By Stefanie Pousoulides, ’21

Most of the primary source material I am planning to use for my thesis comes from a database of digitized archival material of the League of Nations. Although not all League documents are made available online through this database, most of the documents I’ve found about Armenians in the interwar period pertain to humanitarian relief and refugee resettlement. These efforts are often the subject of much of the literature on the League’s response to the Armenian Genocide.

The documents that have stuck out to me the most, however, are petitions filed to the League by Armenian individuals alleging violations of Turkey’s minority rights treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne. A committee of three members from the minorities section of the League Secretariat would review the petition, and the committee would either dismiss the petition, have a second mediation or forward the petition to the League Council.

I found six series of petitions filed by Armenians requesting inquiries into or alleging violations of the Treaty of Lausanne and Turkish laws and regulations. One of those individuals, an Armenian woman named Nektar Duz, filed a series of four petitions to the League. Duz, who had left Turkey for the First World War and had since returned, petitioned for the recovery of her properties in Turkey that were seized under a 1922 abandoned properties law.

Duz advocated for the recovery of her properties from 1925 until 1939. She initially filed a lawsuit before the Istanbul Civil Court in 1925 to cancel the seizure of her properties, but the court dismissed her case in 1929 on the grounds that claims to her properties were outside of its jurisdiction. The Council of the State then rejected her case in August 1931 on the grounds that she left Turkey prior to the Treaty of Lausanne’s ratification and did not evidence that she left with a Turkish passport.

She then submitted four petitions to the League Secretariat from 1933 to 1934. Ultimately, the League came to a similar conclusion to the Council of the State: the League dismissed her petition in 1939 on the grounds that the Treaty of Lausanne’s minority rights protections did not apply to Duz because the treaty was only signed and not enforced at the time of the seizure of her properties.

Duz’s main claims in her petitions to the League were (1) that her property was seized because she was a non-Muslim person from Turkey, and that that violated minority rights protections under Articles 39 and 40 of the Treaty of Lausanne; (2) that the 1922 abandoned properties law was not valid because it violated provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, and the minority rights treaty was to be the highest law per Article 37 of the Treaty of Lausanne; and (3) that the abandoned properties law did not apply to her because she was not a fugitive for leaving Turkey prior to the First World War.

The Turkish government made a compelling response to her petitions. In response to her claims about the Treaty of Lausanne, the government pointed out that it did not have a contractual obligation to protect the rights of non-Muslim persons from Turkey until after the treaty’s enforcement, and that the treaty was not yet in effect at the time her property was seized under the 1922 Turkish law. The government also explained that the abandoned properties law, which went into effect in April 1922, directly applied to her because she left Turkey in September 1922, after she had already returned from her departure during the war, with a French laissez-passer. Duz had argued in her petition that the abandoned properties law should not apply to her because her passport was issued by Turkish authorities, that she should not be classified as a fugitive and that her properties were not abandoned because an administrator managed them while she was gone.

In November 1934, the League’s appointed committee asked the Turkish government to negotiate with Duz directly. But they did not reach an amicable agreement, so the committee decided the case on its merits. The committee found in 1939 that the Treaty of Lausanne’s provisions on the protections of non-Muslim persons in Turkey did not apply, so the committee closed its examination of Duz’s petitions, without referring them to the League Council.

Of the five series of petitions from Armenians I have found in the digitized materials, the League has deferred to the judgment of the Turkish government and dismissed the petitions every time. Most of the petitions submitted to the League did not reach the League Council, and I wonder if any petitions submitted by Armenians ever did. I also wonder if Turkey joining the League in 1932 — not just being party to these petitions because it enacted a treaty with the League’s members — affected the League’s review.

A final observation I had about these petitions was the petitioners’ focus on disputes of specific facts and textual interpretations of the treaty and Turkish laws, but not as much on the historical context of their claims, considering the effects of the Armenian Genocide had put them in the situation they were petitioning. For instance, I did not notice any part of Duz’s lengthy petitions that contextualized the 1922 abandoned property law with the Armenian Genocide. Various scholars today argue that the genocide was fundamentally about dispossession of Armenian land and property — that the deportations and killings were to remove Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, these petitions demonstrate how Armenians describe their post-genocide stories. While they might not have had a favorable outcome with local courts after the genocide, Armenians were able to access a new pathway to seek legal redress through directly submitting a petition to a nascent international institution.