15 May 2019
Working Through the Past in the Shadow of the Present: The Cases of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey
Drawing upon the increasing influence and importance of civil society in a country’s approach to Transitional Justice (TJ), this paper explores the possibilities, challenges, and limits that civil society might face in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey with regards to TJ for dealing with the past in conflict contexts internally and externally. The authors of the paper believe that as a powerful actor of human rights advocacy and support to victims and survivors of conflict, the civil societies’ competence and readiness for TJ is a key factor for determining the efficiency of TJ. From this point of view, the authors are analyzing whether the civil society in these three countries has the competence and willingness to lead TJ that can push the state to take actions and eventually lead to a more comprehensive and meaningful TJ framework and process to be designed.
This paper analyzes the stances and perceptions of civil society actors which work on peace in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey regarding possible TJ processes for dealing with the violent past both internally as well as for the conflicts in the region. The objective of the paper is to do a mapping study on the views and approaches of the civil society in the region, with regards to their perceptions, knowledge, competence, experience, as well as visions, strategies, and recommendations on TJ processes. This will help us to see the opportunities, challenges, and limits for dealing with the past in the region and develop recommendations. This paper also sheds light on to what extent civil society can contribute to dealing with the past when there are not enough official attempts for justice, accountability, or peace.
Transitional Justice, as a set of measures and mechanisms applied to deal with the abuses in a country’s past, is usually employed during a clear and official transition period. This might either be a transition from dictatorship to democracy as it was in the Latin American countries or from conflict to peace as was the case in the postYugoslav space and South Africa. While state-led initiatives (such as trials and truth commissions) were initially the main TJ activities, a wide range of efforts (such as memory activism and community reconciliation work) have increasingly been employed by non-state actors, such as civil society organizations, groups, and initiatives, as well as human rights advocates, individual activists, and peacebuilding practitioners. The expansion of TJ from a narrower sense that was limited to legal actions to a peacebuilding function provided civil society with more space to get involved in TJ activities. The increased importance of concepts such as forgiveness, responsibility, reconciliation, and commemoration in the TJ field also allowed for more direct involvement of non-state actors. More and more attention to survivors and victims of the conflict is another factor that made this involvement possible (van der Merwe and Schkolne 2017). Civil society is now a crucial part of the efforts to deal with the past, either as a partner to the state or an enforcing actor. It can both take part in the official process with various roles and responsibilities and carry on its own non-official activities such as dialogue facilitation, peace education, data collection, advocacy, case monitoring, etc.
The involvement of civil society is important particularly because it can present a channel for those who are silenced and systematically excluded from political power. In parallel to this, especially when there is high political repression, civil society is usually the only safe space where the opposition voices can articulate their demands for political transition, dealing with the past, ending of violent conflict through a human rights discourse (van der Merwe and Schkolne 2017). Having said that, we acknowledge that civil society itself might be a target of the state. Specifically, when there is a lack of political will for transition, vocalizing the demand for peace is criminalized itself and conducting peace-related activism becomes an unsafe practice. However, the most powerful influence of civil society is derived from its potential to engage the marginalized groups of the society, who are generally deprived from their rights to politics, in TJ processes as direct agents of peace. As it is convincingly argued, TJ measures and mechanisms that fail to adequately acknowledge victims’ experiences and needs will rarely satisfy victims (Gready and Robins 2017). In parallel to this argument and as the Colombian peace process shows, civil society organizations or initiatives that are working closely with victims are powerful agents in ensuring the inclusion of the demands of victims into the political agenda when the official peace process starts (Daşlı, Alıcı and Poch Figueras 2018).
Drawing upon the increasing influence and importance of civil society in a country’s approach to TJ, this paper explores the possibilities, challenges, and limits that civil society might face in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey with regards to TJ. As a powerful actor of human rights advocacy and support to victims and survivors of conflict, we believe that its competence and readiness for TJ is a key factor for determining the efficiency of TJ in those countries. Previously TJ processes tended to be managed in the absence of a satisfying consultation with the victims or the engagement of the general public. It is civil society actors who put serious efforts to engage the public in discussions about TJ and managed to locate them as actors of transition in recent TJ processes. As it was most recently demonstrated in the Colombian peace process, the more engaged and familiar civil society is with the TJ process, the more comprehensive and meaningful the process is. Having direct and local contacts with victims and survivors, civil society might manage to channel the demands and expectations of those who were actually affected by the conflict and ensure that the TJ measures and mechanisms are satisfying these demands and expectation. From this point of view, we are analyzing whether the civil society in these three countries has the competence and willingness to lead TJ that can push the state to take actions and eventually lead to a more comprehensive and meaningful TJ framework and process to be designed.
As neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey are experiencing or considering an official transition period, and the prospects of the current transitional period in Armenia do not concern the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, our paper also examines the role of civil society in TJ efforts in the absence of a meaningful state involvement. The tools and methods that are chosen for TJ activities by civil society often depend on the space that is available to them and the prevalent social and political stance towards peace. This relates to the still-evolving literature on TJ in ongoing conflict. As Engstrom argues, the attempts to deal with a violent past after a transition from war to peace or from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one is being replaced by the attempts to seek for accountability for atrocities even before the armed conflict is resolved by a political settlement (Engstrom 2011). It is argued that the blurred lines between peace and conflict in the contemporary conflicts influence TJ as well, which has been increasingly used when the transition is unclear, fragile, or even non-existent (van Nievelet 2016). One of the recent cases in which TJ was undertaken in the middle of armed conflict is Colombia (Alcalá and Uribe 2016).
Mainstream TJ literature used to focus on institutions, top-down state interventions, and law, which puts civil society in a supportive position to official TJ processes (Gready and Robins 2017). We are aiming to shed light on the opportunities that might rise when civil society is leading such a transition without waiting for an official process to start (Grigoryan, et al. 2017). As referred to above, the Colombian peace process is a powerful example in which TJ measures were taken without a broader peacebuilding framework and eventually turned into a comprehensive and detailed TJ process (van Nievelet 2016). It exhibits that several TJ measures such as commemoration practices; demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration programs; compensation for victims have the potential to facilitate the ending of violent conflict by transforming the social setting. This paper perceives the civil society as a powerful and effective actor which might itself facilitate the beginning of a TJ process. In this context, we are analyzing whether there is a chance for civil society to pioneer such a process in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, and what might be done or done better to increase the possibilities. An important part of our analysis therefore focuses on how and to which extent the political and social circumstances influence the participation of civil society.
Given the current social and political settings in the three countries at stake, the key questions of interest for our analysis lie as follows: 1) When there is no political process or willingness to meaningfully address the past atrocities, how much can the civil society contribute to dealing with the past within a TJ framework? 2) How much do the given social and political limitations of the countries affect the perceptions and visions of civil society actors in terms of taking initiative to deal with the past? 3) Does the civil society in these three countries have competence and preparedness in terms of knowledge and expertise needed for implementing TJ mechanisms?
How Can Civil Society Participate in a TJ Process?
According to what literature and practice demonstrate, civil society might engage with TJ with different agendas, such as human rights, the rule of law, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, truth-telling (van der Merwe and Schkolne 2017). Backer defines the main roles that civil society organizations and initiatives might play at different stages and conditions of TJ processes as follows: “data collection and monitoring; representation and advocacy; collaboration, facilitation and consultation; service delivery and intervention; acknowledgment and compensation; parallel or substitute authority; research and education” (Backer 2003). In parallel to this, van der Merwe and Schkolne outline eight types of roles some of which are very similar to Backer’s classification: “mobilizing action; targeted advocacy; monitoring and transparency; official support; public engagement; service provision and victim support; peace building, reconciliation and development; and truth telling, commemoration and memorialization” (van der Merwe and Schkolne 2017, 229). They highlight that certain roles are applicable and more valid at specific stages and under different conditions. In addition to this, these roles might also depend on the ideological background of the organizations as well as the type of relationships with the state.
Within the scope of our paper, it is important to understand which of these roles can realistically be undertaken by civil society when there is no official TJ process. Although all of these roles might be undertaken in different phases in changing levels, some of them are most efficient if civil society has a limited space of activities and there is not enough room for collaborating with official bodies. Data collection and research seem like the most obvious instruments for civil society given the political challenges they may face in the three countries. On the contrary, collaboration, facilitation, and consultation is directly related to how willing the state is to cooperate with civil society in a TJ era and requires at least a minimum state involvement. Service delivery and intervention, on the other hand, might be conducted regardless of an official process as it may take the form of psycho-social support for victims and survivors of the conflict.
Advocacy and memory work are other two important types of work that can be undertaken by civil society regardless of an official peace and TJ process. Serbia is a good example of memory work by civil society actors. For instance, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights organizes the Days of Sarajevo Festival in Belgrade with the purpose of commemorating the Siege of Sarajevo as an act against institutional silence and denial. Although the war ended 20 years ago, state denial of the past human rights violations and atrocities is still ongoing in Serbia. To challenge the official discourse and to publicly acknowledge the pain of the victims, civil society actors play a significant role especially with commemorative practices (Fridman 2011). The Humanitarian Law Center is another organization that campaigns for TJ and conducts memory work. One of the projects of the Center is the Batajnica Memorial Initiative which aims to reveal the truth about and commemorate the 800 victims that are buried in the mass grave in Batajnica. These are only a few examples of how civil society actors might advocate for dealing with the past and TJ with different tools and methods and undertake activities without an official process.
Whether the civil society can contribute to TJ without an apparent state involvement is an important discussion because of the very nature of TJ itself. Van der Merwe and Schkolne argue that civil society might take two main positions: 1) engagement with the state and 2) engagement in processes where state involvement is low (van der Merwe and Schkolne 2017). Alongside many measures and mechanisms that might be used, trials and reparations remain the main tools to deliver justice, and these are also the ones that require a clear state involvement. Apart from the official character of these tools, in situations where the state officers, military personnel, police forces, and politicians are perpetrators themselves, civil society might only take action within certain boundaries. Crocker addresses the risk of “absolutizing civil society as the new source of salvation” and argues that civil society should not replace the state actors (Crocker 1998, 508). Our paper also acknowledges such limits and the irreplaceability of the state by civil society; yet it aims to promote a broad range of activities and roles that civil society can take up.
Based on our theoretical approach, our understanding of civil society is not limited to registered and structured civil society organizations. We are also interested in ‘non-traditional’ civil society actors such as initiatives and groups who are closer to new social movements. Although most of the activities and activism in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey is conducted by registered organizations, our perspective also includes individuals who have taken part in different initiatives and efforts. Another important thing that we need to keep in mind is that each organization we interviewed has a different structure and a different method of work. While some organizations have employed members, others are mainly based on voluntary work. This naturally affects the type of work done by each organization as well as their organizational capacity. In addition to this, individuals who have been effectively engaged in civil society work for a long time but are not necessarily affiliated with an organization are also among our respondents. We chose the organizations and individuals based on their background in peace-related and rights-based work in their respective countries. In each country, we conducted five semi-structured interviews with open-ended questions. Below is the list of the organizations and individuals who we conducted interviews with.
- Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor ( Հելսինկյան քաղաքացիական ասամբլեայի Վանաձորի գրասենյակ)
- Peace Dialogue (Խաղաղության երկխոսություն)
- Society Without Violence (Հասարակություն առանց բռնության)
- Armenian Institute for International and Security Affairs (AIISA, Միջազգային և անվտանգության հարցերի հայկական ինստիտուտ)
- Civil Society Institute (Քաղաքացիական հասարակության ինստիտուտ)
- Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan National Committee (Helsinki Vəətəndaş Assambleyasının Azərbaycan Milli Komitəsi)
- Humanitarian Research Public Union (Humanitar Tədqiqatlar İctimai Birliyi)
- Zerdusht Alizade (Zərdüşt Əlizadə)
- Kerim Kerimli (Kərim Kərimli)
- Armenia-Azerbaijan Civil Peace Platform (Ermənistan-Azərbaycan Vətəndaş Sülh Platforması)
- Truth Justice Memory Center (Hakikat Adalet Hafiza Merkezi)
- 3. Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği)
- Rights Initiative (Hak İnisiyatifi)
- Peace Foundation (Barış Vakfı)
Armenia: A General Context
Since April 2018, a new political environment has been established in Armenia. With the resignation of the then Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan as a result of mass demonstrations, a new impetus has been given to justice and social change both by the state institutions and civil society of the country.
But before the success of the latest demand for state accountability, coined as the Velvet Revolution of Armenia, bad governance and abuse of power, political oppressions, and violations of human rights were not addressed properly, with the judiciary being dictated from above for political expediency. Even prior to this, the lack of addressing the consequences and legacies of past abuses during the Soviet era had resulted in a shortage of accountability and state responsibility in Armenia since 1991. Leaving previous impunity unaddressed had not allowed for the development of a stable system and had given room to further violations (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018). Currently, faith in the judicial branch is growing, as the context and conditions where justice takes place have themselves changed – political dictation has waned, and no other requirements towards the judiciary exist besides constitutional norms (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018). Much discussion is taking place in official circles on creating a body for TJ during these days.
Against this internal backdrop, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, frozen since 1995 with occasional escalations, is still in need of measures and mechanisms that could lead to conflict transformation and reconciliation between the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. The absence of political will by the leadership in the region has hindered efforts in prosecuting war criminals, truth seeking, and finding missing persons. However, civil society cooperation across the conflict divide continues even after the military escalation in April 2016, albeit with even greater caution as collaboration on confidence-building measures is often perceived in Armenia as endangering Azerbaijani partners (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018). A far deeper issue is the dehumanization of the ‘other’ and the isolation of the societies for almost 25 years, rendering them unprepared for political agreements, as well as an open discussion on peaceful coexistence and the acknowledgement of own wrongdoings.
In Turkish-Armenian relations there has been a precedent of expressing the need for a TJ mechanism, when the commission for the normalization of bilateral relations was established, bringing together intellectuals and experts from Armenia and Turkey before the Protocols of 2008. The commission applied to the Council of TJ to give an evaluation of historical events, and its assessment concluded that the event that took place resembles a genocide (International Center for Transitional Justice 2002, AIISA 2018). TJ mechanisms are necessary to move forward in Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, as the victims, the conflictaffected populations, and the mass violations of their human rights have been neglected.
This section attempts to explore where TJ should be applied in Armenia, with regards to internal political processes, such as developing tools for delivering justice to the victims of political oppressions since the beginning of the post-Soviet era, and in the external context, mostly in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, addressing the grievances of those who have suffered. Since the change of government in April 2018, much optimism has been recorded among the civil society for the creation of more space for dialogue regarding these issues. In this section, we attempt to find out what particular mechanisms or measures can be undertaken in these circumstances as envisioned by the civil society actors in Armenia, specifically related to addressing violations of human rights under the previous regimes, and for moving forward with conflict transformation by addressing war crimes, missing persons, and the prospects of initiating joint commissions for truth seeking.
Links and Continuities Between Past Crimes
For the Armenian case, TJ in this paper was discussed in the context of the postSoviet period, though going deeper into crimes during the Soviet era and since the creation of the first republic would have given a more complete assessment (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018).
The systemic lack of justice and external and internal conflicts that Armenia went through since independence can be linked to the failure of dealing with its Soviet past. When no assessment was given to events that took place under the Soviet regime before its collapse, the system was perpetuated in independent Armenia. Not allowing for an unbiased assessment of previous crimes led to their continuation and impunity in the new system, which continued for almost 27 years. Thus, when talking about truth and justice, this is done in the first place to uphold and commit to certain principles and values in one’s own society. Only then can the issue be externalized effectively. Continuity of past crimes in the Armenian case is understood as applying to the last three decades, and the lack of delivering justice to the unpunished crimes internally has been interconnected with the lack of initiative to look into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018).
In fact, the issue of delivering justice and responding to conflict internally and externally are interrelated. The interconnectedness of internal injustices and lack of truth seeking in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict comes from the idea that justice cannot be selective or incomplete. A society prescribing to a governance by the rule of law internally cannot be selective or incomplete in the application of its concept of justice. Taking the case of the war veteran and ex-parliamentarian Manvel Grigoryan, who was arrested for the possession of arms in his house, consequently revealing the hoarding of items to be sent as support to soldiers during the escalation in April 2016 (Atanesian 2018), the interviewee from the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor stated that it should not be assumed that the person who commits crimes against others will not do the same against his own nation (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018).
Civil Society Engaging in TJ
TJ for internal issues has recently been a topic of much discussion in the civil society circles in Armenia, but in the past efforts have been taken also for the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Armenian-Turkish relations.
In the relations with Azerbaijan and in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, TJ can be applied for the rejection of the right of self-determination of a group and the violation of the rights of all victims regardless of sides, and specific incidents, such as Khojalu (AIISA 2018). TJ in this context is important because there are very different narratives about truth and the past, and not finding joint mechanisms to deal with the past leads to a vicious circle of a blame-game. Many projects in confidence building and networking have taken place between civil society actors across this conflict divide, and they are “not only raising the issues of the needs of the society, or these issues of establishing justice and dangers to it, but also bringing us to the field of solutions” (AIISA 2018).
Some of the interviewed civil society actors believe that starting processes on one side, done for its own benefit, can bring out a discussion on the other side (Peace Dialogue 2018, AIISA 2018, Civil Society Institute 2018). Although voices favoring truth-seeking measures and mechanisms can be heard on all sides, at this point, all the interviewed agreed that the current political expediency is not allowing any practical steps in joint TJ efforts. Yet maintaining relations with partners across the conflict divide even during and after the April 2016 is deemed very crucial. Peace Dialogue and the Armenian Institute for International and Security Affairs especially emphasized that it would be a step back in peacebuilding efforts to loose these connections, as it would take years to come to the same point later on (Peace Dialogue 2018, AIISA 2018).
The Civil Society Institute has collaborated on projects with Turkey (regarding the Genocide and normalization of relations) and Azerbaijan, in connection with reconciliation, breaking the ceasefire, connecting civil societies, human rights advocacy, engagement with the mothers of killed soldiers, seminars on conflict and war crimes, documentaries, etc. Peace Dialogue has a database for the disappeared and all soldiers that have died during service in the army since 1994. It also produces reports on the national strategy on the protection of human rights. With Azerbaijani partners, it has also cooperated on a project called “Women’s Peace Agency”, where the aim has been to engage female victims of war in dialogue. The Society Without Violence has been monitoring the process of the ratification and enactment of the National Action Plan for the Implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 for Women, Peace and Security. Work with women, including those that have had personal losses or have been displaced, has also been assessed as critical for bringing more agency to them in a conflict and post-conflict context and for moving closer to transformation (Peace Dialogue 2018, Society Without Violence 2018).
All of the interviewed organizations have had cooperation with partners abroad for capacity building and more efficient peacebuilding, mainly with groups from Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and Azerbaijan.
The Challenges of Civil Society
The challenges that the civil society actors face in Armenia are internal and external, and these two dimensions are often interconnected. The challenges sometimes concern all civil society work in general, and efforts and prospects in conflict transformation and TJ specifically are affected in as much as it is part of the larger work.
The representative of the Society Without Violence pointed out the lack of cooperation and exchange of expertise among civil society actors as an internal challenge and expressed the belief that more cooperation and sharing of practices could increase the impact of their efforts (Society Without Violence 2018). The interviewed civil society actors feel that internal structural challenges wane due to the recent developments in Armenia, and this has brought more freedom to all actors. However, they also stress that the conversation on a formal TJ process internally has not gone beyond political discussions yet, and no practical measures and mechanisms have been offered so far (AIISA 2018). Despite the removal of structural challenges, an important internal limitation remains that the public is largely unprepared for facing own wrongdoings, and the open discussion of currently tabooed topics can make civil society actors a target of backlash and the label of ‘traitor’. And again, despite increasing freedom for civil society actors, some issues still do not see opening in terms of civil society-state cooperation. For example, concern has been raised that state institutions have been reluctant to give information on missing persons, hindering effective work.
Based on the interviews, we can conclude that the internal and external challenges in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are interconnected. Internally, the civil society actors now see much more space to maneuver, but they are still wary of the prospect that open cooperation with Azerbaijani counterparts can result in the latter’s state oppression or political persecution. This has forced some organizations to reduce formal cooperation and limit it to meetings outside of the region. There are opportunities for joint projects, but the previous state crackdown on civil society actors in Azerbaijan hinders this cooperation.
The continuity of external challenges makes individuals cautious and gradually reduces their interest and engagement in cross conflict divide work. We can observe that this external limitation has an impact on what is possible internally since joint work is always more effective and less likely to be subject to backlash, and contacts across the conflict divide help societies transform internally. Nonetheless, internal efforts such as data collection and making databases for missing persons are still made and prepare ground for conflict transformation. However, they still approach their work from the position of “setting a new agenda with the Azerbaijanis, rather than the current regime of Azerbaijan” (Civil Society Institute 2018).
The external challenge in the Armenian-Turkish relations are similar, and they also complicate the prospects to work within own society internally. The representative from AIISA said: “If before [in Turkey] there was a lot of will to cooperate with Armenia, now they are much more wary, let alone all the political impasses, preventing this cooperation due to the acknowledgement that the normalization process in Armenian-Turkish relations is in a deadlock, and official positions have not changed, and there is no expectation that they will change. Consequently, interest towards this issue is also receding” (AIISA 2018).
Another external challenge pointed out by civil society actors in Armenia is politically motivated or state-sponsored counterparts in Azerbaijan, which harms trust and prevents true cooperation. The interviewed expressed their concern regarding the initiative in Azerbaijan called the “Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform”, mainly because of the individuals that ‘represent’ the Armenian side, some of whom have been accused of serious crimes in Armenia. They are perceived to have no real intentions to contribute to peacebuilding and to be harming the already fragile legacy of peacebuilding in the region. The interviewed actors do not see any perspectives of real achievements by the Platform, because there is no engagement with civil society in Armenia. At the same time, the representative of the Civil Society Initiative states that though some of the efforts may damage real processes because of unreliability, on the positive side, there is an attempt to find a common language with Armenians (Civil Society Institute 2018).
When Can TJ Processes Start?
In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, some differences in opinion arise among the interviewed civil society actors on whether TJ processes need to start before or after the political settlement of the conflict, including an official peace deal. Starting truth-seeking processes will benefit the society regardless of the political setting (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018, AIISA 2018), but some efforts can be counterproductive if not guided by official decisions (Civil Society Institute 2018). Some of the interviewed civil society actors agree that political will has to be present for the work of the civil society to gain more legitimacy (Civil Society Institute 2018), yet civil society can start its share of TJ work, including more interaction with the state, immediately after violence stops. Even without an official peace deal, civil society need to prepare for the postagreement phase, and it is important to engage in fact-finding, making databases and archives, and maintaining contacts.
Answers also vary regarding the timeliness of initiating investigations and prosecution of war crimes, as their heroization continues in the society. First of all, the interviewed civil society actors agree that the society needs to be better prepared for these measures. Joint truth-seeking commissions are deemed not feasible for now due to the lack of political will and trust on the official level, but the interviewed civil society actors find that joint truth-seeking commissions, involving both official and civil society actors and perhaps the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be necessary at some point. Respondents find that the application of TJ mechanisms is possible mainly in the post-settlement phase, but are also taking steps in that direction. For example, Peace Dialogue is pushing for a commission on missing persons, and the Society Without Violence is advocating for the implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.
What Can and Should Be Done Now?
Following the recent developments in Armenia, some discussion on forming TJ mechanisms for addressing wrongdoings during the previous governments has already taken place. At a TJ Symposium in Yerevan in October 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan stated that responses need to be given to mass violations of social, political, and economic rights (Mirzoyan 2018). At the same event, Marieke Wierda, who used to be Criminal Justice Director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, stressed that when applying transitional justice tools, there might be too many violations to prosecute everyone, thus in the transitional context, a prosecutorial strategy needs to be formulated from the beginning by the government (Wierda 2018). The current method the Armenian government has adopted to address past impunities – putting emphasis on investigating violence against peaceful protestors, electoral fraud, corruption, shadow economy, etc. – shows that the state is trying to uphold responsibility and accountability. We believe that the new ruling powers need to make sure that these values and corresponding practices are permanently diffused across all state institutions, and civil society actors will have to be one of the pillars supporting this endeavor.
According to Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, it is important to be ready to aid the new government in the consolidation of democracy and upholding state accountability (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018). The role of civil society will be precisely to spread information, raise awareness, and educate the society. Civil society will need to guide the state and society in dealing with the past, primarily for the years since independence. If the previous regime was the consequence of Soviet legacies and no lustration (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor 2018), the new government that will form following the political developments of May 2018 in Armenia and the snap elections in December, will have to rely heavily on the support of the civil society to consolidate democracy (AIISA 2018, Civil Society Institute 2018).
The OSCE Minsk Group during the recent years has urged sides to cooperate with the Red Cross on issues pertaining to missing persons, and there is belief in the civil society that larger demand for revealing information on a missing relative can have an impact on the government to take action.
All organizations interviewed agree that now there seems to be more space for civil society to operate, given the openness that overthrowing the old regime brought with itself in Armenia. Civil society’s fear of persecution by the state has waned, and the government itself is more prone to giving voice to the civil society for advice and expert opinion. But no discussion of viewing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the lens of TJ has taken place in official circles, giving civil society much opportunity for agency.
TJ Without Official State Involvement
Clear strategies need to be developed not to harm the peace process and to prevent manipulation. Due to the transitional phase that Armenia is in right now, as well as Nikol Pashinyan’s statement that Nagorno-Karabakh needs to become party to the negotiations, some are concerned that efforts need to be especially calculated not to have a destabilizing effect when it comes to preparing the society for any kind of political agreement or reconciliation processes.
Steps in fact finding, collecting data on missing and displaced persons, maintaining ties with partners are viewed as actions that could aid in TJ processes by the civil society when the state is ready. Civil society sees the Velvet Revolution as a positive development for their activities and understand their role as one of the pillars for entrenching democratic principles and holding state institutions accountable for them, and diffusing them in the society as well. Issues cannot be addressed adequately without making truth seeking both in internal and external affairs a value on all levels of society. There seems to be a willingness in the civil society to aid the state in policy making and engaging with the society on these topics. There also seems to be a consensus among the interviewed that before going to joint projects in the sphere of TJ, the state and society have to appropriate the concept of justice for their own sake. Addressing the past without solid legal and ethical grounds would be in vain, and more violations of human rights would grow out of it. Thus, the consolidation of democratic institutions will be a precondition for effectively carrying out TJ.
If no resolution is feasible at this point, and the synergy for such work is not sufficient at this stage in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, then keeping contacts open and building bridges is still a necessity. Civil society work across the conflict divide needs to continue, and actions on both sides need to be taken to prepare the societies if and when configurations change.
Azerbaijan: A General Context
Dealing with the past has not been a consistent area of focus in Azerbaijan. During the seventy years of communism, like other communist republics in the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani people went through a lot of political repression and conflicts. Yet, the victims of communism, including those of the Great Purge, have not been redressed genuinely.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan did not issue a lustration law to deal with its bloody communist past like the Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Neither the leaders of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party, who were in power in 1992-1993 nor the incumbent regime that took power in 1993, were willing to deal with the past – either the remote past, going back to the beginning of the century, the Soviet period, or the more recent one. Indeed, in its traumatic communist past, the period between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s is particularly sensitive and important for Azerbaijan to be dealt with. During this time, a national liberation movement and the NagornoKarabakh conflict erupted in Azerbaijan, and many crimes were committed, including the January 1990 events that later received the name Black January. For this latter, the Soviet Chief Prosecution started an investigation right after the event, but closed the file in December 1990, finding no guilty for the crime. However, the government of Azerbaijan started the investigation again in 1992 and completed it in 1994. The government of Azerbaijan asked the government of Russia to release the criminal case from their files and assist in finding the perpetrators of the Black January events that were in Russia, however, Russia never responded to these requests (Mammadli n.d.). Nevertheless, Azerbaijan issued reparation for the family members of the victims of the Black January events (Mammadli n.d.). Another crime in this context is the Sumgait Pogrom, that was also investigated by Moscow, but neither Azerbaijanis nor Armenians are satisfied with the results, and both sides call for a genuine re-investigation of the event. Thus, TJ mechanisms have not been employed for the conflicts of the communist past of Azerbaijan, except some art works, films, journalist reports, books, and academic research contributed by civil society.
There are many reasons why TJ mechanisms have not been employed in Azerbaijan systematically. One reason might be that dealing with the communist past is a sensitive issue for the incumbent regime since today’s political elite in Azerbaijan, who came to power in 1993, ruled Soviet Azerbaijan for many years. However, one can also stress that the Azerbaijani Popular Front which was born in the late 1980s and triggered nationalism and the independence movement in Azerbaijan and eventually came to power in 1992, did not want to open archives and deal with the communist past, either.
Within the same timeframe, pogroms, massacres, and war crimes were committed in the entire region of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, claiming the lives of thousands of people and leaving many more in deep trauma. Some of these tragedies are the displacement of Azerbaijanis from the districts of Kafan, Meghri, and Masis in 1987, the Sumgait Pogrom in February 1988, the Gugark, Spitak, and Stepanavan Pogroms in November 1988 , the Kirovabad Pogrom in November 1988, the Baku Pogrom in January 1990, Operation Ring in May 1991, the Karakend Tragedy on November 20, 1991, the Garadaghli Massacre on February 17, 1992, the Khojaly Massacre on February 26, 1992, the Maragha Massacre on April 10, 1992. These and other tragedies were left without joint and genuine investigation and serve as the source of trauma and hostility. We believe an extensive TJ process, with corresponding measures and mechanisms involving the survivors and the relatives of the victims of these tragedies, is needed for the transformation of the NagornoKarabakh conflict and reconciliation of the societies.
As the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is still ongoing, the governments are reluctant to exercise political will for dealing with the past and the societies remain largely unprepared for this as well, and these two factors are in a vicious loop. Neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia is member of the International Criminal Court, which deals with the prosecution of war crimes, as both are in the state of a quasi-war between each other, and they are avoiding the implications of such membership.
Civil Society Engaging in TJ
The interviewed civil society actors in Azerbaijan are mainly acknowledged as peacebuilders, journalists, scholars, and practitioners in the context of the NagornoKarabakh conflict. They actors have carried out activities that can be characterized as fitting a TJ logic in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as other conflicts in the recent history of Azerbaijan.
Kerim Kerimli was a war journalist during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. He was a special reporter of the “Karabakh” newspaper and the head of a printing house in Shusha when the conflict escalated. As a witness and participant of the events in Nagorno-Karabakh, he has written several books and special reports. Now, he is trying to create a “Karabakh” museum. He is collecting artifacts from Shusha and other places in Nagorno-Karabakh in his own house. He has plans to find a proper place to display the items he has so far collected and find financial support for their conservation and maintenance (Kerimli 2018).
Zardusht Alizade, a political analyst and former politician, was a participant of the events in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in the middle of popular movements and the Nagorno-Karabakh war. He has produced several scholarly articles and books analyzing the political events of that time. He says his recent book reveals interesting facts about “national betrayals” of that period which caused tragedies such as the Black January events. Although the book was published in the Russian language several years ago, he has not succeeded yet to publish it in the Azerbaijani language due to financial difficulties (Alizade 2018).
The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan National Committee has worked in finding missing persons, exchanging hostages, and working with the displaced people in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as focused on human rights issues and democracy building in Azerbaijan. One of the recent activities of the organization is a research project studying hate speech and the rising militarist discourse in social media (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018).
The Humanitarian Research Public Union has also worked with displaced people, has produced several documentaries, and done other projects in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Recently, the organization has launched a project for collecting memories and archives, mainly digital materials regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, covering the years 1988-1994 (Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018).
Finally, the Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform was created in 2016 with the aim of unifying peace initiatives by civil society in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict context and strengthening the overall process. Since its onset, there has been some controversy around the organization. It is believed that the government of Azerbaijan has initiated this project involving some experts, political asylum seekers, or other individuals from Armenia or of Armenian origins. However, none of the Armenian members of the Platform live in Armenia now, and some of them are considered “national traitors” as they have come to Azerbaijan and engaged in the Platform. Also, as the organization admits, its former representatives have damaged the image and reputation of the organization both inside and outside the country, and it is now that the organization has started to engage in confidencebuilding activities sincerely (Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform 2018). One of the recent projects of the organization centers around the story of an ArmenianAzerbaijani couple who were forced to break up when the conflict started, but 30 years later, they found each other and got married in Russia. Due to this case, the Armenian woman was blamed for “national betrayal” in Russia by members of the Armenian Diaspora. She faced the problem of losing her career in Russia. The organization even helped her to solve this problem. The Platform believes that when the story is ready to be released, it will positively impact the peacebuilding process (Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform 2018).
TJ Without Official State Involvement
There are different views of the civil society on whether TJ is applicable to an ongoing conflict, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, or it is exclusively useful for postconflict settings. For the majority of them, the TJ mechanisms and measures seem effective and possible mainly for the post-conflict transformation period. There are many possible post-conflict TJ mechanisms and measures that are considered useful in order to redress to the survivors of past tragedies and the relatives of the victims and those who have been directly affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in general. However, most of them are perceived as inapplicable unless there is a comprehensive, holistic and official peace process with mechanisms and measures complementary to each other. In addition, applying some of the measures and mechanisms in isolation could even create problems rather than deliver peace and justice.
For instance, public apology, which is a common TJ tool in many post-conflict societies, might be a significant tool for the war crimes in the context of NagornoKarabakh conflict. However, according to the Humanitarian Research Public Union, unless there is a peace agreement, public apologies could put in peril the ex-combatants or those who hold responsibility for committing war crimes (Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018) because in the current official approach, they did not do anything wrong but defended their people. The sides have divergent and mutually exclusive narratives of the past. Once there is an official peace agreement, these narratives will be transformed, and the societies will be prepared to embrace truth from new perspectives. And a truth-seeking commission will play the main role in revealing the truth behind major war crimes and then due to this revealed truth, public apology will work.
Another TJ instrument is the prosecution of war criminals in the International Criminal Court in Hague. This is also a post-conflict TJ tool. However, the majority of the interviewed civil society actors think that this mechanism is not desirable and would not be effective for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict because it has lost its trustworthiness in the Yugoslav case due to political manipulation of the great powers.
Finally, reparation for the Khojaly Massacre is not considered feasible as the Armenian state financially is not ready for this. More importantly, a moral compensation, i.e. a public appology, is considered more effective and can redress the survivors and the relatives of the victims of the Khojaly Massacre and other war crimes. However, according to most civil society actors, these tools are applicable and effective only after the sides reach a peace agreement. Thus, without having a peace agreement, it is considered useless to talk about post-conflict TJ tools in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
A joint Armenian-Azerbaijani truth-seeking commission for the investigation of war crimes, on the other hand, is a TJ instrument that is considered effective for both ongoing conflicts and post-conflict contexts. This commission could involve qualified lawyers, experts from the OSCE Minks Group and international peacebuilding organizations, and the local civil society in order to redress the survivors and the relatives of the victims of war crimes, such as the Khojaly Massacre. However, the common view is that before this step, each side should be able to organize platforms separately for themselves to discuss their own wrongdoings internally (Alizade 2018). The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan National Committee suggests, for instance, that a joint truth-seeking commission could investigate the origins of some rumors that have been spread in the societies about the war crimes. This is deemed important for acknowledging how and by whom they have been provoked. The civil society in Azerbaijan believes that the Russian KGB (stands for “Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti” translated into English as “Committee for State Security”) has played the main role in creating and sustaining the conflict at all stages; therefore, they want to start this process as soon as possible proving that Russia has been the main actor encouraging violence between people by different means, especially in the case of the Sumgait Pogrom which triggered the conflict (Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform 2018, Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018). Regarding the Khojaly Massacre, there are different stories told both in Armenia and Azerbaijan especially about the killings of people (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018). There must be a proper investigation by a joint Azerbaijani-Armenian commission to explore the truth about the Khojaly Massacre (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018).
The Challenges of Civil Society
Civil society actors have faced many challenges while trying to employ unofficial TJ-like measures to deal with the past. The first challenge is the absence of sustainable financial resources to initiate independent projects, such as filming documentaries and publishing books. Kerim Kerimli has written a book as a response to Tomas De Waal’s “Black Garden” but he has not found financial support to publish it yet. In this book, Kerimli claims that De Waal has misrepresented some important facts about the Khojaly Massacre. His ideas about “our own wrongdoings” to prevent the Khojaly Massacre are valuable sources in the context of TJ which is unknown for the wider Azerbaijani audience. Kerimli suggests that the lack of sufficient financial means hampers the materialization of such projects:
“There are misrepresentations of some facts in Tomas’ book. I wrote this book, but I have not been able to publish it, and now I don’t even want to do it as I have been demotivated. People read Tomas’ book and think that this book is unbiased, but it is not! As a participant, I know the truth about Khojaly. I know even our own wrongdoings in Khojaly… for instance, how the head of the X region carelessly left Khojaly defenseless… I can write about these cases, but there is no funding, no financial support” (Kerimli 2018).
Zardusht Alizade also has an unpublished book that can contribute to a TJ process. As discussed above, he has not succeeded yet to publish it in the Azerbaijani language due to financial problems (Alizade 2018).
Another common challenge in terms of TJ for civil society in Azerbaijan is more related to political dynamics. Some of the archives of the Soviet period remain only in Moscow, and Russia has so far been unwilling to open the archives as, for example, in the case of Black January (Kerimli 2018). This is a political issue and should be solved at the level of the governments. However, the archives are not disclosed by the current government of Azerbaijan either. The Azerbaijani Popular Front Party’s government in 1992-1993 did not open the archives concerning some of the conflicts in Soviet Azerbaijan either. There is only one book on the issue, “Sumgait: Beginning of the Collapse of the USSR” by Aslan Ismayilov (Ismayilov 2011) that discusses the Sumgait Pogrom. Aslan Ismayilov was the prosecutor investigating the crime in 1988. According to Zardusht Alizade, the book is a valuable documentary discussing Aslan Ismayilov’s observation in the court on how the Soviet KGB provoked the Sumgait Pogrom, but the book also has biased views in the sense that it puts emphasis on blaming the ethnic Armenian Grigorian as the sole executor of the crime (Alizade 2018).
Another challenge is the absence of a green light by the state. Dealing with the past in a comprehensive project without the authorization of the state is perceived dangerous for civil society. It seems that once this is identified as a need by the state, there will be a green light for doing comprehensive work in this field. Such preconditions as well as financial difficulties discourage civil society actors in Azerbaijan from engaging with TJ. However, this does not mean that the government blocks everything in this regard. Civil society has always engaged in dealing with the past through different ways.
Critical Views on the Past
The interviewed civil society actors in Azerbaijan have critical views on the past. First, the leadership of Soviet Azerbaijan is blamed for taking the wrong action or not taking action to prevent the tragedies in the late 1980s. The Azerbaijani leadership could take measures against the Armenians who committed crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh, but they did not do this (Kerimli 2018). Their silence and fear of Moscow worsened the situation. Moreover, the Azerbaijani Popular Front leadership provoked people to dismiss Abdurrahman Vazirov who in 1988-1990 was the head of the Azerbaijani Communist Party that caused the tragedies (Alizade 2018).
Concerning the Sumgait or Baku Pogroms against ethnic Armenians, a joint truthseeking commission is considered effective to investigate these cases together with the Armenian side to find out what caused and who were behind these crimes. The interviewed civil society actors also hope that a joint truth-seeking commission could investigate ethnic cleansing cases of Azerbaijanis in Armenia (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018). For instance, the Humanitarian Research Public Union emphasizes that “Armenians have serious accusations toward Azerbaijanis about the Sumgait Pogrom; in most cases, it is exaggerated”, therefore “Azerbaijan should be interested to create a joint Armenian-Azerbaijani commission for the Sumgait case” in order to “see if we are the sole guilty party of this Pogrom, or whether we were perhaps only those who were provoked?” (Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018). The organization believes that “it would be a good reference to investigate other similar pogroms and war crimes committed against Azerbaijanis including the Khojaly Massacre. Khojaly is not comparable with such pogroms. It is a big one, but there were other pogroms in Armenia against Azerbaijanis, such as the Garadaghly and Gugark Pogroms, the death of Salatin Asgerova, the Garakend Tragedy” (Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018). Thus, these cases should be jointly investigated and once the truth about the war crimes becomes widely acknowledged, it would be an effective TJ tool to deconstruct “national enmity” by transforming the responsibility from the nation to specific people: “These crimes were committed by specific people, excombatants, but today all are guilty, and the responsibility for these crimes is on the shoulders of the two nations. If you prove that not the entire nations, but specific people are guilty, you take off the responsibility from the whole nations that opens opportunity for reconciliation” (Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018).
These views obviously promote TJ and peace in the context of the NagornoKarabakh conflict. A similar view is voiced by the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijani National Committee as well as Kerim Kerimli and others (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018, Kerimli 2018). In this regard, civil society actors, who are inclined to deal with the past through different instruments, really want to start this joint truth-seeking commission, considering it essential for peace and justice.
What Can and Should Be Done Now?
Although the main TJ instruments are perceived possible and effective in postconflict cases, the interviewed civil society actors suggest several instruments for the current situation. First, the confidence-building dialogues between different target groups are considered vital for further joint work. An Open Dialogue Platform for all confidence building initiatives is suggested by the ArmeniaAzerbaijan Peace Platform which “will generate a lot of relevant ways for reconciliation in itself” (Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform 2018). An Open Dialogue Platform can be formed in each country which can support all peace initiatives. Second, many of the interviewed civil society actors consider that it is very important to work on creating documentaries and archives and recording ‘alive history’ through the participants and witnesses of the events while this is still possible (Alizade 2018, Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Platform 2018, Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018). Moreover, the civil society can work on the issue of missing persons as well as the displaced people, the survivors and relatives of the victims of past tragedies and those who have been directly affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, addressing their humanitarian problems and providing rehabilitation (Humanitarian Research Public Union 2018) (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Azerbaijan Committee 2018). These are the main activities that are considered urgent and that could be effective if implemented properly. These will also prepare the societies to think about peace and reconciliation and facilitate the way to a political agreement.
Turkey: A General Context
Various tragic events and atrocities have marked the history of Turkey, yet none of them has been dealt with within a TJ framework. The legacy of widespread and systematic human rights abuses, state violence, and military coups still haunts the country. In addition to past wrongdoings, the ongoing Kurdish conflict is making it even harder to talk about the past, while violence remains a present-day issue.
In parallel to the armed conflict between the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê in Kurdish or Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the state since 1984, the armed forces and the state-led paramilitaries employed indiscriminate violence towards civilians in the Kurdish-populated regions which were under emergency rule until 2002. The combination of a state-sponsored amnesia and denial resulted in a deficiency of justice and reconciliation. Since mass atrocities played a significant role in consolidating the political power of the nation-state in Turkey, historical injustices and the past still haunt the present. After the recent peace process collapsed in 2015, escalated violence resulted in massive human rights violations in the Kurdish region, which was added to the legacy of a violent past.
Limited attempts for TJ both led by state and civil society have occurred in recent years. Yet, these attempts have not been undertaken in a systematic or holistic manner. State-led TJ efforts in Turkey, such as the trials and the Law on Compensation have not satisfied the demands of the victims (Alpkaya, et al. 2017, Uçarlar 2015, Kurban 2012). These laws and trials have been perceived as a fundamental change in the contemporary history of the state in Turkey (Budak 2015), and they were introduced as mechanisms to come to terms with the past. However, many have convincingly argued they were, in fact, pragmatic, short-term maneuvers done with the purpose of satisfying the demands for TJ which were raised by the local actors and supported by the European Union and the European Court for Human Rights (Budak 2015). Moreover, they had an individual character instead of aiming at a collective reparation. Such individualization of TJ response was used to ignore the systematic, collective, and/or institutional nature of the abuse. These measures have not implied any political responsibility and they did not attempt to transform the political setting in which the atrocities happened, which is, in fact, one of the main challenges of implementing TJ in the absence of a fundamental political transition.
It is important to acknowledge that the state-led initiatives took place as a response to the increasing quest of the society to remember the conflictual past and come to terms with historical injustices. The struggles of victim and survivor groups and human rights organizations for recognition and right to truth, in return, have largely developed in response to, and partly been shaped by, the state-sponsored denial, impunity, and amnesia which have continued in different forms. The social dynamics of forgetting and remembrance in relation to the Kurdish conflict in Turkey started to change due to the popular demands for truth and remembrance (Budak 2015). Part of the struggles took the form of judicial processes such as the proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights (Budak 2015), while an important part consisted of non-judicial initiatives which focused mostly on memorialization, such as the Truth and Justice Commission for the Diyarbakır Prison, the Museum of Shame, the Roboski Museum Initiative, the Saturday Mothers, and the Database on Enforced Disappearances. These initiatives might be considered as demands for recognition by subnational social groups which reinforce legal and normative developments for TJ and the right to truth (Bevernage and Wouters 2018). Justice- and truth-seeking for the forced disappearances have been the fundamental path towards TJ. The Human Rights Association, for instance, has been following the trials for years, and it gave birth to the demonstrations of the Saturday Mothers. The Truth and Justice Center, on the other hand, has been working on legal documentation and monitoring as well as following the trials of the forced disappearances since it was established. It has also formed a database on of the forced disappearances and raised awareness on the topic using different media such as photos and video-interviews with the relatives of those who disappeared forcibly. Both organizations contributed to the memorialization of one of the most widespread human rights violations in the past of the Republic of Turkey.
Links and Continuities Between Past Crimes
Almost all of the organizations that we interviewed in Turkey draw parallels between the different crimes and atrocities of the past.
There are links observed between the different dimensions of human rights violations. “When you talk about forced disappearances you also talk about displacement. Or if you are talking to the wife of a missing person, you are also talking about the gender dimension,” said one of the respondents.
Another important link that comes out in the interviews is the one between the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the forced disappearances in the 1990s. Even if the organizations themselves are not working specifically on the Genocide, they think there is a clear link between what happened in the Kurdish conflict and the Genocide. Some of the organizations make it very clear that coming to terms with the past has to start with 1915 and not with the Republic era.
According to our respondent from the Human Rights Association, forced disappearances in custody started with the 1915 Genocide and if the link between the Genocide and the Saturday Mothers is ignored, forced disappearances cannot be addressed adequately. The Truth Justice Memory Center confirms that by saying “forced disappearances of Armenians on April 24 is a historical momentum that starts the tradition of disappearances”.
Although the Human Rights Association is the only organization that holds specific events to commemorate the victims of the Genocide and to discuss its implications, the other organizations as well generally have a perspective to understand different atrocities or time periods in a holistic way. Karakutu, for instance, does not have a specific time period that it focuses on, but it addresses different events of the past that are not mentioned in official historical narratives and are silenced. They relate different topics to each other in their memory walks. One of the walks is organized in Taksim, the heart of Istanbul, and the young participants are taken to Yeşilçam Street which used to be the center of the Turkish cinema industry. The purpose of this visit is to let the participants know about Nubar Terziyan, a very famous Armenian actor and to emphasize that “there was this guy when nobody used Armenian names”.
Given the long and complex history of atrocities, human rights and peace organizations direct their focus mostly to the most immediate problem, the 40-yearlong and still ongoing Kurdish conflict. As much as they understand and care for the linkages between different eras and forms of state violence, it does not seem possible to address the other periods unless the Kurdish question is politically solved to a certain extent.
Challenges and Shortcomings of Civil Society
A general view expressed by the respondents is that the civil society is not prepared to contribute to a possible peace process from a TJ perspective. Several reasons are named for that. The first and most frequent argument relates to differing working method and the lack of cooperation among different organizations. Our respondent from the Rights Initiative considers that most organizations conduct a conventional way of human rights advocacy which makes their work less effective.
A common critique is that the civil society does not have reliable and complete data. An example given by the Rights Initiatives was that if the state decides to take action on the files of missing persons, there will be differences among the organizations which have been documenting, following, and advocating for the cases of missing persons for decades. The Peace Foundation thinks that the civil society needs to be better equipped institutionally to respond to the needs of a possible peace process.
Another concern is that some demands of TJ do not go beyond political discourse, and they are not able to propose practical, concrete, and data-based solutions. For instance, although a Truth Commission is a popularly claimed mechanism, it seems more like a politically motivated intention instead of a well-prepared proposal with a solid background.
Linked to the first concern, the lack of cooperation is believed to be decreasing efficiency. Instead of doing the exact same thing and collecting the same data, specializing on different topics and having joint centers for documentation are thought to be more efficient. The civil society does not have platforms to learn from and about each other’s work. The Truth Justice Memory Center thinks that joining forces would make civil society stronger to push the state. There should be specialization and harmony among the organizations. Taking into account the decreasing number of people working in these areas and the increasing oppression on peace-related organizations, developing new strategies becomes even more urgent. Without making relevant preparations, claiming TJ will not bring a meaningful solution.
Another important challenge is that the human resources are decreasing while the topics to address are increasing. In parallel, the public space that was available to civil society during the peace process was much larger than the civil society has access to now.
A criticism which was mainly put forward by the Peace Foundation is that the civil society usually focuses on the wrongdoings by the state. According to our respondent, “The crimes committed by the armed group PKK, such as the forced recruitment of children or the targeting of the village guards should also be on the TJ agenda of civil society”. The TJ efforts, otherwise, will fail to address the whole complexities of the conflict and remain inefficient.
Another significant challenge is the hardship of addressing the past while that past is currently repeating in other forms by victimizing the same population. As Karakutu pointed out, “When we were planning to go to Şırnak to do memory work there, it turned into a site of violence again. We were addressing the September 67 pogrom in our memory walks, and suddenly we found ourselves in a time when similar atrocities are being committed”. Documenting ongoing painful events is different than addressing the past. Moreover, some of the organizations that are conducting memory work hesitate to reach out to the victims of the past to commemorate their missing relatives from the 1990’s when they are also the victims of current displacement. Apart from documenting the past atrocities, civil society should learn skills and adapt methodologies to document the abuses during an ongoing conflict. For example, the organizations feel the need to apply a different methodology when they interview a recently displaced person.
In relation to the ongoing conflict, the current oppressive regime is a big challenge to the organization of public campaigns. As the Human Rights Association indicated, TJ is not possible when people do not feel secure to raise their voices: “Before TJ, we have to have the freedom of expression. It also depends on international politics, and this is not impossible. But I don’t think the internal public is ready for pushing for TJ”.
What Can and Should Be Done Now?
All five organizations have different answers to this, although they have a strong common ground. They think that the current period of not having a political or social atmosphere to discuss peace might actually be used by civil society for capacity building, developing new strategies, and accumulating more data on how to deal with the past.
One of the ideas is to discuss what the civil society can do if a peace process is established again. A useful way to do it might be to establish a peace network among everyone who undertakes peace work, including academics who work on different topics related to peace and conflict. This might also address the need for cooperation and coordination among the organizations and also help specializing on different topics and areas complementing each other.
Documentation, classification, and data collection are the most common strategies that are stated by the organizations. Having more structured data and more systematic documentation are perceived to be the most urgent and meaningful ways of strengthening the capacity and influence of civil society. As the Rights Initiative states, having approximate numbers does not have the same impact as having all the concrete details of a case of human rights violation. Data-based advocacy can also be more functional to mobilize the international institutions and to collaborate with them.
TJ Without an Official Peace Process
Most of the civil society actors see their current role in data collection and research on TJ mechanisms. By doing so, they hope to have enough resources and the necessary support to intervene in a future official process. A shared argument is that when there is no official peace process, it is difficult to imagine or discuss TJ. However, there are more optimistic approaches as well that consider TJ and peace long-term goals and see the current period as an opportunity to prepare the society and to build capacity in the civil society.
Official and non-official TJ efforts are considered complementary, rather than interchangeable. However, the current situation limits the ability and capacity of the organizations to lead high impact initiatives, and they think that it is only to a certain extent that the civil society can contribute to TJ in the current situation. As our respondent from the Human Rights Association put it:
“The state definitely has to get involved. We do such things non-official initiatives from time to time, but they don’t really contribute much. I have gone and reported for almost all atrocities in Kurdistan. But it was the first time that the people were happy when there was the peace process. They trusted it; they had faith, and they felt secure. Because the state was involved”.
She also adds: “It is true that the state has to be involved. But the civil society shouldn’t make the mistake of waiting until the state takes action. Because, one of the first roles of the civil society is to push, mobilize the state”. This account reflects well the attitudes and approaches of the whole civil society which might be called ‘cautious’. Although they inherently believe that the civil society should be more proactive, they are also aware of the current limitations.
The existing despair and frustration within the society as well as the civil society actors is indeed an important factor that limits these efforts. The civil society actors are influenced by the oppressive regime that creates frustration and fear. They know that they have a more limited public sphere and that they have to choose their words perfectly in order to refrain from any risk their organizations might face. A very important comment is that the civil society should not withdraw from what it has been seeking (such as reaching out to parliamentary commissions), but it should update its actions according to the needs of the present time. Even if no structured TJ process is possible now, these efforts can at least start and sustain the discussions on dealing with the past. Karakutu believes that none of the efforts to deal with the past has short-term goals, and even if peace is reached, dealing with the past will take years to achieve. It is for this reason that the civil society should not take a step back just because they cannot do everything now. Even if it is a small amount of work, it should continue.
First Things to Do in Case of a Peace and TJ Process
The civil society organizations that we interviewed do not have comprehensive or detailed comments as to which TJ mechanisms and measures will be the most urgent and effective to address the difficult past in case there is an official peace process.
The Truth Justice Memory Center believes that the first thing should be the recognition and acknowledgment of the crimes and the state’s responsibility. Memory work, which is already at play, will spread over time and can continue along other measures and mechanisms. In terms of the judicial and non-judicial TJ, the common idea is that truth seeking and prosecutions should be undertaken at the same time as complementary.
With regards to prosecutions, the Truth Justice Memory Center thinks that the punishment does not have to be in one specific format. Several tools and methods might be developed instead of using the heavy punishments such as life imprisonment. Discrediting high-ranking military officers formerly and currently occupying positions might be a good way of acknowledging the crime and holding the preparators accountable. Those who were most affected by the conflict can also be involved in the process of elaboration of various mechanisms to better deliver justice.
According to the Human Rights Association, the first and foremost measure to take is to lift all restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression. To do that on the legal level, they argue, there needs to be a constitutional change and a new, democratic constitution is needed. Conscientious objection and amnesty for political prisoners are other things that might be implemented. But in order to discuss several options and decide what is the best for the country, people should feel safe to express their authentic and possibly controversial thoughts. This is the only way to have a public and transparent discussion on TJ, so that the needs of the victims and survivors are met effectively.
Another measure is to start with dialogue activities to pave the way for dealing with the past. Karakutu suggest that such activities might be held between Kurds and Turks as it is done by several initiatives between Armenian and Turkish youth. Even if a truth commission is established, there needs to be prior work on dialogue; otherwise, the society will not be ready. In parallel to this idea of dialogue and reconciliation, the Peace Foundation thinks that the common ground and emotional needs of different groups should be addressed.
A comprehensive vision for TJ or even initial steps are difficult to outline now. However, the shared view is that these will emerge once we have a common ground in which victims, survivors, human rights advocates, and peace activists can express their ideas and discuss the topic. Even though civil society organizations claim their interest in and attention to TJ, it is not easy to talk in concrete and practical terms. Their demand for dealing with the past is not well supported by research on available and applicable TJ tools.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Our research demonstrates the need for more knowledge and competence as well as visions and strategies for TJ in these three countries. Although almost all civil society actors we talked to acknowledge the need for TJ to deal with the past and to deliver accountability for the past injustices, there is not enough preparation regarding the specific TJ mechanisms and measures that can be adapted to the needs and demands of the victims and survivors of these injustices. Moreover, given the lack of official peace processes with a TJ component, the civil society efforts are limited. Organizational capacity and lack of financial resources are often a challenge reducing the possibility of reaching a wide audience and restricting the activities of several civil society organizations. The oppressive political settings especially in Turkey and Azerbaijan is yet another factor that affects the public space that is available to civil society. In Armenia, there is more space to discuss several issues from a broadened perspective; however, this discussion often does not take place in reference to the oppressive political settings in the neighboring countries.
Our recommendations address the civil society actors in these three countries and summarize what should be done to include TJ as a more comprehensive framework into their agenda and become competent enough to make TJ a critical part of any peace efforts that might emerge in and between these countries. The recommendations are mainly based on the areas and measures discussed by the respondents during the interviews. We are also proposing several approaches to contribute to TJ efforts in these countries when there is no almost no peace process.
Our first and foremost recommendation is derived from our theoretical approach which concerns TJ in the absence of an official peace process:
- Include TJ into your peace agenda and explore the ways to use TJ measures and mechanisms as a facilitator of conflict transformation.
- Learn from different experiences in which TJ measures and mechanisms were used in order to prepare the society for an official peace process.
- Investigate the applicability of different measures in your counties and contexts.
- Use the ongoing situation for capacity building of your organizations, awareness-raising in the society, and structural empowerment with regards to knowledge and expertise on TJ.
And here are our country-specific recommendations:
- Develop a peace agenda (unilateral or joint) and coordinate the efforts of different civil society actors.
- Take on the role of proposing new initiatives under the light of the recent political developments. Use this as an opportunity to explore ways to change the public discourse on such topics as war and dehumanization of the ‘other’. Civil society organizations can embark on testing this environment by initiating new discussions on sensitive topics with the public, such as own wrongdoings, but this must be very well calculated to prevent repercussions.
- Continue maintaining relations and increasing confidence-building measures with Turkish and Azerbaijani partners, despite crises or unfavorable political conditions, as losing these ties would set the process back significantly.
- Continue collecting data and personal stories, making archives and documentaries, as well as promoting expression through art. These actions perpetuate discussions and add alternative voices.
- Work with victims and survivors of past tragedies and their relatives, the displaced as well as other conflict-affected populations both for humanitarian purposes as well as to empower them as peace constituencies.
- Work with the Armenian partners to explore the option of a joint dialogue platform to coordinate civil society efforts, merging and multiplying resources to support confidence building and peacebuilding.
- Create a joint platform of civil society to develop a TJ agenda, build capacity, and raise awareness in the society and relevant authorities about TJ.
- Continue collecting data and personal stories, making archives and documentaries, as well as promoting expression through art. These actions perpetuate discussions and add alternative voices.
- Work with Armenians from Azerbaijan who were displaced when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began. It will have a huge impact for peace. The Armenia-Azerbaijan Civil Peace Platform has recently initiated such a project.
- Work extensively with the survivors of the Khojaly Massacre who live in Pirshagi, in the countryside of Baku. A comprehensive research should be conducted and documented to disclose the truth about the Khojaly Massacre and raising awareness for the Armenian side.
- Work with victims and survivors of past tragedies and their relatives, the displaced as well as other conflict-affected populations both for humanitarian purposes as well as to empower them as peace constituencies.
- Establish joint mechanisms (such as a joint human rights documentation center) for several organizations so that the resources are used more efficiently, and a wider audience is reached.
- Establish networks or mechanisms to learn from each other’s work and develop a common agenda to push the state to take actions.
- Develop new strategies to address the current and past human rights problems. Adopt a more updated, data-based method of human rights advocacy. Make connections with international organizations that have capacity and resources to support local organizations. Produce educative and pedagogical materials such as handbooks and toolkits on TJ that address different groups (policy makers, parliamentarians, activists, etc.).
- Take different international legal documents and conventions into account and use them for advocacy.
- Learn more from the international experiences and get to know more about each TJ mechanism that are available to any conflict or post-conflict setting. Investigate different cases and work with experts to analyze their applicability to Turkey. Work on the advantages and risks that each mechanism might have in the context of Turkey.
- Make a risk assessment and elaborate mitigation strategies of how to adapt the TJ approach in case of conflict escalation.
- Learn skills and adapt methodologies to document the abuses during an ongoing conflict, such as forensic anthropology.
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 While as co-authors of this paper, we have worked with a shared conceptual framework and methodology and have developed recommendations together, Nisan Alıcı is the author of the section on Turkey, Arpi Grigoryan is the author of the section on Armenia, and Elchin Karimov is the author of the section on Azerbaijan.
 The name of the village is Khojaly in Azerbaijani.
 The town used to be called Ghapan or Kafan in Soviet times and is now called Kapan.
 The town is now called Ganja.
 The town is called Shushi in Armenian.
 The Law on Compensation for Losses Resulting from Terrorism and the Fight against Terrorism was enacted in 2004 to address the forced displacement in the 1990s.
*The feature photo of the article is taken from justiceinconflict.org.
**This article was written within the project “Building Sustainable Trans-Border Communities in the South Caucasus”, funded by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) / Funding program zivik with resources provided by the German Federal Foreign Office.