical for reparation claims, was still important.
“It has symbolic value, for getting the history right,” he said. “The fact that many people in Turkey aren’t willing to use the word, the resistance to using it, doesn’t promote reconciliation.”
Other Armenian groups have said Mr. Theriault’s panel vastly understated what was lost. Armenian Genocide Losses 1915, a website established by researchers in Armenia to estimate damages after the passing of 100 years, uses broader measures for calculating values, which are correspondingly higher than the panel’s.
They include determinations for irreversible harm, such as death and destruction, and reversible harm, such as restoration of damaged churches, sea access, water and land resources, an apology and genocide education. They also include a calculation for “delay damages,” which reflect deprivation of access to ancestral homelands and emotional distress.
Under the website’s formulas, at least nine countries gained indirect benefits from the genocide, including the United States and much of present-day Europe. But Turkey gained more than any other, as “chief beneficiary and main cause of delay in proper redress of the crime.”
The website estimated the total value of reparations at approximately $3 trillion, of which it said Turkey owes about $1.64 trillion.
Many Armenians, of course, say reparations on that scale are highly unlikely, even if Turkey were ever to concede that reconciliation should include financial compensation. But there is no indication Turkish leaders are prepared to discuss that possibility.
While the Turks have said atrocities were committed, they have denied that Armenians, almost all of them Christian, were intentionally and systematically killed because of their identity, part of the definition of genocide.
The Turks have also said that many Turkish Muslims were killed, and have sought to portray all victims of that period as regrettable casualties of conflict. And they have cited agreements made in the aftermath of World War I that were meant to settle claims and Ottoman-era debts.
“To undo these agreements would be unthinkable,” said G. Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America, an advocacy group in Washington.
“We would hope that Turkey and Armenia instead could look forward to reconciliation without the necessity of re-litigating venerable and time-honored agreements,” Mr. McCurdy said in a statement. “And what about the losses of millions of Ottoman Muslims, who were driven out of their ancestral homes in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Russia and suffered during a century of war at the hands of the great powers and their proxies?”
Armenians have managed to win some money in the courts, though not from Turkey. In one well-known case, the New York Life Insurance Company was sued for refusing to pay the life insurance policies of thousands of Armenians who died in the genocide. The case, brought in California where many descendants of genocide victims live, was settled in 2004 for $20 million, plus $3 million for nine Armenian church and charity groups.
Last September, leading Armenian clerics announced they were suing Turkey in that country’s highest court, seeking restitution for church properties destroyed during the genocide, notably the Great House of Cilicia in Sis, near the Turkish city of Adana. If the lawsuit fails, advocates say, an appeal is planned at the European Court of Human Rights.
Ms. Hovsepian said the focus on litigation to redress genocide losses partly reflected a generational shift in the Armenian diaspora, as many of the survivors have died and their children have taken up the cause in a less emotional and more pragmatic way.
“It’s history passed down,” she said. “Of course we still mourn the dead, but it goes beyond that. You can see the evolution. It’s become a time of demands.”
"The New York Times," April 23, 2015