After decades of lobbying by the Armenian community in the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed on Tuesday evening a landmark resolution recognizing the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
The resolution adopted by 405 votes to 11 calls on the U.S. government to “commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance” and to “reject” Turkish efforts to deny it. It says the government should also “encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide” and their “relevance to modern-day crimes against humanity.”
The resolution was introduced by several pro-Armenian U.S. lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, in April. It reached the House floor after being backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. They both reaffirmed their support during an hour-long debate on the bill that preceded the vote.
“It’s a great day for the Congress,” Pelosi said, urging a “strong vote” for acknowledging “one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.”
“This was genocide and it is important that we call this crime what it was,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said as he presented the resolution to fellow legislators. He called on them to finally “set the record straight.”
More than a dozen other lawmakers, most of them Democrats representing constituencies with large numbers of Armenian Americans, spoke during the ensuing debate. They all made a case for recognizing the World War One-era slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
“This is a vote which I have waited for 19 years to cast,” declared a visibly emotional Schiff.
"We cannot pick and choose which crimes against humanity are convenient to speak out against,” said the prominent Democrat from California. “What we must do is to state the fact that the Ottoman Empire committed this grotesque crime against the Armenians."
“Genocides, whenever and wherever they occur, cannot be ignored,” said Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican and a co-sponsor of the resolution.
Another Republican congressman, Christopher Smith of New Jersey, blasted Turkey for its “well-funded aggressive campaign of genocide denial”
The two leading Armenian-American lobby groups swiftly hailed the passage of the resolution. Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said it “reflects the best of America.”
“Today’s watershed vote for human rights represents the culmination of decades of tireless work by members of Congress, the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian American community from across the country,” Ardouny told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) likewise praised the U.S. House for ending “Ankara’s gag-rule against American remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.”
The Assembly and the ANCA have spent decades campaigning for such a measure. Genocide resolutions drafted by pro-Armenian lawmakers have been repeatedly approved by congressional committees in the past. But they never reached the House or Senate floor because of opposition from former U.S. administrations worried about their impact on U.S.-Turkish relations.
Like his predecessors, U.S. President Donald Trump avoided using the word genocide in his annual statements on the mass killings and deportations of Armenians. But Trump, whose relationship with the Democratic leadership of the House is very strained, appears to have made no attempts to thwart the passage of the latest genocide bill.
Successive Turkish governments have vehemently denied a deliberate Ottoman government effort to exterminate the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population.
The Turkish ambassador in Washington, Serdar Kilic, sent last week letters to House members warning that the resolution will “considerably poison the political environment between the United States and Turkey.” Ankara was quick to condemn its adoption as a “meaningless political step” and “grave mistake.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also said that it will damage U.S. interests in the region. “On the other hand, it is also noted that the attitude of the U.S. Administration on 1915 events remains the same,” it added in a statement.
Predictably, Armenia welcomed the U.S. recognition of the genocide, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian describing it as “historic.” “Resolution 296 is a bold step towards serving truth and historical justice that also offers comfort to millions of descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors,” Pashinian wrote on Twitter early on Wednesday.
“Thank you, U.S. Congress,” Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian tweeted for his part. The U.S. lawmakers have sent a “massive message” against Turkish denial of the genocide, he said.
The resolution made rapid progress in the Congress following Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria largely controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. The operation was strongly condemned by many Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Immediately after passing the Armenian bill, the House voted overwhelmingly for a resolution calling on Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey.