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Today is April 24, 2023. One hundred eight years ago, on this day, several hundred Armenian intellectuals were arrested and murdered in Constantinople, marking the beginning of the systematic deportation and mass murder of my ancestors. These events, man’s inhumanity to man, collectively were later coined by Rafael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist, as race (genos in Greek) killing (cide in Latin) or “genocide.” Lemkin had escaped the German invasion of Poland in 1939, eventually reaching the United States, where he accepted a teaching position at Duke University. He documented most of the Nazi atrocities in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, where he defined an unimaginable crime as “genocide.”
Prominently displayed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Holocaust Memorial) are Lemkin and his work. We fittingly visited during a memorable trip to our nation’s capital with three University of Southern California (USC) midshipmen and a Navy lieutenant. We represented our 267 brilliant students in our historic Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at the inauguration of our Capital Campus in Washington DC and the remarkable “Aerospace takes flight” event organized by the Honorable Jane Harman, a presidential scholar at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
What every military officer candidate must know?
In a social media post, I said that there is no better place for our next-generation military officers to learn about man’s inhumanity to man under cover of war than the Holocaust Memorial. Teaching our humanity to our future young officers is critical. General Patton once said, “Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men.” I pointed out to our midshipmen that the cover of war, the dehumanization of men and women, and the use of the military are common threads between the notorious genocides throughout history. Authoritarians commit human atrocities with impunity because of the world community’s previous examples of inaction and silence.
Case in point, I showed our future naval officers Adolf Hitler’s chilling call to action prominently displayed on one of the walls of the Holocaust Memorial, “Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness-for the present only in the east-with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space [lebensraum] which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The Armenian Genocide
Indeed, as the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. The Young Turks leadership—Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha—were prepared to solve the “Armenian problem” once and for all. During the winter of 1914–1915, Young Turks stripped Armenian men drafted into the Ottoman army of their weapons and murdered them. Attacks on Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks continued in winter and early spring. American consuls across the Ottoman Empire described the horror of what was being done to these Christian minorities.
Some 30,000 pages of telegraphs, letters, and newspaper articles are still in the Library of Congress. Some are still at the State Department archives. The New York Times ran 145 articles on the crimes against the Armenians, now recognized as a Genocide. The telegrams from the Allied powers to the Ottoman government coined a new term in the language of human rights, describing the actions taken against Ottoman Armenians as “crimes against humanity.” This idea is now a fundamental principle of international human rights law.
While the United States did not intervene militarily, humanitarian and philanthropic efforts launched with United States Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s assistance by the Near East Relief Foundation in 1919 saved over 100,000 orphans. Despite these efforts, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered.
Learning from history is not our strongest suit.
Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Churchill paraphrased Santayana, saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Authoritarians continue to commit atrocities because they can. Adolf Hitler, a student of history, attempted to solve his “Jewish problem” by brutally murdering 6 million Jews during World War II. I previously wrote about Presidents Putin and Aliyev violating international norms and laws, causing havoc in Ukraine, Artsakh, and Armenia. Inaction against known injustice and a clear violation of international laws have consequences. If the world community does not meaningfully intervene in the caucuses, a second genocide of the Armenian people of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) is bound to happen very soon.
Is Darfur next again?
Exactly twenty years ago in April, rebels struck the airport of Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. They destroyed seven planes and captured the leader of the Sudanese Air Force. Khartoum and the rest of the world learned about the beginning of the Soudanese civil war. Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit villages were bombed and burnt, civilians were killed, and women were raped. According to the United Nations (UN), some 200,000 to 400,000 ethnic Sudanese were brutally killed in Darfur. A tragic reality that descendants of genocide survivors know all too well.
This week, those who did not learn from history are about to repeat it. Life in Khartoum, and many other parts of Soudan, has taken a sudden, dramatic turn for the worse. Two authoritarians, generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) leader, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), are sliding back towards civil war where innocent people will die.
What will it take for the international community to say enough is enough in Ukraine, Artsakh, and now Soudan? Have we yet to learn from history? Genocide is not just Armenian or Jewish issue but a crime against humanity.
On this April 24, I repeat, “Never again.” The question is, is any human listening?
Frank Vram Zerunyan, JD is a Professor of the Practice of Governance at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and Director of Executive Education at USC Price Bedrosian Center on Governance and The Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making, an Interdisciplinary Center USC Marshall USC Viterbi and USC Price (DECIDE), as well as Director of ROTC Programs. His key areas of expertise include Local Governments, Public Private Partnerships, Civic and Ethical Leadership, Land Use, Regulation, Negotiation and Executive Education.
He teaches graduate courses on Intersectoral Leadership (Collaborative Governance), Business and Public Policy, International Issues in Public Policy, Negotiation, Place Institutions and Governance as well as International Laboratory. Frank also lectures locally and globally to build capacity and foster leadership among public executives worldwide. In his capacity as an honorary instructor colonel in the Armenian Army and Air Force, he lectures, coaches and advises on academic affairs at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military University in Armenia. For his influential work over the past five years in Armenia, he was awarded LL.D. Doctor of Laws – Honoris Causa by the Public Administration Academy of the Republic of Armenia.