Genocide Survivors and Descendants of Perpetrators: burden on heart

Genocide Survivors and Descendants of Perpetrators: burden on heart

What is genocide denial? How do the perpetrators benefit from genocide denial? What are the motivations of deniers?

The Zoryan Institute’s 15th annual Genocide and Human Rights University Program was held in Toronto, Canada, from August 1st to August 12th. The international program on Genocide and Human Rights studies covered the following areas: past genocides that occurred throughout the history – the Armenian genocide, the Guatemalan genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and the Cambodian genocide, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the Holocaust, as well as the development of human rights, the international law, the genocide denial and the genocide prevention.

It’s difficult to live with a painful burden on the heart for the genocide survivors who have lost their families in mass atrocities and faced the impunity, as well as for those who are accused just for being descendants of perpetrators bearing no responsibility for their ancestors’ actions. The program also strives to identify related psychological issues.

The Zoryan Institute and its mission

The Zoryan Institute comprises two non for profit organizations: the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Research and Documentation, established in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1982, and the Zoryan Institute established in Toronto, Canada, in 1984. The President of the Zoryan Institute in Toronto is Mr. Greg Sarkissian, while the Executive Director of the Institute is Mr. George Shirinian. The Institute makes its analyses available and provides research assistance to writers, journalists, film makers, government agencies, and other organizations.

“The mission of the GHRUP is to encourage a new generation of scholars to engage in research and publication in the field of Genocide and Human Rights Studies. This is achieved through a comparative analysis of such cases of genocide as the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, and the Rwandan Genocide among others, using the Armenian Genocide as a point of reference. The goal of the program is to help develop an academic support system for those who work forward the prevention of genocide. By studying the genocidal trauma of many different groups of people, the Genocide and Human Rights University Program strives to show that genocide is a shared human experience and as such, must be concern of all individuals and institutions”, – outlined the President of the Zoryan Institute.

About the Program

The course was launched in 2002 as a pilot project under the directorship of Lorne Shirinian. Since 2002, the course was delivered by a large number of internationally renowned scholars in their fields, among whom where Taner Akçam, a Turkish-German historian and sociologist, Vahakn Dadrian, a professor of sociology, historian and an internationally renowned expert on the Armenian Genocide, Shake Toukmanian, a Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto, Richard Hovannisian, an Armenian American historian and professor emeritus at the University of California,  William A. Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, and many others. The researches of the renowned scholars were covering the following areas: theory of genocide, history, sociology, political science, anthropology, psychology and international law.

The program of the current year gave the opportunity to the course participants to be taught by leading experts. This year the distinguished faculty included: Dr. Joyce A. Apsel from the New York University, who has been appointed Course Director of the Genocide and Human Rights University Program, Dr. Stephan Astourian from the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Doris L. Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies from the University of Toronto, Dr. Kathleen Dill from the University of St. Andrews, Henry C. Theriault, a Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Worcester State University in the United States, Dr. Andrew Woolford from the University of Manitoba, Dr. Craig Etcheson from the George Mason University, Dr. Elisabeth King from the New York University, Dr. Elisa von Joedan-Forgey from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Dr. Roger W. Smith from the College of William and Mary, Emeritus, William A. Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London and Dr. Herbert Hirsch from the Virginia Commonwealth University.

At the completion of the course the students were encouraged to make oral presentations by choosing any topic from the list presented by the Course Director Dr. Joyce A. Apsel.

It’s worth mentioning that a large number of Armenians moved to Canada in the early 1980s. Therefore, the Armenian community in Canada is actively involved in various fields. The Zoryan Institute, by launching its unique program, proves that still being cut away from the roots and living far away from the homeland, it’s a must for all of us to remember where we all come from. The objective of the program is to identify young people who have heard historic examples and unifying narratives from their family members, help them to understand and show an ongoing interest toward the history of their families. Every year The Zoryan Institute shows tremendous results by raising awareness of the participants despite the nation or their religious affiliation. It is an important step forward taking into consideration the fact that ongoing armed conflicts and atrocities are still taking place around the world. It is a message not only to the past genocide survivors, but also to the international community and to the entire world to deter from apathy and indifference, to learn the history and recognize the real perpetrators. We must learn, remember and take action to end genocide once and for all.


During each session, the students, as well as the professors were engaged in active discussions over the topics related to genocide and human rights. Detailed discussions took place on: what is the definition of genocide? What are the motivations? What are the target groups during genocides? What is the role of the Great Powers? What is the interpretation and application of genocide in international law? How to prevent genocides? What are human rights?

The sessions on development of human rights, international law and prevention of future genocides captured the students’ attention at a high level, as those topics are usually skipped while having general discussions on genocide. The students were actively involved in the group discussions by sharing ideas and interests in the classroom.


On the first day, after the presentation of Dr. Joyce A. Apsel from the New York University and the Course Director of the GHRUP, the group was asked to give the definition of human rights, to find out the relationship between human rights and genocide, as well as to form working groups and analyze the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.

To a student’s question whether Hitler had Jewish ancestors, Dr. Doris L. Bergen answered: “The idea that Hitler was Jewish or had Jewish ancestors is a common misconception. Although the family tree of Adolf Hitler has long remained one of dark speculation, he has never had any Jewish ancestors, but even my students were confident about it.”


Students were also invited to answer the professors’ questions. The disputable question on whether the demonstration of historical pictures of Nazi soldiers along with starving Jewish children and their parents may cause serious psychological effects, increased the students’ participation in the discussion. Different opinions were circulated in the classroom: some people were confident that these pictures may have a traumatizing effect, others were confident that the world has to face the cruel reality.

One of the internationally renowned scholars invited by the Zoryan Institute was Dr. Roger W. Smith from the College of William and Mary, Emeritus, who equipped the students with new skills on the genocide denial, the motivations of the perpetrators, the goals and effects of genocide denial possible ways to overcome the genocide denial. “The denial of the Armenian genocide is an illustrative example of the politics of genocide denial”- , said Roger Smith.

Dr. Herbert Hirsch from the Virginia Commonwealth University pointed out that there are families who for many reasons prefer not to talk about their painful past: “They are either genocide survivors bearing painful memories in their hearts or the ancestors of victim groups. In both cases they are confident that the conversations over the mass atrocities will traumatize the young generation, while they must use the freedom of speech which will serve to remind us the past genocides”.

The lecture on International Law and Genocide of William A. Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, was followed by the participants’ multiple questions. “It is not widely known that it was the delegation of Saudi Arabia that proposed the very first draft of the Genocide Convention,” said Shabas. He then was asked a question on whether the Genocide Convention needs any amendments. “The Genocide Convention is clearly formulated and currently ratified by 137 countries, “explained Shabas.




This year the course attracted 18 students from Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Canada, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States. All the students were unified by a common goal and a prehistory of their families. They were either from the families of genocide survivors or enthusiastic young people inspired with research ideas in the related fields. One thing is for sure: they were unified by common goals and ideology, striving to explore the psychology of perpetrators, issues of stereotypes, memory, denial and reconciliation, finding out possible ways to prevent future genocides.


Former Office Administrator of US National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, currently serving as Executive Director of the “Civic Consent” NGO

“Aravot”, 27.08.2016

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