1933 Convention and Interwar Humanitarianism

The 1933 “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” was the first real commitment to build a legal framework on behalf of refugees, specifically Russian and Armenian refugees (Article 1), and was ratified by nine nations in which France and the United Kingdom were included. The primary strength of the 1933 convention was the establishment and guarantee of basic rights to refugees, including protection and medical/social care. Perhaps the biggest takeaway was the reassurance of the right to non-refoulement to refugees, whom the convention seems to identify as groups of people who seek protection from a state/region that threatens their religious/political/and other basic rights of freedom. This concept of non-refoulement has made its way into international law which protects a victim from the persecutor (Article 3). In other words, it prohibits the forced departure of a refugee to the region of his or her persecution. The welfare system, including social and work welfare (Article 9, 7), was provided to refugees as well as judicial rights to the courts (Article 6). And while education rights were more stringent and provided on the same grounds as those available to foreigners (Article 12), refugees were still granted access to schools and admission to universities. These all ideally would ensure that refugees gain basic rights like many of the citizens, or at least as good of rights as those granted to foreigners.

As stated previously, however, only nine states actually ratified this treaty meaning that refugee rights weren’t all that much expanded. Treatment of refugees was also difficult to monitor and hardly any states allowed for naturalization. This means that while legally refugees did have the chance to enjoy much of the same rights as any other citizen, the actual regulation of this guarantee would be difficult to track and uphold. Supporting this is the fact that Nansen certificates, which were difficult to obtain in the first place, were issued not by the League of Nations (no real way to show that rights were not being violated).

Furthermore, while Article 3 does prohibit rejecting refugees entry into the state (under the condition that there is a threat to national security), the treaty does not go so far as to grant refugees complete asylum. Instead, the article is weakened by the fact that “reasons of national security or public order” could be widely interpreted, which in some cases also meant that these rights were only ensured for citizens already granted asylum. To strengthen this, the treaty could have gone into more detail as to what reasons would qualify under “national security” and thus more effectively guarantee refugees protection under the state. The treaty also should have been ratified by more than just nine states to make it more applicable to the international community (I believe later on more states do ratify this, however).

Watenpaugh emphasizes how humanitarian principles never diverged from nationalist agendas and how this form of humanitarianism ultimately did not end the discrimination faced by minorities. The nation state and humanitarianism conjoined to create an international home for all and yet this ideal notion of a larger community simply masked political motives by the States. Watenpaugh describes how Armenia became the “universal humanitarian object” during and immediately following World War I. For a group of suffering Christians within the oppressive Ottoman Empire, European and American societies raised awareness for the Armenian cause through fundraising and other means of assistance (such as direct aid, medical treatment, etc.). This sense of humanitarian duty to the Armenians remained intact when the war ended and caused even America, dedicated to keeping affairs of other countries at a distance, to rally support that surmounted that of the League of Nations. One failure of this humanitarian initiative was establishing an Armenian nation that Mandelstam had worked to establish within his draft in 1913. Note that this is the time period flowing into the Armenian Genocide and this draft served as another motive for action against the “Armenian problem.” While Armenians did establish a nation for themselves, it was short-lived with the small portions left of it merging into the Soviet Union.

Humanitarian action also stemmed from the fact that many people saw the Armenians as a threatened nation, not just civilian victims, who were also endangered Christians living in the midst of Turkic Muslims. The League continually saw the post-Genocide Ottoman Armenians as a group of people, primarily comprised of women and children, and yearned to correct their humanitarian failures during the Genocide. Furthermore, while the Nansen passport intended to restore refugees’ sense of belonging within a community, it failed to provide refugees with any sort of power within the political arena. This meant that there were no legal terms binding the refugees to the State laws. Because the passport was also not applicable in the state from which the refugees escaped, this caused the refugees to be permanently exiled from that country. For instance, Armenians fleeing from the Ottoman Empire could no longer enter the Turkish region with the nansen passport. According to Watenpaugh, “In this sense the interwar humanitarian regime assisted the Republic of Turkey in its desire to complete the process of genocide begun by its Ottoman state predecessor.” Hence, by confirming the deportation of refugees as a humanitarian guideline, the states actually helped support the persecutor’s goals.

Eventually, with the French mandate, the Armenians became situated as a distinct community in Syria that would support the French rule. Having parts of my family come from this area, I know from personal accounts that Beirut was indeed a suitable location for most Armenians who had seeked refuge from the Genocide (of course, the comfort of a new group into an already established region is not easy at first as depicted by the Syrians’ resistance to the relocation of the Armenians). Still, as Watenpaugh noted, the Armenians did in fact see themselves as a separate group simply living alongside the Arabs.

Through the evolving notions of what constituted human rights and what defined a refugee, the League of Nations did in fact play a vital role in the preservation of Armenian people and communities. Yes, I do believe the Americans and League could have done more under the circumstances; perhaps they could have more effectively established regions for refugees to settle in which the refugees had more political rights. Or perhaps the financial funding and support given to the Armenians during the Genocide could have been more efficiently pooled to target the suffering populations more effectively. But while Watenpaugh may call the humanitarianism during this time period a failure, I would not go so far as to say so. My grandparents were Genocide survivors, coming from the small village of Musa Dagh. Villages from this region came together for 40 days and resisted Turkish forces until the French navy came to their rescue. My family never fails to stress the last part. If it wasn’t for the French (and English), they most likely would not have been able to continue to fight and survive. Of course there’s always something we could have done better, but it’s also vital to remember what was done well. If it were not for the European humanitarian initiatives, my grandparents may never have been taken as refugees to Beirut and I may not be here today. So to me, as an Armenian whose family was directly affected by the Genocide and aided by the humanitarian actions of the Western countries, I feel grateful for whatever aid was indeed provided.

However, I do think that the humanitarian agenda failed in one extremely important way. I still do not know how, if so many countries were so aware of the atrocities during the Genocide towards the Armenians (and other minority groups, how could the Armenian Genocide be forgotten? I believe that as an international community, we could have done a more efficient job in educating people about the tragedies of the 1915 time period rather than simply moving on once the Armenian problem had been handled. Yes, many people were still invested in supporting the Armenians but slowly, the world moved on and ignored probably the biggest aspect of what had happened–the mass killings and tortures against a group of people. While taking care of refugees is important, it’s also extremely crucial to officially recognize these events to set an example for future generations. If we had given the crisis more attention following the war as we had during through aid, would Hitler have claimed, “Who, after all, remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” Could we have prevented other modern genocides? I’m not sure what the answers to these questions would be exactly, but I do think that even today, by not recognizing the abhorrent histories of the past prevents us, as an international community, from evolving and rebuilding.


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