By Emil DanielyanA key committee of the U.S. Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved two resolutions recognizing the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide and urging President George W. Bush to do the same.
Ignoring White House objections, the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives voted 40-7 and 35-11 in favor of the bills after months of intense lobbying by Armenian-American advocacy groups. The panel had endorsed a similar pro-Armenian resolution five years ago before its passage by the full House was blocked by its Speaker Dennis Hastert and then U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“This is an important, resounding vote acknowledging the historical truth and squarely combating Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide,” Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, told RFE/RL. “We hope that it will encourage Turkey to come to terms with its past.”
“The fight is not over as there are still steps along the way. We will continue to work with our friends in Congress to have this resolution approved by the full House,” Ardouny said.
One of the bills known as House Resolution 316 was introduced in June and has since been co-sponsored by 140 legislators. It calls on Bush to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide and to recall the proud history of United States intervention in opposition to the Armenian Genocide.”
The other legislation, co-sponsored by 86 congressmen, similarly calls on Bush to “commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide on behalf of the people and Government of the United States.” It also urges Turkey to “acknowledge the culpability of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, for the Armenian Genocide” and to “promote rapprochement with the Republic of Armenia.”
“We are absolutely thrilled with the result. We got a strong bipartisan vote for recognition of the Armenian genocide,” Adam Schiff, a pro-Armenian California congressman and the sponsor of the House Resolution 195, told RFE/RL.
Successive U.S. administrations have avoided using the term “genocide” for fear of antagonizing Turkey, a key U.S. ally which maintains that the Armenian massacres occurred on a much smaller scale and were not premeditated by the last rulers of the Ottoman Empire. Bush has instead used phrases like “systematic annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians” which leaders of the influential Armenian-American community say constitute a textbook definition of genocide.
“We have never termed the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire a genocide. That is why we do not support this resolution,” a senior Bush administration official, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL from Washington.
“We believe that the use of the term genocide would not contribute to reconciliation and dialogue between the two communities,” the official said, speaking shortly before the House committee vote. He would not speculate on whether Bush will follow Clinton’s example and ask Hastert to effectively kill the resolution.
Ardouny did not rule out such possibility. “Anything can happen but we will press ahead with this in any case,” he said, adding that White House pressure on the Republican-controlled Congress is not as “intense” as it was five years ago.
Schiff also noted a “growing momentum in favor of genocide recognition” and “very limited opposition” to the bills from the White House and the State Department. Still, he said “a lot remains to be done” to bring them before the full House of Representatives.
The State Department sent a letter to members of the House International Relations Committee ahead of the votes, saying the debate "could damage U.S.-Turkish relations and could undermine progress by Ankara and Yerevan as they begin quiet talks to address the issue and look to the future."
But the committee's Republican Chairman, Henry Hyde, said that he doubts the relationship with Turkey would be harmed and stressed the resolutions do not hold Turkey or the Turkish people accountable for the killings. He said the resolutions "merely recognize the fact that the authorities of the Ottoman Empire deliberately slaughtered the majority of the Armenian community in their empire."
"Denial of that fact cannot be justified on the basis of expediency or fear that speaking the truth will do us harm," Hyde said, according to the Associated Press.
The Bush administration official noted that despite its reluctance to call the mass killings a genocide Washington supports “serious examination of the history of that period.” He pointed in particular to a “good” study conducted by a New York-based human rights organization at the request of the U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC). The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) concluded in January 2003 that the Armenian massacres fit the definition of genocide set by a 1948 UN convention. Armenian members of the former TARC say the study dealt a serious blow to Turkish denial of the genocide.
In his last April 24 message to the Armenian-American community, Bush described the ICTJ study as a “significant step toward reconciliation and restoration of the spirit of tolerance and cultural richness that has connected the people of the Caucasus and Anatolia for centuries.” The administration official clarified that this should not be interpreted as U.S. endorsement of its findings.
“We endorsed the process of the study, not its conclusions,” the official said. “We were not part of the study.” He also praised TARC’s four-year activities as a “serious process that involved serious people.”
In his 2005 statement, Bush referred to the Armenian massacres as the “Great Calamity.” The “Great Calamity” was translated as “Mets Yeghern” in the Armenian-language version of the statement released by the U.S. embassy in Yerevan. The Armenians use this term only with regard to the 1915-1918 slaughter of their kinsmen.
The late Ronald Reagan was the first and so far the only U.S. president to recognize genocide in 1981. John Evans, the current U.S. ambassador to Armenia, became the second U.S. government official to do so publicly at a series of meetings with Armenian-Americans last February. “The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” Evans declared at one of those meetings, sparking talk of an imminent change in U.S. policy on the issue.
However, the State Department and Bush administration officials were quick to quash the speculation, insisting that the envoy expressed his personal opinion on the matter.