April 24th is a day of remembrance for the Armenian Genocide that occurred between 1915 and 1923, in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed.  The date is the anniversary of the deportation of Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire – the beginning of organized efforts to expel the Armenian minority from Ottoman Turkey.  The Ottoman Empire targeted the Armenian minority with expert precision—in 1915 approximately 2.5 million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire,” and by 1923 “only about 200,000 Armenians remained.”[1]

The Turkish government has refused to recognize the American Genocide as genocide, and no United States President has labeled the mass killings as genocide.[2]  The refusal by these sovereign powers to label the killings as genocide denies Armenians true recognition for the atrocities suffered by their ancestors and denies them access to legal means to seek restitution.  The debate about whether the term “genocide” is appropriate to describe the killing of over a million Armenians is still a debate fraught with tension – “For most Armenians, it seems that no other label could possibly describe the suffering of their people. For the Turkish government, almost any other word would be acceptable.”[3] This refusal to assign the term genocide to the killings “stands today as an obstacle to reconciliation,” and an example of the federalist tensions in the United States.[4]

A significant portion of the Armenian diaspora live in California, approximately 800,000 people as of 2006.[5]  With such a strong political presence in the state, the California legislature led efforts to “provid[e] a forum for Armenian genocide-era claims by extending the limitations period on certain claims,” such as insurance policy claims, and property crimes.[6]  Federalism challenges ultimately struck down the California law on foreign affairs field preemption grounds because “in order to determine whether a particular claimant qualified as an ‘Armenian Genocide victim’ according to the statute’s definition, a judge would have to make a politicized inquiry into the sensitive question of whether the policyholder had ‘escaped to avoid persecution’ by the Ottoman Turks.”[7]  Thus far attempts to provide legal restitution for victims of the Armenian genocide have been blocked as “defendants quickly realized that they could capitalize on Turkey’s historic refusal to acknowledge the genocide and the U.S. government’s reticence to consistently challenge Turkey’s characterization of events.”[8]

The refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide as genocide has important lasting and continuing consequences for the survivors of the Genocide.  While the legal consequences of precluding Armenian Genocide era claims is particularly atrocious, one of the most important consequences is a general lack of awareness from the American population of the history of the genocide.

The recently released film “The Promise” is the first major motion picture to address the history of the Armenian Genocide.  The movie introduces the atrocities of the mass expulsion and killings to an audience that is largely uninformed about this history, and may be an important step to spreading awareness.  If the film generates public interest in the genocide, public support may follow and political pressure to formally recognize the killings as genocide could prove to allow restitution for hundred year old claims that constitute war crimes.

The film has become an online target for “Armenian genocide deniers [who] attacked the movie by voting down its scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.”[9]  The barrage of negative reviews was likely an organized troll campaign because, “60,000 online accounts gave “The Promise” the lowest possible score on IMDb the day after its Toronto premiere — when the only people who had actually seen the film were in the festival audience, which gave the film a standing ovation.”[10]  The online troll campaign reflects the intensity of the real-life controversy that exists to reject the history of the Armenian Genocide.  Although many moviegoers consider online ratings in their decision to watch a film, it is still unclear the extent to which (if at all) the “online smear campaign” has detracted potential viewers.  The IndieWire article “Don’t Feed the Trolls” applauds the film makers for not drawing attention to the negative reviews, enlisting celebrity endorsements to promote the film on social media, and “hav[ing] faith in quality storytelling.”[11]

I personally enjoyed the film and believe that it wove the enormity of the genocide expertly with an endearing love story that helped to highlight the survival spirit of the Armenian diaspora.

Emily Tewes

 

[1] Michael J. Bazyler & Rajika L. Shah, The Unfinished Business of the Armenian Genocide: Armenian Property Restitution in American Courts, 23 Sw. J. Int’l L. 223, 228 (2017).

 

[2] Thomas de Waal, The G-Word: The Armenian Massacre and the Politics of Genocide, 94 FOREIGN AFF (2015).  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/g-word

 

Melissa Etehad, Los Angeles Times “Marchers gather to commemorate 102nd anniversary of Armenian genocide” (April 24, 2017). http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-armenian-genocide-march-20170423-htmlstory.html

 

[3] Thomas de Waal, The G-Word: The Armenian Massacre and the Politics of Genocide, 94 FOREIGN AFF (2015).

 

[4] Michael J. Bazyler & Rajika L. Shah, The Unfinished Business of the Armenian Genocide: Armenian Property Restitution in American Courts, 23 Sw. J. Int’l L. 223, 228 (2017).

 

[5] Id.

 

[6] Id at 225.

 

[7] See Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung AG, 670 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2012);

 

Michael J. Bazyler & Rajika L. Shah, The Unfinished Business of the Armenian Genocide: Armenian Property Restitution in American Courts, 23 Sw. J. Int’l L. 223, 251 (2017).

 

[8] Michael J. Bazyler & Rajika L. Shah, The Unfinished Business of the Armenian Genocide: Armenian Property Restitution in American Courts, 23 Sw. J. Int’l L. 223, 225 (2017).

 

[9] Graham Winfrey, “Don’t Feed the Trolls: How Armenian Genocide Drama ‘The Promise’ responded to an Internet Hate Campaign” Indie Wire, April 21, 2017. http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/the-promise-internet-trolls-attack-imdb-rotten-tomatoes-oscar-isaac-christian-bale-1201807455/

 

[10] Id.

 

[11] Id.