Congress puts history up to vote

Reverberations from the Armenian slaughter will shake U.S. relations with Turkey.

Uttam Das

Likely a success of the Feb. 5 international conference at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a resolution last week condemning the 1915 Armenian mass killing as âÄúgenocide.âÄù The bill succeeded by a narrow margin of 23-22. The theme of the conference was âÄúThe Armenian Genocide within the Framework of National and International Law,âÄù and academics, researchers and legal and human rights experts traveled from across the world to share findings and expertise with colleagues. A similar genocide acknowledgment bill was passed in 2007 under President George W. Bush but was not signed into law due to political backlash from Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire held responsible for the genocide. Though the resolutions passed last week do not bring any immediate legal obligation for the United States, its diplomatic and political consequences have already begun to manifest themselves. This has been seen as a âÄúdifficultâÄù and âÄúpainful periodâÄù for Turkey, which immediately called its U.S. Ambassador, Namik Tan, back to Ankara in diplomatic protest against passage of the resolution. According to historians, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died âÄúamid the chaos and unrest surrounding World War IâÄù following the âÄúdisintegration policyâÄù of the Ottoman Empire, a New York Times article read last week. However, Turkey refuses to use the word âÄúgenocideâÄù and instead cites the deaths as an outcome of a civil war. Turkey has been waging a campaign against any bill in this regard. To speculate on the effect this bill would have in both the short and long term, I spoke with Ziya Meral, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Meral, originally from Turkey, spoke of a âÄúsense of vindicationâÄù for Turkey, adding that the acknowledgment comes at a heavy price. âÄúAt the short term, the Turkey-U.S. relations are being damaged,âÄù Meral wrote in an e-mail response. It is true that the United States needs an effective partnership with Turkey regarding its strategic and military interests. According to Meral, who presented at the February conference in Minneapolis, the United States needs close Turkish support for its exit strategies from Afghanistan and Iraq. The same is also true for possible U.S. sanctions against what it deems a nuclear-ambitious Iran. Observers like Meral point out that the âÄúgenocide billâÄù will further disrupt already volatile Armenian-Turkish relations by giving more legitimacy to nationalist voices in Turkey. However, the passing of the bill by the U.S. House committee and âÄúrecognition and acknowledgment of the Armenian GenocideâÄù is seen as a victory for the Armenian âÄúmoral issue,âÄù says Edmon Marukyan, an attorney in his home country and a current Humphrey Fellow. He explains that the âÄúgenocideâÄù forced Armenians to spread out all over the world. The Armenians have been seeking justice for the genocide âÄúif not on legal sphere,âÄù Marukyan said, âÄúon a moral one.âÄù According to Dr. Ellen Kennedy, professor and interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, for the 3 million people in Armenia and the 8 million Armenians living in other countries, the recent resolution represents a welcome acknowledgment of a tragedy that has become almost invisible. She referred to Hitler saying on the eve of efforts to exterminate EuropeâÄôs Jews, âÄúWho speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?âÄù In 2006, FranceâÄôs National Assembly outlawed the denial of the Armenian genocide. Armenian activists in Europe have also tried to block TurkeyâÄôs pending application for membership in the European Union based on this issue, says Kennedy. However, what prompted the U.S. House committee to pass the bill at this point in time? Kennedy told me, referring to the Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Howard Berman, that the United States has a moral obligation to speak out against the genocide and to prevent it from happening again. According to Kennedy, who is also the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy platform World Without Genocide, scholars have succeeded in labeling the Armenian tragedy âÄúgenocide.âÄù The International Association of Genocide has been successful in patronizing some of the scholars. Even British jurists like Dr. Geoffrey Robertson categorize the Armenian mass killing as âÄúgenocideâÄù through research and publications. It is clear that the United States has avoided a position on the issue, considering consequences from Turkey. But what now? The Obama administration and the powerful Jewish lobby did not back the Turkish position, as an English newspaper in Turkey, The Daily News & Economic Review, reports. As a senator, Barack Obama supported the previous Armenian resolution. He was also critical of President George W. Bush for stopping it. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also reportedly supported similar bills in the past. However, that does not guarantee that the âÄúgenocide billâÄù would be approved by a Congress dominated by Democrats. Turkey will once again work hard to persuade the Obama administration to keep historyâÄôs semantics on its side. Uttam Das welcomes comments at [email protected]