Yesterday the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution (405–11) to commemorate the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey beginning in 1915, one of modern history’s worst incidents of the mass slaughter and displacement of an ethnic group.
The vote was a long time coming. Dozens of countries formally recognize these events as a genocide. So do 49 out of 50 U.S. states and the vast majority of historians. In recent years, the Turkish government has pushed back against the designation. It argues that the numbers of deaths are exaggerated and came in the context of a civil war rather than a concerted extermination campaign. The House has actually passed resolutions recognizing the genocide in the past—in 1975 and 1984—before it became such a fraught political issue.
Turkish pressure is often cited as the reason the U.S. government has been reluctant to use the G-word in recent decades, though blaming Turkey lets several U.S. administrations off the hook. These administrations, for understandable reasons, didn’t think a fight over a century-old event was worth alienating a NATO ally and key security partner. George W. Bush lobbied against an American genocide resolution in 2007. Barack Obama called the Bush administration out for this as a senator and then did the exact same thing as president, using terms like “difficult and tragic history.” (This reversal is the subject of one of the bitterest chapters of genocide scholar–turned–U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power’s recent memoir.)
So what changed? Lawmakers didn’t suddenly have an epiphany about the events of 1915 to 1923 or the definition of genocide. And this issue has long been a priority for Armenian American voters. What changed is Turkey’s image in Washington. Members of Congress have little patience for arguments about the importance of the U.S.-Turkey alliance after Turkey’s recent offensive against the Syrian Kurds, U.S. allies, a campaign that has itself been referred to as ethnic cleansing.
President Donald Trump’s role in facilitating that offensive and his enthusiastic embrace of authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely made this an easy vote for many Democrats. But a government that held an American evangelical pastor as a hostage for two years isn’t all that popular with Republicans either.
Obviously, none of this is directly relevant to the Armenian genocide. Erdogan condemned the vote as driven by politics rather than sincere belief. “In a sense, it was profiteering,” he said. Even some who believe the history is correct see the commemoration as a cynical move. “Politics was why Congress never recognized the genocide; politics was why it did so today,” tweeted the Economist’s Turkey correspondent.
A more surprising voice of cynicism was that of Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of only two Democrats who didn’t vote for the resolution. (She voted present.) In a statement explaining her vote, she said “recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.” She also argued that a “true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include … earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide.”
The second point is just classic whataboutism. Nowhere does the resolution say that Turkey’s crimes are unique in all of history. (The Republic of Turkey, as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, is not even mentioned.) Acknowledging a historic genocide in Turkey—or for that matter criticizing recent human rights abuses in Israel and Saudi Arabia, as Omar has done—does not imply American infallibility.
Omar is right that political considerations played as much of a role in the passage of this resolution as historical facts. But political considerations were also the reason it was not passed until now.
Our interpretation of historical events is always informed by contemporary politics. Even if it were possible to reach some sort of untainted historical judgment, Congress, a political body, would hardly be the place to find such pure objective analysis.
This resolution was worthwhile not in spite of its “political” nature but because of it. For one thing, it sends a message to Turkey that because of its recent actions, it can no longer expect the U.S. to ignore historical consensus for the sake of Ankara’s sensitivities. For another, it’s important to recognize genocide for what it is, particularly this one.
The word genocide did not exist at the time that Armenians started being rounded up—Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the time, used the phrase “campaign of race extermination” to describe it—but it played a key role in the development of the concept. Raphael Lemkin, the Holocaust survivor who coined the term genocide and spearheaded the global campaign to ban it under international law, first became interested in the topic as a whole when studying the fate of the Armenians in the 1920s. Adolf Hitler considered the event instructive as well, once telling his subordinates, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Though genocide has a defined meaning in international law—the attempt to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—political leaders are often reluctant to use it where it clearly applies, out of fear of the obligations to respond that come with the label. Other countries—notably Canada in recent days—are struggling with how and whether to apply the term to events in their own histories. Discussions of genocide often revolve around the Nazi Holocaust, making it easier to dismiss acts of racial extermination that fall short of that singular example.
The question of how to respond to genocides, historical or contemporary, is not always so simple. But calling a textbook historical example by the name it deserves can at least help us to understand what it is we’re talking about.