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US Civil Courts Hear Cases Involving Historical Disputes - 2004-02-20

During World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in the Turkish Ottoman Empire, where they comprised a sizable minority. Many of the victims' life insurance policies were never paid out. This week, a U.S. judge approved a $20 million settlement between one insurance company that sold many of those policies and descendants of Armenian victims. VOA's Barry Newhouse has this report about the historic settlement and the role of American courts in resolving similar disputes.

In the early 20th century, the New York Life Insurance Company sold thousands of life insurance policies to Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The region, which included present-day Turkey, extended from the southern Balkans into northeast Africa and southwest Asia. Many of those insured perished at the start of World War I, and their policies were never paid out. In recent years, many descendants filed a class-action suit against New York Life in U.S. courts demanding compensation from those unclaimed policies. New York Life has now agreed to pay.

This is the first time any major compensation will be given for relatives of the dead, points out Rouben Adalian, who is with the Armenian National Institute, a Washington-based group seeking affirmation that the deaths of the Armenians under Ottoman rule constituted genocide. But he adds it is not only about the money.

"This settlement does constitute a very significant step toward increasing international affirmation, international recognition of what happened to the Armenian people," he says.

What happened is disputed. Armenians say up to two million Armenians were killed or starved to death in what they say was genocide. But Turkey denies the Armenians were victims of systematic slaughter, and says there were far fewer deaths, which resulted from fighting during the chaotic collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

According to Mr. Adalian, the recent insurance settlement supports the Armenian perspective on the tragedy.

"There's another dimension to this, which is a realization that the death of the victims, the policy-holders, was not accidental and was not natural," he said. "And this becomes part of the evidence now that the events that occurred in 1915 and in the years thereafter did constitute the murder of a population of people."

Legal scholars say that, since the mid-1990s, U.S. civil courts have played an increasing role in resolving such issues.

Civil courts typically handle non-criminal cases, like business disputes and insurance claims. But unlike most of these cases that only offer financial compensation, cases like the Armenians' lawsuit are about much more.

"In some ways, it's using the courts for a traditional purpose," says Deborah Hensler, a law professor at Stanford University. "You could say that these claims are much more about justice than many of the other kinds of civil claims that we use the courts for."

The settlement with New York Life Insurance is being followed by several other groups with pending cases before U.S. courts. Raymond Winbush, a professor and advocate for financial compensation for African-Americans, whose ancestors suffered under slavery, says the Armenian settlement helps his cause. "Why it's important is on the issue of statute of limitations," he says. "We see those same arguments forming the basis of a reparations lawsuit for enslavement against corporations in this country."

Cases now winding through U.S. civil courts include lawsuits over alleged profiteering from South Africa's period of apartheid, claims from holocaust victims and lawsuits over slavery that date back 200 years in the United States. Some critics are skeptical of using U.S. civil courts to settle long-standing historical grievances. But for law professor Deborah Hensler, there is an argument for turning to the courts for reparations.

"We live in an era where, all around the world, people are killing each other, at least claiming that the reason they're killing each other is to compensate for past harms," she said. "So, compared to ethnic cleansing, I think we should celebrate the use of the courts for this purpose."

Even groups that have received little success through U.S. courts continue to favor the forum. A federal judge in Chicago recently rejected a major class-action slavery reparations lawsuit against several U.S. companies. The plaintiffs in the case say they are disappointed, but they have already begun modifying their lawsuit for a future day in court.