The Violence of Silence: How the West Ignored the Armenian Diaspora

The Violence of Silence: How the West Ignored the Armenian Diaspora

Signed on November 9, the ceasefire agreement that halted the 2020 Nagarno-Karabakh conflict was described by the BBC as “as a victory for Azerbaijan and a defeat for Armenia”. Armenia was forced to cede the Agdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts of what many are calling Nagarno-Karabakh, but what for the purposes of this article will be referred to as the Republic of Artsakh. The agreement also stipulates the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the region until further notice, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent Turkish troops into the region “to monitor the ceasefire”. Armenians have not only lost troops and land in this deal, but they are now living amongst the troops of countries that have committed genocide against their own people. 

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the implications of the ceasefire, but rather how the international defence of 150,000 Armenians in Artsakh and almost 3 million Armenians was put uniquely into the hands of the Armenian diaspora. How organizations like the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and  Armenian National Committee (ANC) worked tirelessly as the Western media institutions and the governments allowed authoritarian foreign regimes to attack a fellow democratic nation. The goal of this article is to amplify the voices of Armenian people; their concerns, their knowledge, and their hopes for the future of their nation. 

Armenian activism: From Canada to Artsakh

Journalist Raffi Bedrosyan marvelled at the work of the Armenian diaspora, stating that “the amount of funds and essential materials transferred [to Armenia] during October was more than the totals transferred in the last 20 years”. The Armenian diaspora is one of the largest in human history, as the number is disputed to be somewhere between seven and ten million people. Canada’s Armenian diaspora is about 64,000 people strong, and with its population being dispersed mostly throughout Quebec and Ontario, these provinces became centres for Armenian activism. 

The ANC worked tirelessly to lobby for support on Parliament Hill, and most notably to stop the sale of Canadian military equipment to Azerbaijan and Turkey. Toronto and the Montreal-Laval region were major centres of Armenian activism, as the AYF chapters in both cities planned fundraisers, organized sit-ins and demonstrations, and launched social media campaigns. The coordination between these groups amidst a global health crisis seems impressive to onlookers, but to Armenians this organization was almost natural. 

“The community centre is my first home, not even my second home” says Vice President of the Armenian Students Association of the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) Shoghig Tehinian. She spoke with pride about her community’s rapid mobilization, demonstrating that for Armenians this “activism” is more of a responsibility. What was presented to the world as a territorial dispute is really about people, as Tehinian “it doesn’t matter if you have direct family [in Artsakh], the connection that Armenians have between each other is so powerful that I consider all of the people in Artsakh my direct family”. Whilst their activism remained strong, the sharing of important information as well as political action in Canada and the West at large fell incredibly short of the Armenian community’s efforts. 

Azeri Tactics and Western Apathy

Cultural erasure is a major tactic used by Azerbaijan in this conflict, and it has its roots in the Soviet period. The Kremlin not only made Artsakh part of Azerbaijan, but its official policy stated that “minority nations living within the borders of titular republics were subordinated to the laws of the dominant titular nations”. The Azeri government developed false ethnic claims to Artsakh to maintain and justify their control over the territory, linking themselves and Artsakh’s cultural patrimony with “Caucasian Albanians”. Baku is still trying to lay claim to thebells, crosses and khachkars…of ninth-century Dadivank monastery”, despite the fact that “not a single Caucasian Albanian inscription has been found in Artsakh”. 

Social media has become a major theatre of “battle” in this conflict, as social networks are increasingly being used for “military operations”. “We’re all the targets…wars…[we’re] the ones whose clicks decide whose side wins out” says the co-author of Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media, Peter Singer, in an interview. This was the reality of the Artsakh conflict, as Azeri tactics included the “creation of [a] huge number of fake social media accounts posting identical anti-Armenian messages, [and] the cyberbullying of notable and vocal supporters of Armenians and staged propaganda videos and photos”. Even Azeri human rights activists themselves have been complacent in the hate speech, whilst largely Western-run social media giants simply sat back and watched. 

These tactics show definitive disregard for Armenian human rights, but were almost non-existent in stories from mainstream Western media sources, which was nothing short of frightening and disappointing to many Armenians. “They didn’t speak up because it wasn’t trendy enough”, said Vice President of Internal Affairs for McGill Armenian Students Association (MASA) Mariam Grigoryan when asked about the lack of online and political support from Western activists and governments. Both Tehinian and Grigoryan expressed disappointment in the failure of our human rights institutions to protect Armenians, and that the tactics of Azerbaijan present as modern forms of cultural genocide. 

The future of Artsakh and Armenians

The failure of human rights institutions, and the countries that claim to be advocates for human rights like Canada, in this conflict are enormous. “This conflict made me realize that our cause means nothing to the world…[and that] human rights are not transnational” said Tehinian, expressing disappointment in her peers’ apathy to the conflict. The right to self determination is a founding principle of international law and the United Nations, but as Grigoryan points out, the case of Artsakh demonstrates that “in the world where oil money costs more than human lives, there’s not much hope for international law and human rights”. 

Losing Artsakh was not only heartbreaking for people like Grigoryan, who’s paternal family hails from the region, but it was a blow to all Armenians. “We lost a big part of our identity. It was like ripping off an important organ of the body” said Tehinian, in an effort to illustrate a loss that few could understand. “We did see the entire world staying silent when 1.5 million Armenians were tortured to death, and we saw it happening again, and that was the devastating part of the entire situation” said Grigoryan in regards to the conflict. 

The future for Armenians is looking bleak; both Grigoryan and Tehinian see the peace agreement coming with the inevitability of more conflicts and violence. The loss of many young people, of cultural patrimony, and of a part of their historic homeland weigh on the minds of all Armenians. Activists, governments, and international organizations alike need to acknowledge the struggle for Artsakh, and amplify the voices of Armenians everywhere. President of the AYF Canada Manoug Alemian says that he is “tired of being in a sorrowful mourning time”. He and many other Armenians do not want to be victims anymore, but instead real agents of political change for their people. If Western institutions wish to be true proponents of human rights, they must cease to be passive bystanders and assume the role of active allies in the Armenians fight for justice and peace in Artsakh. 

Edited by Zachary Beresin.

Featured image by Shoghig Tehinian, used with her permission, taken on 5 November, 2020 (Memorial for Artsakh, Laval, Quebec, Canada). No changes made. 

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