What Genocide Denialism Does, 109 Years Later

Written by Ella Chakarian

29 April 2024

Protestors gathered in Times Square on the 109th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. By Ella Chakarian.

In New York City on April 24, 2024, Armenians gathered at St. Illuminator’s Church in Murray Hill for a candlelight vigil, then marched on Times Square, waving Armenian flags and plastering posters on walls that read “Free Armenian Prisoners.” It was the 109th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, and protestors, young and old, traversed through Midtown, yelling chants like, “A genocide unpunished is a genocide encouraged.”

Most onlookers turned their heads and started recording the scene with their phones, curious about the protest. One observer shook his finger when hearing the chant, “Shame on Turkey,” in clear disagreement. Others carried on with indifference.

Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 664,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in massacres, individual killings, or systematic marches and starvation under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The term “genocide,” coined by lawyer Raphael Lemkin, is rooted in the deportations and mass killings of Armenians in 1915. Two countries in the world consistently and vehemently deny the Armenian Genocide– Turkey and Azerbaijan. 

On the 109th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, denialistic rhetoric directed towards descendants in the diaspora persisted. On April 23, Turkish news outlets reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addressed the Armenian diaspora in interviews upon his return from a press trip to Erbil, Iraq. 

“I hope Armenia will choose a path that allows it to break out of the darkness in which the diaspora has trapped it and make a new start towards a bright future,” Erdoğan was quoted saying. “Doors of opportunity don’t stay open forever. They must be used while they are open.”

“Erdoğan constantly speaks down on the diaspora and diminishes our efforts as a result of us being one of the most powerful threats to him,” said Rita Bahnan, an Armenian protestor at Times Square on Wednesday. “He is fully aware that the diaspora brings constant activism and dedication to our fight for justice for our homeland.”

For over a century, the Turkish government has worked relentlessly to prevent international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, whether through lobbying efforts or threats. Because of this, Armenians are no strangers to attempts at historical revisionism and blatant ignorance. 

“Erdoğan refers to hoping Armenia gets rid of ‘the darkness that the diaspora has enslaved them in,’” Bahnan continued, “when in reality this darkness is a beacon of light that averts Turkey from moving into their next opportunity to relinquish Armenia’s independence.”

For the last century, descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors have lived in a world where they constantly have to justify the lived experiences of their ancestors. They face disputes over passed-down oral histories, their ancestors’ lived experiences a constant point of contention in legal, political and academic spaces. 

“I think denial allows for history to be repeated,” said Soseh Hovasapian, Chair of AYF Manhattan “Moush” chapter, at the protest in Times Square. “Like everyone is chanting, it just becomes a cycle of genocide that no one is held accountable for.”

Protestors held signs and flags, chanted and sang in Times Square on the 109th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. By Ella Chakarian.

With the forced dissolution of the Republic of Artsakh and ethnic cleansing of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh last September, Armenians in New York City, and across the diaspora, were protesting more than the crimes of 1915– they were shedding light, while mourning the loss of life and land, in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Without proper accountability in the form of recognition, reparations, and restitution,” Hovasapian added, “the Armenian people and nation continue to suffer under continued oppression at the hands of genocidal dictators who lay claims to our historic lands in Western Armenia and Artsakh.”

Genocide denialism can completely distort one’s sense of trust in institutions and governments. Without the sense of resolve that acknowledgment of atrocity crimes can bring, the Armenian community has wavered in a state of limbo for over a century. Not only does the obfuscation of blame pose generational ramifications for descendants, but it also permits present-day atrocities to transpire without fear of repercussions. 

“When I boil down what justice is, for me, for any type of mass atrocity, it is acknowledgment,” said Anoush Baghdassarian, a human rights attorney in New York City. “It is acknowledgment of human dignity, acknowledgment of the harms that someone experienced, acknowledgment of the truth.” It is only with proper recognition, added Baghdassarian, that the Armenian community can “begin to heal this wound.”

The cycle of victimization is not only repeated when Turkish or Azerbaijani government officials spew denialist rhetoric. During a press briefing on April 15, Antranik Kocharyan, chairman of the Armenian Parliament’s Defense and Security Committee, said, “This is a simple goal for us to know the addresses and locations of each of our 1.5 million compatriots. It is very important for the building of our relations [with Turkey] in the future as well. April 24 is approaching. Was it 1.5 million, two million or less? It should be strictly addressed. But if we don’t record it, the other side [Turkey] can always say that no such thing happened. And until today they have been saying so.” Kocharyan’s claims fell under swift criticism on social media, from those who viewed his statement as casting doubt on the Armenian Genocide. 

Genocide denialism has also left descendants of victims and survivors without proper reparations. Historically, restitution cases for descendants of Armenian Genocide victims have been scarce. Because of this denialist rhetoric, the “remedy of restitution has not been foreclosed by the passage of time,” as Professor Alfred de Zayas, former Secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee, said.

Most recently, in 2022, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation into settlement funds totaling $37.5 million that were meant to compensate victims and descendants of the Armenian Genocide. Reporters found that an astonishing 92% of compensation applicants had their claims rejected, the majority on an ambiguous basis. Instead, the money was diverted, with more than $1.1 million directed to sham claimants and irrelevant bank accounts. Following multiple failed requests for a full-scale audit, no one was ever held accountable. The main lawyers and judge, who refused to grant audits into the case, were not investigated. In 2023, Mark Geragos, an attorney on the case, filed a defamation lawsuit against the publication, but no progress has been made since. With the statute of limitations overdue, there are several questions about how the case went so awry. What is certain is that failed restitution cases like this one, coupled with incessant denialist rhetoric and further violence, have led to a perpetual cycle of victimization for Armenians.

“It continues a cycle of feeling victimized– a continued cycle of not feeling sure, of not feeling validated,” said Samantha Lakin, an expert in atrocity crimes and lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Despite the setbacks, Lakin pointed to the Armenian diaspora’s “huge” lobbying efforts as being one form of success. “The way in which victims band together and are actually able to advocate for themselves shows the strength and resilience of the community, which is what most groups don’t have,” she said.

A protestor holds flowers in hand at the 109th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Times Square. By Ella Chakarian.

Chantelle Nasri, chairperson of the Armenian National Committee of New York, spoke to the importance of diaspora lobbying efforts in her speech at St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral. Nasri said that Armenians in the United States must leverage their access to Capitol Hill by contacting their representatives to ensure their voices are heard nationally.

“The Armenian Genocide is still a prevalent subject one century after its transpiration in 1915 because the international community has not yet recognized its happening,” said Nasri following her speech. “This has created systemic challenges for today’s Armenian diaspora who attempt to seek retribution for their ancestors and advocate for justice.” 

We bore witness to Nagorno-Karabakh being emptied of its ethnic Armenians following a lightning offensive by Azerbaijan in September, coverage of the forced deportations buried beneath the fold. States are legally bound by the Geneva Convention to prevent and punish genocide. But, from human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi minority, atrocity crimes persist. The United Nations reported that in January’s ICJ proceedings, “South Africa contended that Israel is violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention” with its military bombardment against Palestinians in Gaza. Just this week, the UN also announced in a press release that mass graves had been unearthed in Gaza.

In New York City last Wednesday, Armenians continued to chant, 109 years later: “A genocide unpunished is a genocide encouraged.” It is the absence of accountability they chant about, that leaves no room for healing, and no room to prevent further atrocity crimes.

A protestor holds a sign reading “Free Artsakh” at the 109th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Times Square. By Ella Chakarian.