Insurers pay out 90 years after the 20th century 1st genocide

March 7, 2004
Source: The Independent (London)

By Robert Fisk

Almost 90 years after the 20th century's first genocide - the mass slaughter of one and a half million Armenians by Turkey during the First World War - descendants of the victims are at last to receive compensation from American companies with whom their murdered families once insured their lives.

New York Life Insurance is to pay more than pounds 11m on 2,186 policies held by men and women who died in the Armenian genocide of 1915 - having prevaricated for decades on the grounds that they were "unable to locate" the policyholders.

In reality, the bodies of those who had insured their lives with New York Life lay in mass graves in Ottoman Turkey or unburied in the deserts of present-day Syria. In some cases entire families were slaughtered, the men shot by Turkish gendarmes, the women and children force-marched into the desert to be raped, starved and knifed to death.

he present-day Turkish government, which wants to join the EU, still denies the genocide, refusing to acknowledge the figure of one and a half million Armenian dead and claiming that Armenians "tragically perished" in the civil chaos of war. Thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors had to wait up to 40 years before they forced insurance companies to settle claims on behalf of relatives murdered in Hitler's death camps, but Armenian claims have taken far longer.

Even while the Armenians were still being butchered across what was then Turkish Armenia, Ottoman rulers had the gall to demand from the American ambassador in Constantinople the names of all Armenians with insurance policies in US companies - on the grounds that their property now belonged to the state and that their life insurance should be paid out to the Ottoman Empire. The ambassador refused to comply.

Yet even when New York Life finally agreed to settle a class action originally brought against it in Los Angeles in 1999 by descendants of Armenian genocide victims, the company used the same neutral language favoured by Turkey to describe one of the most monstrous war crimes of the 20th century.

In the words of Mr Sy Sternberg, chairman of New York Life, a third of its Armenian claims were paid out following the genocide. "When it became clear that many of our Armenian policyholders perished in the tragic events of 1915," he said, "New York Life hired an Armenian lawyer in the region to assist the heirs of those who died, so as to promptly pay claims." Mr Sternberg said the company waived normal claims procedures at the time and reinstated lapsed Armenian policies in order to pay the heirs.

Another $ 1.7m (pounds 920,000) in "unclaimed or heirless" policies will be placed in a fund from which Armenian religious groups in the US will also benefit.

A separate class lawsuit was taken out by Armenians against the Victoria Insurance Company which, according to their lawyer Vartkes Yeghiayan, never paid insurance benefits to any victims of the Armenian slaughter. "For almost 90 years, Victoria Insurance was holding millions of dollars which belong to the victims' heirs... No organisation should be allowed to profit from genocide."

Andy Kevorkian, among the most outspoken British Armenians on the 1915 killings, is bitterly critical of those companies that failed to pay insurance to victims' families. "They used to tell the survivors to prove that their relatives were dead. What did they expect? That the Turks would write a little note - To Whom It May Concern' - stating the date of the murder each time they killed these men and women?"

But the few eyewitnesses to the Armenian genocide are fast disappearing.

Britain's last known survivor, 98-year old Arman Keshishian, who attended Britain's first Holocaust Memorial Day, died last month. His family escaped death because of the help and bravery of a Turkish friend - and by bribing Turkish officials.

Middle East Correspondent