BY STEPHEN DALE
This article was originally published in the April 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine
On April 24, when the world marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which claimed over one million lives, Ottawa Valley peace activist Hans Sinn proposes that coming to terms with that grim episode may advance peace in the Middle East. Since leaving his native Germany after World War Two, and marrying an Armenian woman, Sinn has tirelessly advocated citizen-led peace initiatives. He is co-founder of Peace Brigades International, an organization that has protected endangered human-rights activists since 1981. Sinn spoke with Ottawa Magazine about the legacy of the Armenian Genocide and the potential for non-violent solutions in an increasingly barbaric world.
Why should people care about the Armenian Genocide?
The non-resolution of the Armenian Genocide is playing itself out in the role Turkey plays in current Middle East problems, which goes back to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. [The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk and the “Young Turks” foresaw the nation state of Turkey occupying the motherland of the Armenians and the Kurds. So the elimination — the extermination and expulsion — of the Armenians and the Kurds was foreseen and planned. While Atatürk managed to rescue from the Ottoman Empire what became modern Turkey, the Armenians and the Kurds paid the price.
How does that impact the Middle East today?
The Kurds are now playing a major role fighting ISIS, but Turkey is worried about the Kurds’ objective of achieving a nation state. Hence, Turkey is easier on ISIS. Turkey continues to deny responsibility for the past. Settling the Armenian issue — which also would require settling the Kurdish issue with Turkey — would make the situation in the Middle East less complicated and enable more dialogue.
And you feel there is a political opening in Turkey that makes this possible?
Atatürk once said “peace at home, peace in the world.” I’m using that as an opening. Genocide is a matter for humanity as a whole. It’s not necessarily just between the Turks and the Armenians. If they [the leadership] can’t sort it out, I would favour truth-and-reconciliation bodies at the local level. Non-Turks and non-Armenians could also be participants, because genocide is a concern for all. And the work done by academics in the field of “the unspeakable” [it’s a crime to speak about the Armenian genocide in Turkey] will help bring those issues into public view.
As co-founder of Peace Brigades International (PBI), you have a long connection with this idea of citizens finding solutions to conflict.
PBI was founded at Grindstone Island, not far from Ottawa. It’s been successful because we limited ourselves to what is doable. Our first project was in Guatemala. The mothers of the disappeared appealed to us for an international presence. By looking for their children, who had been made to disappear, they came under threat too. They needed a link to the outside world — for protection and for international pressure to help improve the situation — and we provided that.
Tell me about PBI spin-offs.
The Guatemala Stove Project is a big thing for people in Perth. It helps people build stoves, which replace open wood fires that are health hazards, in particular for women, who traditionally cook.
Why should civilians be involved in global diplomacy?
My own experience is that civilians are well advised to look after their own security, because depending on governments and politicians is a precarious and historically unadvisable way to proceed.
I understand that you came to this realization as a 16-year-old boy in Germany.
In 1945, the youth of Hamburg were assembled for the last-ditch defence of Germany, and we were sent to various training camps. I picked Denmark because I thought the food would be better. It turned out to be an SS [Nazi paramilitary organization Schutzstaffel] camp, and I became a preliminary SS officer cadet. I experienced the end of the war there. I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back or if Hamburg would still be standing. That, for me, was year zero: as far as I was concerned, we had to rethink and start fresh. When I came to Canada, my agenda was to campaign for a reunified but disarmed, peaceful Germany.
In the current context, with all the sabre-rattling of the post-911 era, is it harder to promote pro-peace initiatives?
Yes and no. I see more potential than is being reflected by our government’s policies. They continue to polish up the war mythology, and at that level, we are going backwards. But I don’t think most young people buy it.