The Evolution of Post-Genocidal Justice Processes

Author: Winter Greet

Sub-editor: Sunnie Habgood

The neglected nature of survivor’s roles in post-genocidal justice processes – which are frequently overshadowed by the international community and collective narratives – can be demonstrated through the cases of the Armenian and Bosnian genocides. The Armenian Genocide (1915-1916), which preceded the Holocaust, deprived survivors of justice processes in the context of the First World War despite claiming over one million lives at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In comparison, survivors of the Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995) were able to participate in justice proceedings due to the precedents of the Nuremburg trials (1946) and United Nation’s Genocide Convention (1948). Survivors in both examples have acted individually, as nations, and as collective organisations in order to achieve justice for the genocide committed. Victimhood and survivor narratives are essential in understanding post-genocidal contexts and consequently post-genocidal justice processes; the individual experiences of survivors should be valued over collective narratives and the international community of states, though this is seldom ever the case.

The term “genocide” was first coined during the post-Second World War Nuremburg Trials by Raphael Lemkin, gaining status as a legal term in 1948 by the United Nations which established international human rights as legal canon; it also emphasised the role of international communities over the role of survivors in the post-genocidal justice process. The widely accepted definition of the newly coined ‘genocide’ by Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin was established in the United Nations Convention on the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). The Convention detailed that genocide included destruction of a group in whole or in part, distinguished by nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. In Lemkin’s definition he referred retrospectively to the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians in the First World War as genocide, as a basis for his argument.

Prior to the Nuremberg Trials and Genocide Convention, genocide had not been prosecuted because the phenomena usually occurred in states that implemented ethnic cleansing as a domestic policy. This perception was echoed in German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s statement in 1939 of “Who remembers the Armenians?” as a justification for the slaughter of Eastern European Jews. Cushman and Meštrović describe the transition in international norms, noting that legally, “the Nuremberg principles…asserted the right of international bodies to impose standards of behavior on citizens of nation states”. However, over fifty years after the adoption of UNGA, less than 130 states have ratified the Convention (an unprecedented few comparative to other human rights charters) which “testifies to unease among some states with the onerous obligations that the treaty imposes”. By the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s, the international community had a legal precedent to follow. In accordance with United Nations protocols, the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia was established in 1993 and disbanded in 2017. In this, we can clearly see a development in the post-genocidal justice process since the Armenian Genocide.

Post-genocidal justice processes are affected by the relationships between local authorities and survivors of genocide. Justice is commonly hindered when the perpetrator remains in power, where they occasionally form narratives which further state interests. The experiences of the Armenian survivors in local justice-processes were hindered due to the geographical location in the Ottoman Empire. The First Republic of Armenia (1918-1920) enabled some autonomy and the beginning of a national narrative to explain the genocide – however, their independence was limited and following the annexation of the Soviet Union they lost their voice completely. Armenian independence, diaspora and Sovietisation remained contentious issues for Armenians for three generations, generating a dissonance in narratives and experiences between survivors. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the Armenian state able to create a coherent national narrative, helping to legitimise the genocide internationally yet “leaving little space for articulations or explorations of individual experience”.

Forms of the international justice process were pursued in Armenia, but these early attempts at human rights were limited and unsuccessful. In 1918 the ‘Three Pashas’ (Prime Minister, Talat Pasha; War Minister, Enver Pasha; and Naval Minister, Cemal Pasha) were sentenced to death in absentia, although it’s clear their trials were more closely connected to their roles in the First World War rather than in the Genocide. After the absence of the Three Pashas, the new Ottoman government agreed to collaborate with the Allies in prosecuting perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. In April 1918, over 100 suspects were arrested; by February 1919, four trials were scheduled – only one was heard in totality, that of Mehmed Kemal (former governor of Yozgat where one of the largest massacres of the genocide occurred), who was found guilty and hanged on April 10th. The post-genocidal justice process, however, was short-lived and fell short of survivors’ expectations. By 1920, the interest of international actors declined due to prioritization of the post-war environment and the justice process was abandoned. The decline of interest was compounded by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, concerning the aftermath and disbandment of the Ottoman Empire, by which stage “the Armenian cause vanished from the international agenda”. De Waal argues that “had the whole judicial process been allowed to continue to the end, it might have given Armenians a collective sense of justice that would have mitigated their subsequent bitterness”. Thus, the international community abandoned their pursuit of justice, disenfranchising genocide survivors in the process.

The role of survivors on an individual level in the post-genocidal justice context includes helping to define victimhood and to ensure that the justice process allows healing. Panossian argues that the genocide remains “the cornerstone of modern Armenian identity”, demonstrating the intergenerational importance of post-genocidal justice. The notion of ‘post memory’ is significant, exploring how narratives are shared and developed through multiple generations, consolidating a collective experience of the genocide. When intergenerational experience is consolidated, it becomes evident that the perpetrator is “both the poison and the antidote” of survivor identity, especially when justice has not been served. Furthermore, there is often a definitional conflict between victims and outsiders attempting to label who is a victim, thus, self-identification of victims is not limited to legal definitions of genocide.

 The survivors of genocide are often mobilized by states to pursue the state’s national self-interests. During the Armenian Genocide in 1919, “humanitarian campaign blurred with Christian crusade” when story of Armenian refugee Aurora Mardiganian became sensationalised in films ‘Ravished Armenia’ and ‘Auction of Souls’ which “played on stereotypes of the ‘Terrible Turk’”. No longer were survivors enabling justice by sharing their experiences, as they were turned in to a larger international campaign based on ethnic and religious discrimination – elements which helped fuel genocide. This is consolidated by the creation of national narratives of both victim and perpetrator states. National sympathy for survivors is then no longer a justice process in the name of survivors, but a political tool which can only be effectively used on members of a comparatively powerless political and economic stance. States, therefore, use the justice processes for survivors of genocide as a façade for advancing state political interests.

The effective instigation of post-genocidal justice processes requires that survivors must be powerful and economically secure. Armenian diaspora groups who fled to neighbouring middle eastern states were stateless refugees, compared to the Jewish diaspora who fled to more economically stable states such as the US and were secure enough to pursue the process of justice. Laycock argues that victim groups must be “socially, politically and economically secure” for their narratives to be told, heard and received by others. Furthermore, if the narratives of survivors differ from the status quo or accepted narrative, then they may not be heeded, meaning justice is not pursued. Armenians were not effectively mobilized due to poverty and being social minorities within their diasporas. Thus, this contributed to Armenian survivors not being afforded the justice processes that other genocide survivors had. By the time of the Bosnian Genocide, the Nuremburg precedent had been established and thus provided international attention. Additionally, the Bosnian Genocide was labelled as another failure of the Soviet Union by Western narratives in the post-Cold War context. Therefore, unlike Armenia, Bosnia was provided international attention despite poverty due to the Nuremburg precedent.

Genocide denial marginalizes survivors, ensuring that post-genocidal justice processes are delayed or dissuaded in perpetrator states that still hold political power. Attempts to provide justice to genocide survivors without labelling the incident as genocide can cause harm to survivors. For example, in April 2014 Turkish President Recep Erdoğan issued a statement of condolences to the Armenian people, and while this ended the preexisting Turkish narrative that Armenians were “traitors” he refrained from using the term “genocide”, denying survivors social reparation. Likewise, the outrage of the Armenian National Council of America (ANCA) at Obama’s 2010 condolence speech was a form a denial, as he referred to the genocide as  “worst atrocities” and “Meds Yeghern” (Armenian term translating to “Great crime”), despite the U.S. “officially” recognising the Armenia Genocide. Additionally, in denying the Bosnian Genocide, the Serbian government creates “a new political reality where Bosniaks have been permanently ethnically cleansed”, serving the initial purpose of the genocide. The role of survivors here is to question this narrative, however this is not always possible due to lack of political mobilisation. Furthermore, legal terms can deprive survivors of post-genocidal justice due to their lexicon. This is evident in the UN’s declaration of Bosnian “ethnic-cleansing”, before later labelling it “genocide”.

The international community has experienced a change of attitude towards victimhood after the UN Agenda for Peace in 1992. As demonstrated in Bosnia, monetary compensation has frequently been used as a transitional policy, while globally there is more emphasis on providing for victims rather than accusing perpetrators (also evident in Bosnia). The former process assisted survivors, while the latter demonstrated an ideological shift towards justice over simple compensation. 

Memorilisation reflects the role of survivors as either active or passive, depending on state perception of genocide and justice-processes. In Armenia, the first memorialization relied heavily on survivors of the genocide as opposed to their descendants. The inaugural annual “Mourning Ceremony” was held on April 24th 1919, on the anniversary of the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, signifying the role of survivors in a form of social as opposed to legal post-genocidal justice. The ceremony was the first time that the dominant Armenian narrative of genocide was told in public. De Waal’s analysis of two conflicting memorials in Istanbul demonstrates “the schizophrenia of modern Turkey regarding its past”, and more broadly how the post-genocidal justice process is often qualified or diminished to not offend majorities, preventing survivors from achieving justice. This analysis demonstrates how both the murdered and the murderers are memorialized, describing the memorials within walking distance of each other. One is positioned in the Armenian cemetery, where a statue of the poet Daniel Varoujan who was arrested and killed in 1915, stands. The second memorial, the Monument to Liberty, located in an abandoned park, is a broken obelisk honouring the Young Turkish Warriors (1911), including Talat and Enver Pasha, two of the primary officials responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Memorials are used in Bosnia to compensate the survivors of the genocide and to consolidate the Bosnian national narrative of their experiences. This is evident in the Memorial and Cemetery Centre at Potočari in Srebrenica and the annual Marš Miras (Peace Marches). Marš Miras traditionally end in Potočari where newly discovered corpses of genocide are buried, continuing the post-genocidal justice-process and national narrative consolidation. Furthermore, international actors including the European Union have named July 11 Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration Day, providing international recognition for survivors of genocide. Memorialization, therefore, develops narratives of survivors and perpetrators alike, consolidating narrative legitimacy and contributing to the justice processes. The role of survivors in post-genocidal justice processes is dependent upon their social, political and economic position. Survivor groups that are incapable of mobilizing their cause to the international community are at the mercy of international states utilising survivors to legitimise national interests under the guise of justice processes. Furthermore, the international legal precedent of human rights law has been integral in transitioning genocide from a domestic to an international level. The transition of legal norms is evidenced in the examples of the Armenian and Bosnian genocides, where the role of survivors in the post-genocidal justice-processes are overshadowed by international actors. 

Image credit

OMGUS Military Tribunal. Judges of the Milch Trial, 2 January 1947-17 April 1947 (second of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials) held at the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg. Courtesy of National Archives Catalog sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Primary Sources

‘Charter of the International Military Tribunal’, Article 6 (1945), in Bloxam, Donald, Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lemkin, Raphael: “Genocide: A Modern Crime” (April 1945), in Totten, Samuel and Paul R. Bartrop (eds), The Genocide Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2009), 6-11.

United Nations, ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’, adopted 1948 (1951 ratified), found United Nations public collections,

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2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Post-Genocidal Justice Processes”

  1. Wow, that is a fantastic article and a really important topic. I found it interesting to hear about the (attempted) trials for the Armenian genocide in 1919, have not heard about them before, but shows an early (if weak) recognition that the genocide happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Also just reminded me of a good show “Tokyo Trial” about the trials that occurred in Japan – equivalent to the Nuremberg trials. It is really interesting how the jurisprudence emerged around these issues and the early international law, as people thought about how to codify and really deal with these issues (and prevent them from occurring again).

    Liked by 1 person

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