On the occasion of the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime, AGBU Lebanon collaborated with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lepsius Haus Potsdam, on a hybrid conference titled “Memory and Justice: Remembrance in the Aftermath of Political Violence.”
The hybrid conference took place on Friday, December 9, 2022, at the Basile Antoine Meguerdiche Conference Hall at AUB. It was also provided for online attendees via Zoom and live-streamed on the AGBU Lebanon and IFI Facebook pages.
The widely- attended conference attracted a total of about 100 attendees, divided between in-person and online attendance. It consisted of two panel discussions and an interesting Fireside Chat at the end to bring up further related topics. The panelists attended in-person and online, via Zoom.
AGBU Lebanon and IFI are long-term partners who collaborate every year on this occasion and host well-known speakers to debate about issues revolving around genocide and its prevention. Moreover, a Memorandum of Understanding joins AGBU Lebanon and Lepsius Haus Potsdam for two years. Not only that, but Lepsius Haus has cooperated with AGBU on various projects related to Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora since 2016.
Ms. Arine Ghazarian, Executive Director of AGBU Lebanon, and Dr. Joseph Bahout, the Director of IFI, in turn gave their opening remarks and thanked the audience for joining the conference.
“As the largest Armenian philanthropic organization in the world, AGBU continues its 116-year history of driving thoughtful conversations and impactful programming to support the global Armenian nation through cultural, educational, humanitarian, and socio-economic development initiatives,” started Ms. Ghazarian.
“Over time, the series of conferences built a very solid and friendly partnership between IFI and AGBU, and I am very thankful for that because both our institutions are here, at least partially, to think about the common good and to think about how to better serve their respective communities,” stated Dr. Bahout.
Dr. Roy Knocke, the Director of Lepsius Haus Potsdam, gave the keynote speech about the politics of archives. Dr. Knocke highlighted the importance of archives in the analysis and interpretation of history. Describing archives as the “crooked timber of memory,” he stressed on the subjectivity of these documents and how memory could be modified and changed according to various factors. As such, Dr. Knocke claimed that there are “different perspectives of the same historical event found in an archive. History is vast canvas of grey zones which we should approach through objectivity.”
Panel 1 – Archives and the Aftermath of Political Violence
This panel was moderated by Dr. Knocke. The first speaker, Dr. Maud Stephan, attended in person and discussed the uses and misuses of archives and various debates in the archival profession. She briefly explained the process of archives collection, storage, and usage and how they can be organized, described, and preserved. There have been many cases where archives have been deliberately destroyed. For this reason, “archivists try to be as neutral as possible, and keep their intervention to a minimum. Their main mission is to preserve them from any misuse.” By selecting what is worth remembering, archivists contribute to shaping our memory.
Mr. Paulo Irani, an investigator, was the second speaker who joined the panel via Zoom. He examined topics related to promoting accountability, memory, and justice through an investigative perspective. Memory fades over time, but archives do not. However, archives can be subjective and based on the archivist’s or user’s emotional state.
“The stories passed down from one generation to the next can be changed, whereas archives stand alone as an independent historical witness of what happened,” continued Mr. Irani. Moreover, during international cases of conflict and prosecution, they do not only bring in survivors or eyewitnesses or even perpetrators; they bring an overview witness – academics, historians, and university professors who rely on archives to study the situation of the conflict.
Dr. Lisa Ott, head of the Dealing with the Past Program (DwP Program) at Swisspeace, was the third speaker and joined the conference online. She discussed archives and their relation to transitional justice. The DwP Program is concerned with the processes for addressing the rights of victims and societies as a whole, as well as obligations of states with regards to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence in the aftermaths of grave human rights violations, breaches of International Humanitarian Law and grave forms of corruption that facilitated these crimes.
There are different mechanisms to deal with large-scale violence such as truth commissions and tribunals. “The objective is the prevention of impunity and the recurrence of past violence, the reparation of harm done to the victims, the reconciliation of a war-torn society, the establishment of the rule of law, and the transformation of the conflict,” stated Dr. Ott.
Panel 2 – Memory and Justice: An Overview of Regional Experiences
The second panel brought together an array of regional practical cases of archival use and was moderated by Ms. Lynn Zovighian, Co-founder and Managing Director of The Zovighian Partnership. The different speakers discussed the various challenges that they saw in these countries where conflict reigns.
The first speaker was Mr. Haider Elias, the Co-founder and President of Yazda Organization. Through his Zoom intervention, he discussed the Yazidi genocide which was perpetrated by the hands of the Islamic State (IS) in Sinjar, Iraq. The Yazidis are still in the process of bringing justice for the victims. Collecting testimonies has been a difficult process because some of the victims are suffering from mental health issues following the violence that they were exposed to. Yazda is partnering with United Nations investigators to bring the perpetrators to justice. They are also facing various challenges working in the region because of political and security obstacles.
Moreover, they want to create a safe space for the Yazidis in their home. “Restoring security back to normal is an important goal for us, so that the community can trust to come back home,” claimed Mr. Elias.
The second case concerned the Lebanese civil war and the status and roles of archives thirty years after the war. Dr. Makram Rabah, lecturer of History at the American University of Beirut and a researcher at UMAM Documentation and Research, discussed the importance of oral history, which is reflected through testimonies and stories passed on from one person to the other, or from one generation to the next. Lebanon does not have many archives left, but there are many archives stored with families and institutions such as organizations and universities. In addition, there was a general tendency to destroy and burn archives. After the Lebanese civil war ended, the Lebanese state issued an amnesty law, which basically relieved the war perpetrators of any responsibility. This meant that the file on the Lebanese civil war was closed. No one was given justice.
Dr. Rabah compared the Lebanese civil war to the Armenian Genocide in terms of archival use, collection, and storage. “While in the case of the Armenian Genocide, the whole community and diaspora pays money to make sure no one forgets about the genocide, the Lebanese state invested money to force people to forget about the atrocities,” argued Dr. Rabah to highlight the weaponization of memory and the deconstruction of narratives.
The third speaker, Ms. Gayane Khechoomian, an attorney, joined online and shed light on the Cambodian experience in bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, headed by Polpot, attempted to engineer a communist society, therefore, leading to the death of about two million people. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodian government continued fighting them, especially because some of the party leaders had not yet defected from the party.
The Cambodian case presents a success of archival and testimonial use to, on one hand, prosecute the perpetrators, and on the other hand, bring justice to the victims. Cambodia had asked the United Nations to help in the trial process.
“The court integrated the Cambodian people in every stage of the process. The tribunal was hybrid, which meant that it was an international court in conjunction with the Cambodian government,” highlighted Ms. Khechoomian about the court’s inclusivity. The trial was accessible to everyone. According to Ms. Khechoomian, hundreds and thousands of Cambodians attended the trials and the victims were even served as civil parties.
Fireside Chat – Memory, Truth and Justice: Different Options for Accountability Mechanisms
The hybrid fireside chat was an interesting debate and discussion between Mr. Ayman Mhanna, Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, and Dr. Irene Victoria Massimino, Co-founder of the Lemkin Institute. The fruitful conversation covered numerous topics that were not previously discussed. The conversation started off with the role of social media companies as archiving institutions and how all information and data is digitally stored nowadays. Moreover, social media is today a tool to disseminate information and to shape and weaponize memory. Mr. Mhanna and Dr. Massimino further discussed the double standard of social media. On one hand, they limit and restrict users to post information about certain situations of conflict, and on the other hand, they pose very few restrictions on hate speech and genocidal discourse. They then moved on to the topic of trust, stating that the trust and confidence in governments and social media companies is decreasing. As such, one important tool to rebuild this trust is through the work of the civil society in a given country.
Last but not least, Mr. Mhanna and Dr. Massimino concluded the chat by highlighting the role that art plays in reconstructing the identity of a society after it was destroyed by war or political violence. Music, dance, art, and theatre are very important in spreading ideas and ideologies and brings back what was taken away from a certain community.
On this note, the conference ended. After each panel, questions were asked by the audience to which the panelists answered fervently. The attendees and speakers were later invited to a small reception, where the discussions continued and various opinions were exchanged.