The Royal Conservatory of Belgium was full of diplomats, journalists and students on April 25 as Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian highlighted a Commemorative Evening under the auspices of the Armenian Embassy in Brussels.
The Minister's talk, entitled “Remembering a Past, Forging a Future,” addressed the nature and purpose of remembering. He spoke about Armenia's readiness for normal relations with Turkey, even as the Genocide and its impact are remembered and recognized. [For the full text of the Minister's remarks, see below.]
Belgian Senator Roelants du Vivier, head of the Belgian Senate's Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke about the imperative of acknowledging both to honor genocide victims and to prevent future atrocities. He related how, during a recent visit to Yerevan, in the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial museum, he was moved by the display of Hitler's words. The Belgian Senator had, in 1987, joined in the first Genocide recognition resolution passed by the European Parliament.
Noted violinist Sergei Khachatrian, who in 2005 had won Belgium?a Queen Elisabeth Prize, performed pieces by Bach, Komitas and Franck. He, with Lusine Khachatrian on piano, received the audience's deep appreciation.
Speech by H. E. Vartan Oskanian Minister of Foreign Affairs At a Commemorative Evening Conservatoire Royal Brussels
Thank you Mr. du Vivier, for sharing this evening with us and conveying your message from the halls of Brussels. And thank you Sergey and Lusine. Sergey graciously accepted my invitation to join us this evening, because I knew well that Sergey's “message” will resonate in this hall and stay with us as the context for an evening of commemoration.
This is an evening of commemoration, much like those that are being held in nearly every major city around the world this week. It's a day of remembrance much like those that have been held every year for the last half century.
But over these years, and especially since independence, the nature and the purpose of our remembering have changed.
I would like to speak with you today not just about our past, but about our future. I want to set the record straight about what we want for our people, our country and our neighborhood. And I want to do that here in this European capital that is the symbol of unity and not divisiveness.
Today, I want to talk about what we remember, how we remember and how the reasons for remembering have evolved, just as our communities, our country and the world around us have evolved. We have had a difficult, painful past that we will continue to remember and honor. But let me be clear: we don't want to live in the past. We want to reconcile with the past as we forge a future.
In Aleppo, Syria, where I grew up, remembering rituals consisted mainly of gathering to hear the stories of someone who had suffered things we could not really imagine. Aleppo was the end of the road for those who were deported and marched thru the deserts. This is where those with no hope of returning to their homes set up ramshackle, flimsy refugee camps, trying to cope with enormous loss, with wounds that refused to heal.
I think back now at our na?ve efforts to lessen the grief of the survivors by encouraging them to forget and not to speak of their experiences. We did not understand that their lives and outlooks, memories and experiences were forever traumatized. That is how they lived, how they raised their children, how they interacted with the societies and countries in which they found refuge. This we learned years later, as we read about Holocaust survivors trying to cope.
Only when solitary memories were transformed into formal, community-wide tributes, did the survivors begin to feel that their own individual histories of horror had significance beyond the personal. Remembering became a shared activity, a commemoration. Decades later, programs such as Remembering the Cambodian Genocide, and the Remembering Rwanda Project served the same purpose.
For Armenians, commemorations became the outlet for the disbelief and outrage at how this historical event deeply affected our way of being in the world, our sense of personal and collective identity. This was a new generation, no longer victims, a generation that had come to understand that what had been done had been done not to 1.5 million individual Armenians who comprised 2/3 of a nation, but to an entire people who had been massacred, uprooted, deported and whose way of life, whose culture and history, had forever been altered. And all this, by government decree.
For a long time, we memorialized these events by ourselves. We were left alone because there were two versions of history the official and the alleged. The acknowledged and the denied. The Empire that fell was succeeded by a Republic with an immaculate, almost divine, self-image. Such murderous acts and their tolerance could not fit within this self-definition. Therefore, a new history was invented in which these acts never happened. The crimes were never committed. The records of their own military tribunals were ignored, the eyewitness reports of missionaries and diplomats were disputed.
Our history became the “alleged” truth. Their history was the official truth. And since the official truth had the backing of the entire state apparatus, ours became the forgotten genocide.
Occasionally, some would raise their voices against forgetting, and for condemnation. In 1987, Mr. du Villier and others introduced a resolution at the European Parliament, calling the events of 1915, Genocide. Since then, a host of countries have joined us in recognition and in commemoration.
These commemorations are very critical in the face of growing threat of genocide in the world today from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur.
Commemoration is a way of countering the distortion of history, countering the subversion of truth by power.
Commemoration is the victory of truth over expediency. Commemoration is a condemnation of the violence.
Commemoration is a call to responsibility, and therefore to prevention. Commemoration is an acknowledgement of the past, and even the present, but not an obstacle to the future.
And herein lies the irony I don't want to say impasse — in our relations today, with Turkey.
We cannot build a future alone. But neither can we build a future together with a neighbor that is disingenuous about the past, our common past. This Monday's International Herald Tribune carried an ad that also ran in many major newspapers around the world. It is a perfect distillation of Turkey's willful blindness to historical and political processes surrounding it. Just as it succeeded in creating a new history for itself, it wants the world and us to dismiss all other histories not in line with its own.
Turkey calls for Armenians to agree to a historical commission to study the genocide. Not because none have ever convened, but because Turkey does not like their conclusions! Reputable institutions such as the International Assn of Genocide Scholars, the International Center for Transitional Justice have seriously studied these historic events, independent of political pressures, and independently arrived at the conclusion that the events of 1915 constituted Genocide.
Does Turkey want to go shopping for yet another commission, hoping for different results? It has gagged its writers and historians with a criminal code that punishes free speech. What does it expect these historians to study? And with a closed border between our two countries, how does it expect these historians will meet to explore this topic? This is why we wonder about the sincerity and usefulness of the historical commission idea.
Despite these obvious obstacles to serious scholarly exchange, we have agreed to an intergovernmental commission that can discuss everything, so long as there are open borders between our two countries. If Turkey needs discussion, we are ready to cooperate. But we don't want discussion for discussion's sake; we don't want discussion of the past to replace today's vital political processes that are essential for us, for Turkey, for the region. Yes, we want to explore and understand our common past, together. But we don't want that past to be the sole link between our peoples and our countries. We don't want that past to condition the future.
We, the victims of Genocide, have not made Turkey's recognition of that act conditional for our present or future relations. Turkey, however, wants Armenians in and out of Armenia to renounce our past, to understand their denial of our past, as a condition for moving forward. Who is trapped in the past?
I welcome the words of a Turkish intellectual who has said, I am neither guilty nor responsible for what was done 90 years ago. But I feel responsible for what can be done now.
I, too, believe that we must distinguish between the Ottoman Empire and today's government of Turkey. But I must say that although that is possible to do when speaking of the events of 1915, it becomes increasingly difficult to do when speaking about the denial of the Turkish state today. As Elie Wiesel said, the denial of genocide is the continuation of genocide So, how do we distinguish between the two states, if the ideology that is put forth and defended is the same?. This policy of denial is both intellectually and morally bankrupt. And it is costing us all time. The later they get around to making a distinction between their stand and that of their predecessors, the harder it will be to dissociate the two regimes in people's minds.
It is absurd that 92 years later, Turkey can say, in public, that the Armenian allegations of genocide have never been historically or legally substantiated.
Armenians were one of the largest minorities of the Ottoman Empire. Where did they go? Is it possible that all our grandmothers and grandfathers colluded and created stories? Where are the descendants of the Armenians who built the hundreds of churches and monasteries whose ruins still stand today? What kind of open and honest discussion is possible with a government that loudly and proudly announces its renovation of the medieval Armenian jewel of a church, Akhtamar in Lake Van, while it carefully, consistently, removes every reference to its Armenianness from all literature and signs? What is Turkey afraid of?
It is a political reality that Armenia is not a security threat to Turkey. It is a political reality that both Turkey and Armenia exist today in the international community with their current borders.
Today, as the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Armenia, as the grandson of genocide survivors, I can only say that Armenia and Turkey are neighbors who will remain neighbors. We share a border. We can only move forward together.
There is no national history in a vacuum. It can neither be created nor transcended in a vacuum. For France and Germany, England and France, Poland and Germany, in order to transcend their histories of conflict, they had to transcend the past together to transform their future. That, too, can only be done together. Not always does history give mankind a second chance. In this neighborhood, with our neighbors, we have a second chance. We can make history, again, by transcending boundaries and opening the last closed border in Europe and moving forward, together. Europe the premise of Europe and the legacy of Europe is the distinct promise of our age. Europe is where one takes from the past whatever is necessary to move forward. Europe is where former enemies and adversaries can dismiss and condemn actions, policies and processes, but not peoples. Instead, people in Europe move from remorse to reconciliation, and embrace the future. This is precisely what we want to do in our region.
Source: Website of the Ministry of Foreing Affairs of Armenia, 25 April 2007