Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on the Armenian Chronicles blog.
Many Armenian Bruins and alumni feel that the email statement Chancellor Gene Block sent to the campus on May 16 does not meaningfully participate with the reality of the Joint Statement of Undergraduate Students Association Council Ethics circulated among student government candidates.
The issue is accountability for members of student government, as well as preventing the Armenian community from coming under attack by external lobbying organizations, namely from the Republic of Turkey, which is heavily invested in the historical revisionism of the Armenian genocide, and from the Republic of Azerbaijan, which denies the self-determination of the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and promotes anti-Armenian hate speech on a national level.
Students and organizations, including the Armenian Students’ Association, asked USAC candidates to pledge not to take free trips from lobbying organizations that marginalize students. The original statement asserted that representatives should not accept gifts from any non-student organization with a history of discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.
Former councilmember Sunny Singh accepted a free trip by the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that is on the record as opposing the United States’ recognition of the Armenian genocide.
Armenian students also raised concerns earlier this year about a councilmember accepting a free trip to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference. During this year’s conference, Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov spoke at the “New Allies: Israel and the Caucasus Region” panel and later engaged UCLA students in a closed-door meeting where he discussed Armenian-Azeri issues.
Armenian Bruins were extremely concerned that any organization calling itself credible would give a platform to Suleymanov, who represents a country that in 2012 added to its egregious human rights record by extraditing Azerbaijani Lt. Ramil Safarov. Safarov was serving a life sentence for axe-murdering Gurgen Margaryan, an Armenian officer, in his sleep during a NATO program. Azerbaijan’s government pardoned him of his life sentence and greeted him as a national hero. Bruins at this conference, ignorant of this political context, took pictures with Suleymanov and praised him via social media. After this sensitive issue was brought up at a council meeting during winter quarter, the councilmember asserted that it was within his right to attend such a conference on his own time while in office.
Block’s blanket statement that these trips are only educational in nature concerns Armenian Bruins. If we are to allow external political lobbies for foreign governments to buy free trips to parts of the world for our elected student government representatives, the door is wide open for the Armenian community to be targeted and attacked.
The Turkish and Azerbaijani lobbies (which in fact work closely with lobbies already criticized in the ethics statement) are throwing money at elected legislative representatives on a local, state and national level, and have historically turned the campus into political battlegrounds.
Most recently, a Tennessee news station discovered that a lawmaker introduced an anti-Armenian bill just two weeks after receiving $10,000 in campaign contributions from donors with ties to the Azerbaijani community.
In 2011, then-Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) was accused of accepting “blood money” from the Turkish government in return for her opposition of a bill recognizing Armenian genocide.
In the late 1990s, Armenian UCLA students successfully brought about the rejection of an agreement signed between the international studies department and the Turkish Foundation, an arm of the Turkish government, which included a $1 million endowment for the establishment of a chair in Ottoman and Turkish studies, out of fear that money from foreign governments may facilitate the revision of history.
In light of all these political realities, Armenian Bruins are extremely sensitive to any perceived conflicts of interest from any of their elected representatives. This sensitivity is no different on the student government council table, which is why we demand elected representatives be held accountable for their actions.
The events that have transpired on the council table this year around conflicts of interest are an embarrassment to this campus community. No elected councilmembers should receive a free trip anywhere while they are representing students unless it is directly for advocacy on student issues. There should be nothing controversial about that.
Block’s email leaves Armenian students on this campus feeling uneasy about his commitment to accountability, or any of these crucial issues for the Armenian cause, which have been upheld by the California Assembly when it officially recognized the state of Artsakh and encouraged the implementation of Armenian genocide education in its state curriculum.
The Armenian Students’ Association demands Block reaffirm his commitment to the accountability of students by students. The Armenian Students’ Association further demands that Block recognize the self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and reaffirm his commitment to the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the United States of America.
Kalbakian is the vice president of the Armenian Students Association at UCLA and a second-year political science student. Joukhajian is the political activism chair of the Armenian Students Association and a fourth-year philosophy student. Sarkissian is an alumnus and the former president of the Armenian Students Association.