The long road to recognize a genocide of the Armenian people

Armenians in the Ottoman Empire are led on a march in 1915.
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire are led on a march in 1915. Many were taken into the Syrian desert where they starved or died from lack of water.
(Associated Press)

What is the Armenian genocide?

More than 2 million ethnic Armenians lived within the borders of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century. Christians in a majority Muslim society, they were subject to waves of persecution, including seizure of their land and intermittent pogroms.

The targeting of Armenians reached its apex in 1915 as leaders in the crumbling empire tried to pin the blame for military setbacks on Armenians and other minorities.

On April 24, 1915, the government rounded up approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders, eventually killing most. In the months that followed, civil and military officials forced the mass deportation of Armenian villages. Many families were marched into the Syrian desert where they starved to death or died from lack of water. The purge was accompanied by massacres that historians have said were carried out by irregular forces or locals.


Estimates of the number of Armenians who perished vary widely, with historians offering a range of about 700,000 to 1.2 million. The U.S. government has said about 1.5 million Armenians either died or were deported. Refugees scattered around the world, with Armenian communities springing up in France, Russia, South America, the Middle East and the United States.


What barriers have there been to its recognition?

In 1915, much of the world was focused on World War I rather than the Armenian persecution.

At the time, the word “genocide” did not exist. It wasn’t until 1943 that Polish-born lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust, coined the term for the killing of a large number of people with the aim of destroying a religious or ethnic group.

Some Armenians began public commemorations of the genocide as early as 1919, but the deaths were not well known for many decades.

Beginning in the 1960s, with the 50th anniversary of the killings, Armenians around the world began speaking out about the slaughter. Commemorating what they called Meds Yeghern — the great calamity — and convincing governments to call it a genocide became a central pillar of Armenian identity.


A protester holds a sign that says "1915 never again."
Demonstrators in Los Angeles mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 2015.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The Republic of Turkey, which arose from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, steadfastly opposed efforts. While acknowledging atrocities occurred, the Turkish government objected to the use of the word “genocide,” contending that the Ottoman leadership had not directed the killings and did not have an official policy to exterminate Armenians.

The U.S. and other Western nations long avoided the term for fear of angering Turkish allies. In 1985, despite protests and pressure from then-California Gov. George Deukmejian — an Armenian American — President Reagan refused to make April 24 an official day of remembrance for the genocide, citing U.S. ties with Turkey.

The U.S. hesitancy continued through the Obama and Trump administrations. On April 24, 2021, President Biden finally recognized the Armenian genocide, saying in a statement, “We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history.”


Why was insurance so important to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire?

Western life insurance had been popular with the oppressed Armenian community in the early 20th century because it offered a prospect of financial security that was otherwise unavailable under Ottoman rule.


In the mid-2000s, attorneys won a pair of legal settlements for $37.5 million in the names of Armenian genocide victims. But families who stepped forward to collect on behalf of ancestors in one settlement had their claims rejected at an astonishing rate of 92%.

March 23, 2022

Authorities might tax Armenians to the brink of starvation, seize their assets, and even kill them. But as long as they had insurance policies with companies beyond the Ottoman Empire’s borders — in New York, Paris, London and Berlin — many Armenians could rest assured that their families would be provided for.

As violence against them surged in the years leading up to the genocide, Armenian breadwinners continued traveling to Constantinople — modern-day Istanbul — and other cities to pay their premiums.


Why haven’t there been more genocide reparations cases?

The reason that genocide reparations cases were filed in California in the first place has to do with a state law signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000. Known as SB 1915, the law revived the statute of limitations for Armenian genocide victims or their heirs and gave them until 2010 to pursue claims for unpaid insurance money in California courts.

After the law passed, insurance companies in the U.S. and Europe were hit with a slew of class-action lawsuits from survivors and their families. New York Life and Paris-based AXA settled for millions of dollars. Others refused. Munich Re, a German insurance giant, sought to dismiss a class-action against it.

The company argued that by explicitly providing a path of redress to Armenian genocide victims, the California law conflicted with and usurped the U.S. government’s long-standing and hotly contested posture of not officially recognizing the genocide.

In 2012, a federal appellate court agreed with Munich Re and concluded that the state law intruded on federal powers in a particularly contentious area of foreign affairs.


The decision abruptly ended any chance of holding insurance companies and banks liable for mistreating genocide victims — so long as the federal government refused to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Since Biden acknowledged the genocide last year, some attorneys have considered filing a new round of cases.