The resolution drafted by Senators Robert Menendez and John Ensign urges him to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide.”
“One and a half million Armenians experienced Hell on Earth, and to sweep their plight under the rug is to insult their memories and their descendants,” Menendez said as he presented the resolution on Wednesday. “It is long past time that our nation help set the historical record straight and provide a foundation of understanding that helps prevent future atrocities.”
“By joining together and affirming that genocide was committed on the Armenian people, we send a strong message to the international community that we will not turn a blind eye to the crimes of the past simply because they are in the past,” Ensign said for his part.
A similar bill was circulated by other pro-Armenian lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives early this year. It has yet to reach the House floor despite being co-sponsored by over 130 lawmakers and tacitly endorsed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime supporter of Armenian issues.
Progress of the House bill stalled this spring amid an intensifying dialogue between Armenia and Turkey. Obama cited the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement when he backtracked on his campaign pledge to reaffirm his recognition of the Armenian genocide once in office, in an April 24 statement on the 94th anniversary of the massacres. His stance angered the influential Armenian-American community that had overwhelmingly backed his presidential bid.
Obama’s failure to use the word “genocide” was clearly facilitated by the April 22 announcement of a U.S.-brokered “roadmap” to normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations. As part of that roadmap, Armenia and Turkey signed earlier this month agreements on establishing diplomatic relations and reopening their border.
The agreements, strongly supported by the Obama administration, have split the Armenian Americans and, in particular, their two main advocacy groups that have for decades lobbied for genocide recognition. One of them, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), has been at the forefront of Diaspora criticism of the deal.
The ANCA and other critics are especially opposed to Ankara’s and Yerevan’s plans to set up a commission tasked with looking into the 1915 massacres. They say the very existence of such a body would discourage the United States and other countries from recognizing what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century.
U.S. -- Democratic Senator from New Jersey Robert Menendez, 05Aug2009
Menendez condemned the planned historical commission as an “insult to the Armenian people” in a speech at an ANCA event organized earlier this month. The New Jersey Democrat had earlier blocked the congressional approval of former President George W. Bush’s choice of a new U.S. ambassador to Armenia, in protest against the dismissal of the previous envoy, John Evans. The latter is believed to have been recalled to Washington because of publicly describing the slaughter of Ottoman Armenians as genocide.
Turkish pundits welcoming the deal agree that Ankara will now find it easier to ward off embarrassing genocide resolutions in the U.S. and elsewhere. Writing in “Hurriyet Daily News” on October 13, veteran commentator Mehmet Ali Birand said: “It will be very difficult for Armenian representatives to go before the U.S. Congress or the French Senate and ask for pressure on Turkey regarding genocide and the acceptance thereof. And it will become impossible for them to go before parliaments of countries that have committed genocide themselves and ask for Ankara’s punishment.”
“We will no longer be on pins and needles on the April 24s and ask ‘What will the U.S. Congress do?’ U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the rear row of this picture is our biggest guarantor,” another columnist, Cuneyt Ulsever, wrote in an op-ed article published by the English-language paper the previous day.
President Serzh Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders insist that the historical commission would not seek to determine whether the 1915 killings constituted genocide and would thus not thwart genocide recognition. Their policy on Turkey enjoys the backing of some of the leading Diaspora organizations, notably the Armenian Assembly of America.
The Assembly on Wednesday joined the ANCA in welcoming the genocide resolution submitted to the Senate. “The Assembly will not rest until Armenian Genocide denial is defeated,” Bryan Ardouny, the lobbying group’s executive director, said in a statement.
Another Armenian-American leader familiar with congressional affairs, who asked not to be identified, also hailed the Menendez-Ensign bill, while noting that the Senate is unlikely to approve it soon. “It shows that the [Turkish-Armenian] protocols and U.S. reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide are not connected, even though it has little chance of passing Senate this year,” he told RFE/RL. “Senate is a harder mountain for us to climb. But next year is an election year, and there are other factors that will help.”
Turning to the genocide recognition push in the House of Representatives, he said, “My guess is that it will not get serious until after April of next year, and people will see how Turkey performs. If Turkey does not ratify the protocols or open the border [with Armenia] on time, the resolution will be relatively easy to pass.”
“Even if Turkey does perform, the resolution should pass the House, as the U.S. has been clear on no linkage and despite some wishful thinking, the [historical] commission actually agreed to is not to determine whether or not there was genocide,” added the leader.