Executive director of HRW Middle East and North Africa Division Sarah Leah Whitson will be visiting Istanbul on April 24 as part of the ‘Project 2015’ group to take part in the Armenian Genocide 100th Anniversary Commemoration. We interviewed Whitson in Istanbul, where she held meetings with civilian society organizations in Turkey, which will participate in the organization of the commemoration event; and asked her about Turkey’s position in 2015, the Diaspora’s expectations and the impact of Armenian identity on her life.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Middle East and North Africa Division, is a legal expert who for many years has worked as a human rights advocate.
After graduating from the Harvard Law School, Whitson worked for an international law firm and then in investment banking; she also volunteered in civil society organizations including the Center for Economic and Social Rights and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Since 2004, when she started work at HRW, she has published numerous reports and articles on conflict zones including Israel-Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Whitson’s mother is Armenian, and her family originates from Diyarbakır; so this year, she has another significant agenda. Whitson will be visiting Istanbul on April 24 as part of the ‘Project 2015’ group to take part in the Armenian Genocide 100th Anniversary Commemoration. We interviewed Whitson in Istanbul, where she held meetings with civil society organizations in Turkey, which will participate in the organization of the commemoration event; and asked her about Turkey’s position in 2015, the Diaspora’s expectations and the impact of Armenian identity on her life.
We can perhaps begin with ‘Project 2015’. What will be the core message of the people who will come from the Diaspora to Istanbul on April 24?
This is a commemoration event that civil society in Turkey is organizing, and has been organizing for several years. They started this extremely important process. Diaspora Armenians have come from abroad to Istanbul to participate in this commemoration event in previous years, too. It is a very significant step in terms of recognizing the Genocide in public space, and creating a platform for debate. The aim this year is to make sure a greater number of Diaspora Armenians come to Istanbul for the centennial.
We have three main messages. The first is, a 100 years later, we are still here, we have survived. 1915 is not only a story of death and destruction, but also one of survival against tremendous odds. The second message is, 100 years later, we have not forgotten, and this issue is not going away. And our third and most important message, not only to the government of Turkey, but to the world, is this: Yes, it is true, the government of Turkey may not be ready to do the right thing, but many people, a large part of society in Turkey, is ready to do the right thing. This April 24 will set an example for that. Although States may not be prepared to act honestly because of political reasons, societies are prepared to have an honest and open debate, they are ready to do and say the right thing. We hope it is an important show of solidarity between Turks and Armenians.
How does the Diaspora perceive the special commemoration event in Istanbul?
I can say that the people we have talked to have been tremendously excited. Many people recognize that the most important conversation we can be having right now is the one between Turks and Armenians. In Armenia, and in places like Los Angeles, where there is a high Armenian population, the Genocide remains a very vivid reality and memory, and it is important that Armenians throughout the world all have the opportunity to participate in a commemoration. But the commemoration event in Istanbul is extremely important, because this is where everything started, and this is where the problem remains; the problem is not with the Armenians in the Diaspora, the problem is not in Paris or Washington, the problem is here in Turkey. So this is where we have to move forward.
What scale of participation do you expect?
Many Armenians have still not overcome the trauma. Therefore, it is not easy to return to a land that nearly destroyed your entire population. There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear. The vast majority of the Armenian Diaspora, even though they are refugees from these lands, have never been to Turkey, and the idea of coming here is still very frightening to them. We want to help push that fear aside and demonstrate that there are people for us to connect to, and we are part of these lands as well.
You just mentioned that the problem continues to exist in these lands. I want to ask you about Turkey’s position regarding 2015. As you know, President Erdoğan has announced that the 100th Anniversary of the Dardanelles War will be commemorated on April 24. On the one hand, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issues a message of condolence on the anniversary of Hrant Dink’s passing and speaks of ‘a mutual future’ for Armenian and Turkish people, while on the other hand, high-ranking state officials and Ministers like Çavuşoğlu and Çiçek issue statements about Turkey’s ‘action plan’ for 2015. What do you make of these mixed messages coming from the government?
These mixed messages are in fact very obvious. We have to ask the government, why do they send these mixed messages? Why are they taking such a cheap shot, organizing a commemoration on April 24 for Gallipoli, for the Dardanelles War, when it is not even the real anniversary? It opens them up to a lot of mockery, because it so transparently aims to distort the agenda.
But at the same time it shows that the government is conflicted. They know that something is wrong, and certain steps must be taken, and that is why they are making these few, small gestures. The condolence message issued by former Prime Minister on 24 April 2014 was an advance from what has been said in previous years. But we must still underline that it is not far enough. Therefore, I suppose it is a good thing that they are conflicted, because it means they are grappling with this issue.
Sadly, in terms of action, they have failed to go beyond political tactics. Erdoğan has now been saying for a very long time that he is a leader for Turkey, that he speaks with the voice of moral authority; and on many international platforms he has expressed a voice of principle. We’d like to see him act as that voice of principle, to take that step forward, to show that he is perhaps the leader who can take the issue forward. We are looking forward to the government of Turkey doing the right thing; and that does not mean just agreeing to what the Armenian Diaspora, Armenia, France or the US expects. They should be guided by their own moral compass about coming to terms with the past. Because, after all, not only Armenians, but the people of Turkey are also held up, and cannot move beyond the horrors of the past.
“We are looking forward to the government of Turkey doing the right thing; and that does not mean doing what the Armenian Diaspora, Armenia, France or the US expects. They should be guided by their own moral compass.”
“The magnificence of the Surp Giragos Church showed me that the fire of justice has not been extinguished”
Your grandfather was born in Diyarbakır. You visited Diyarbakır a few years ago with your family. How did you feel when you returned to the homeland of your family?
Yes, that was my second visit. I first visited Diyarbakır in 1994. I was passing through on my way to Iraq. The Surp Giragos Church was in ruins back then. I had met an old woman in her 90s, and people told me that she was the only Armenian here. She was very old, blind, and deaf. Then, I felt that this was the end of everything, and that everything related to the past was lost. My grandfather was orphaned in Diyarbakır, during the 1915 Genocide in Diyarbakır, and missonaries took him to an orphanage in Lebanon.
To return, a year and a half ago, in 2013, and to see this beautiful church, magnificently restored, to hear Abdullah Demirbaş, the Mayor of the Sur District, talking about efforts to build a centre for the Armenian community and heritage, and that there were Islamized Armenians coming back to Diyarbakır, it was a tremendously moving moment.
Being there in the church where my grandfather was baptized, to be there not in ruins, but glory, and to be there with my children – because it was very important for them to know where they came from, who they are and in what conditions their forefathers lived – evoked incredible emotions. It was also very inspiring, too, because it showed me that the flame of justice has not died, the people there are doing this because it is the right thing, that flame continues to live on in the hearts of the people of Diyarbakır. It’s so triumphant for the human spirit. Hats off to the people of Diyarbakır, the Armenian Diaspora community and the visionaries that made that happen.
You have been working in the field of human rights for many years, and you hold an important position at your insitution. How did you choose this path?
In fact, the path chose me. As an Armenian, you have a very strong sense of being an underdog and having a sense of injustice. I was raised with the notion of injustice, and the need for justice. I got to know the broader world during my university education, and it was natural for me to extend that compassion and take sides with the oppressed. The Middle East was a natural place for me to focus, because I speak Arabic, I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East and I became very concerned about the issues there. Another reason for me to focus on the Middle East is that I feel responsibility as a US citizen. The US has been deeply involved in the region, and in such bad ways. One of the first major activist challenges I took on was the first Iraq War in 1994. I felt that the human cost of that war was being kept secret from the US public. The non-transparent policy of the US played a role in my continuing work regarding human rights issues in the Middle East.
What you said about Armenian identity reminds me of a recent debate in the Diaspora. Journalist Meline Toumani, the author of the book ‘There Was and There Was Not’ speaks of how being Armenian requires that one assume a mission regarding the Genocide, of some kind of responsibility. What is your view on that debate?
I bought a copy but I haven’t read it yet. So it wouldn’t be fair for me to comment without knowing precisely what Toumani says in the book. What I do believe, however, is that Armenians have a responsibility. We lost 75% of our population, and we are involved in a struggle, because no one else will take up that struggle on our behalf. Black Americans also have a responsibility, they continue to fight racism, and they cannot escape that responsibility even if they want to. I wish I carried no responsibility because of my Armenian identity, I wish we were a problem-free society, yet biology and fate have rendered that impossible.
“I wish I carried no responsibility because of my Armenian identity, I wish we were a problem-free society, yet biology and fate have rendered that impossible.”
‘Christian minorities are specifically targeted in the Middle East’
You have close contact with the region. What is the situation of Christian minorities, and of Armenians, who are part of that group, in the war in Syria?
The current situation in the Middle East involves death and destruction at a level we have not witnessed in a long time. The most significant outcome of the war in Syria is of course the death of almost 200,000 Syrians. This number will probably exceed 200 thousand in the near future. It is a massive tragedy. Sunnis, Shiites, Armenians: everyone is suffering. We are talking about a devastating war against diversity. If we can imagine that the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that forms the richness of the Middle East is being destroyed, then we can understand the magnitude of the tragedy we face. However, Christian minorities are specifically targeted in the Middle East. Armenians, one of the ancient Christian minorities of the region, are about to be wiped out completely. On the other hand, this war made me understand the value of the existence of the Armenian state in a way I had not considered before. Armenia is one of the most significant destinations where Armenians fleeing Syria can seek shelter. They no doubt live in difficult conditions there, too, but we can say that they have better conditions than the refugee camps in Jordan or Turkey.