Interview with the Raphael Lemkin scholarship alumna Valeria Thus

VALERIA THUS is a current Masters student in International Law of Human Rights at University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She holds a Specialization in Criminal Law Dept. Graduate School of Law at UBA. She works on thesis entitled “The legal antinegacionism: Reflections from a human rights perspective”. In her research she focuses on the suitability or unsuitability of punishing negationist practices, weighing the human rights at stake (freedom of speech, dignity of victims, equality as non-submission principle, among others) as well as with the question of aligning domestic legislations with international human rights law (authoritative use of IHRL). Furthermore, the analysis intends to gain insight into the performative dimension of law vis-à-vis the state of negation and the prevention of the reorganizing consequences of genocidal social practices, going deeper into their symbolic realization.

Professionally, she has worked on issues related to human rights with a strong commitment to defend them: she has participated as an independent litigator in followed public trials for the crimes against humanity committed by the civil military dictatorship in Argentina (period 1976-1983). She also served as Coordinator Areas in “Instituto Espacio para la Memoria”, decentralized government of the City of Buenos Aires agency and currently works as Coordinator of the “Memory Comission”- Superior Council of University of Buenos Aires.

Short list of publications:

“El antinegacionismo jurídico: derecho internacional vs. derecho local,” Journal Pensar en Derecho, year 2- issue 2, School of Law, University of Buenos Aires, Eudeba, pp. 81-121.

“El Estado genocida: reflexiones político–criminales en torno a la política de inmigración Europa”, Journal Estudios sobre Genocidio, Center for Genocide Studies, University of Tres de Febrero, Director: Daniel Feierstein, Volume 8, August 2013, Ed. Prometeo.

“Resistencias en torno a la calificación de genocidio en el caso argentino”, Revista de Derecho Penal y Criminología, year II- issue 2- March 2012, Ed. La Ley, Director: Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni, pp. 69-84.

You are from Argentina, where everything is different… world outlook, challenges. So, what do you feel touching upon the themes of the Armenian history and Armenian Genocide?

My stay in Armenia has given me the opportunity to learn about the country’s history and to experience its culture.

Of course, each genocide has its own unique characteristics: the reasons that led to it, the methods and technologies used for annihilation —the technology of power—, the subsequent attempts at rationalizing it, and the struggle for punishment and for finding out the truth about what happened.

I think, however, that Argentina and Armenia have much more in common than one might think at first glance, especially because both countries have experienced genocidal processes and in both cases survivors and relatives of the victims have been given a critical role in the struggle for truth, memory and justice.

While the Argentine case has been more characterized by the fight for trial and punishment of the perpetrators (the trial of the Juntas in the years following the dictatorship, and the reopening of the cases at present), both in Armenia and Argentina the human rights movement, in the face of impunity and the impossibility of conducting trials, devoted its efforts to the struggle for recognition and truth.

We have a lot to learn from the Armenian people’s struggle capacity in an international geopolitical context that more often than not turned its back on them.

Argentina has recognized the Armenian Genocide as a historical fact henceforth. You must be proud of your country.

Indeed, the human rights policies adopted in the last few years have turned Argentina into a model for the region, not just for being the only Southern Cone country to bring the perpetrators of the human rights violations committed in the 1970s to justice, but mainly because it has developed a policy for preventing social genocidal practices that go far beyond those experienced in our country.

In this context, as you have said, Argentina has recognized the Armenian Genocide through two of its powers: Congress passed Law 26,199 proclaiming April 24 of every year as the Action Day for Tolerance and Respect between Peoples in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, and in April 2011 the Judiciary issued a historical ruling stating that the Turkish State committed the crime of genocide against the Armenian people in the period between 1915 and 1923.

Besides these wise public policies, I feel morally obliged to stress that these achievements would not have been possible without the unwavering struggle of the Armenian civil society organizations created in Argentina a result of the diaspora. Also, I think I should note that the declaratory judgment I’ve just mentioned is the result of a judicial process initiated by Gregorio and Luisa Hairabedian, two renowned activists.

If there is one thing I can say for sure as a human rights activist and lawyer is that any progress made in the countries that have faced mass violations of human rights is always the consequence of the struggle of the human rights movement.

What can you tell about your research topic and if your study in AGMI within this period supported to improve your knowledge on the Armenian Genocide?

It might be relevant to state that the topic of my thesis is concerned with analyzing, in States governed by the rule of law, whether it is suitable or not to punish negationist practices by weighing the human rights at stake —such as freedom of speech, the dignity of victims, and equality as a non-submission principle, among others—, as well as by aligning domestic legislations with international human rights law, i.e. the authoritative use of IHRL. In addition, my analysis seeks to gain insight into the performative dimension of law vis-à-vis the state of denial and the prevention of the reorganizing consequences of genocidal social practices by going deeper into their symbolic realization.

Based on the meaning I’ve just described, the general hypothesis of my research work is that expressions of denial, being racist or hatred propaganda, are dangerous for the public order, or harmful to democracy, and stand in outright opposition to the victims’ dignity and the fundamental right to honor them and their descendants.

In my opinion, the protection of the honor and dignity of genocide victims, the preservation of collective memory, and the elimination of racist ideologies are fundamental values that may account for restrictions to freedom of speech. Consequently, any effective attempt at preventing or fighting genocidal practices should punish the proliferation of expressions of denial, as they are the last step in the genocidal process.

In general, academia has done a lot of work on the Holocaust denial, but there is little information available on the Armenian case. My experience in AGMI gave me the possibility of having access to theoretical material on the Armenian genocide, which was absolutely new to me, as well as to prestigious and high-quality professors and authors.

It also gave me the opportunity to review the Turkish policy of denying the Armenian genocide throughout the years, the sophisticated dynamics of such denial, and the international pressure of the Turks to avoid the recognition of the genocide, as well as to study at the same time the resistance struggle of the Armenian people against this denial.

What or who direct you to the world of law?

In my childhood, I had the chance to experience our country’s transition to democracy. I remember the impact that the trial of the commanders of the armed forces had on me, and the emotion that overcame our entire society after the dictators were imprisoned for crimes against humanity. I studied Law in the 1990s, a decade of impunity as it witnessed the enactment of the so-called due obedience and full stop laws and the granting of pardons, and even though the historical context prevented us from thinking about the possibility of trial and punishment, my greatest wish was to participate in the prosecution of cases against the perpetrators of the terrible human rights violations in our country. And I have somewhat fulfilled that wish by acting as a prosecution lawyer representing victims in the proceedings that have been taking place since 2006.

What kind of tasks you take notice of in the legal aspects of the Armenian Genocide?

First of all, I would like to say something about what we may call the “dangerous ambivalence of law.” As we all know, law has been instrumental in all genocidal processes. It is the second step in such processes, i.e. the enactment of rules legitimating the patterns of discrimination against who is defined as a “negative other” and even for the establishment of specific annihilation practices.

At the same time, law stands as a privileged sphere of action to overcome experiences of systematic violence on account of its performative and truth-building capacity. Certainly, this is no small thing when what is at stake is the dismantling of genocidal practices.

For those who think critically about the social dimension, the central force of law does not lie exclusively in punishment, but also in every nook and cranny of its structure as a discourse of truth.

Therefore, what is interesting about this ambivalence of law is that it can appear as a malleable material —even with the risks I’ve mentioned— used in favor of genocide prevention.

My research work follows along these lines.

If we grasp the persuasive potential of the symbolic dimension of law, we understand that law can have an impact on morals, customs and, particularly, on the substrate of prejudice from which violence arises. It turns into a message that has an effect on society as a whole and works to reverse the reorganizing consequences of genocidal social practices. And its fundamental importance lies precisely in this possibility of influencing —even though slowly and indirectly— this last level. This ambivalence of law is clearly present in the Armenian case.

While law has been instrumental in the implementation of genocidal practices (deportation laws are a good example), over the last years we have also witnessed the struggle for the recognition of the genocide in the field of law —both in international human rights law, with the adoption of the Whitaker Report by the UN and the declarations by several states, including Argentina, and also in criminal law, with the criminalization of denial. Of particular interest is the activism that sprang up in France around the inclusion of the Armenian genocide in the Gayssot Law.

Today, law stands as a privileged sphere of action to reverse the consequences of genocidal processes, and this is an interesting phenomenon that we must follow closely.

It is considered that the denial of the Armenian Genocide is the last step of genocide!

I absolutely agree.

The planning of any genocide by its perpetrators always involves two clearly-defined aspects: on the one hand, the physical destruction of the group chosen as the enemy, and on the other, the strategy of absolute impunity, not only to avoid any kind of criminal action against them, but also to perpetuate the effects of extermination in the prevailing culture.

Material annihilation is not the only major feature of genocides; they are also carried out in the field of symbolic representations by means of specific ways of narrating the annihilation experience.

From this perspective, it can rightly be said that the phenomenon of denial is the sixth step in the genocidal process, known as the “symbolic achievement of genocidal social practices,” which refers to the ways in which post-genocide societies represent and narrate the traumatic experience.

Today, negationism is not just the gross denial of the facts, but it takes on subtler and, consequently, more dangerous forms. I think it is interesting to further explore the other categories of denial, which have to do with the ways of trivializing or underestimating the facts —for instance, calling into question the number of victims, emphasizing the previous existence of a violent conflict, and so on.

In my opinion, an effective fight of denial must not be restricted to drawing attention to the obvious evidence of genocide in the construction of the historical truth, but it must also be based on the adoption of a model that includes the different kinds of genocides, construing their political purposes as well as the cognitive structures and communication strategies of the various types of denial.

In this regard, I agree with professor Hovannisian, who urges to further analyze this tendency to shift from outright denial to the contemporary ways of trivializing the Armenian genocide.

What kind of process will the criminalization of Genocide denial have in different countries?

As far as I know, several States have decided to incorporate the crime of denial, with some subtle differences, into their law: Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland; Belgium, France, and Austria; and Luxemburg, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, among others. What is significant is that only Switzerland has criminalized the Armenian genocide.

In the case of Argentina, even though denial has not been incorporated into its criminal law yet, there is a bill drafted by INADI, i.e. the National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism. This draft law establishes that freedom of speech reaches its limit when it comes to denigrating, racist or humiliating expressions, or expressions that directly incite such constitutionally unacceptable actions.

In my opinion, the interesting fact is that, as we can see, the denial, justification or minimization of genocides in general, and the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the state terrorism that occurred in Argentina under the last military dictatorship in particular, are indeed punished.

And if the bill I’ve just mentioned were passed, Argentina would also be among the first countries to criminalize the Armenian genocide. Let’s hope that this will happen soon.

What challenges do the young lawyers and genocide scholars face today?

I think that one of the most important challenges ahead is to avoid what is known as the “uniqueness theory,” i.e. the impossibility of comparing the genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis with any other genocidal process, so as to be able to design efficient ways of preventing genocidal social practices.

I want to be clear that in no way I’m saying that genocide is not unique to each society that experiences it. That would be absolutely disrespectful to the victims. There is no doubt that genocides have their own peculiar characteristics and are unique to their victims.

My point is that uniqueness sometimes works against going deeper into the different experiences in order to understand them, analyze their dynamics, compare them, and jointly design prevention policies.

Regarding one genocide as unique and irreproducible is very dangerous and, in a way, can be a sort of denial, not of the facts but of the responsibility.

What can you say about genocide study, especially the Armenian Genocide education in different schools around the world?

We can say that, in general, there is more academic information available on the Holocaust. In fact, the Holocaust is an imperative starting point in addressing the different conceptual categories in the study of genocides.

This scholarship was important to me because it gave me access to specific academic information about the Armenian genocide for my thesis.

Nevertheless, I think it is also important to note that, at least in Argentina, there has been a gradual change in the teaching and dissemination of the Armenian genocide in primary and secondary education over the last years. No doubt, as a result of the recognition of the Armenian genocide by Law 26,199 and also of the insistence on human rights education, the Armenian genocide was included in school curricula, thus increasing awareness of the facts.

Thus, Valeria are you satisfied with your a-month research here?

This has been a fantastic experience for me, not only academically, but above all emotionally.

As I’ve already said, this scholarship gave me access to first-class texts that threw light on the evolution of the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide in a general context of silencing the other countries within the framework of the First World War, as well as on the subsequent geopolitical interests intended to ensure the silencing of this crime.

The information I’ve gathered is highly valuable for my thesis in progress.

My visit to the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex is an experience that I treasure in my heart: the music, the trees that have been planted, the walls with the names of the devastated regions, the flame and the flowers.

I want to thank from the heart AMGI staff and researchers for their hospitality, for being always willing to answer the questions arising from my readings and to share their enriching opinions. They are not just exceptional colleagues for me, but also great friends.

As you are the last graduate of Lemkin 2014 Scholarship, would you please summarize what gave you this program? What is your precept to the next winner?

The Lemkin program gave me the opportunity to apply my expertise on the Argentine case to the Armenian case, which was the first modern genocide.

It also gave me the chance to explore my research interests in a comparative context in a new region. While my thesis on negationism has a general scope, as it is an in-depth study of the controversial legal aspects of this topic, i.e. the tension between freedom of speech and the victims’ dignity, by gaining insight into the sociological concept of equality, the information about denial in the Armenian case will indeed help me strengthen the analytical categories outlined in my work. It is very important that the future Lemkin Fellows, especially in 2015, should be scholars who work on memory and commemoration, and be very aware of the subject. The one-month scholarship is short, and to make the most of it, they must be steeped in the subject so as to be clear about the specific information, documents and the like that they need.

Being able to apply for the scholarship in 2015, when the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide will be commemorated, is indeed a privilege, a unique experience, not only because AMGI will surely organize academic activities of interest for all the scholar, but mainly because they will have the opportunity to explore the emotional contents of a human rights education aimed at the collective construction of memory, along with the academic dimension.

In this context I agree with my scholarschip´s mates in that we should remember what it means to be a Lemkin scholar: it is also being an activist or a humanist, because Lemkin was not only a scholar, but he was an activist or a humanist.

Learning about the atrocious experience of the Armenian genocide led Lemkin to coin the word “genocide” and to frame this concept. It was precisely on the basis of his assessment of the atrocity of the facts from his perspective as a human being that he embarked on an intellectual endeavor for which the subsequent generations are truly thankful.

I also encourage Latin American scholars to apply, since this possibility of conducting a comparative study of the Armenian genocide is an exceptional opportunity for us who have lived genocidal experiences to gain insight into their commonalities in order to effectively prevent them.

I sincerely thank Mr. Demoyan and all the staff at AMGI for giving me this unique opportunity.

And I would like to cooperate in whatever way I can in the future, either by returning to Armenia to further my research or by contributing to the dissemination of the institutional activities that will take place in my country, especially in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. – See more at:

Arevik Avetisyan

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