By Stephen Kurkjian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — With the news in March that Alabama had become the 49th state in the country to adopt a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), almost immediately remembered the words spoken long before by a longstanding foe in Congress.

Who but a few congressmen from California whose districts might include large populations of Armenians care about adopting such resolutions asked Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, a powerful Republican who had used his position on the House Committee on International Relations in 1990 to oppose passage of a Genocide resolution in Congress.

America’s interest was to not antagonize Turkey, our NATO ally, not worrying about a wrong that had taken place at the turn of the 20th century, Bereuter implied.

“I think this proves how wrong he (Bereuter) was,” said Hamparian, whose organization has worked with the Armenian Assembly in advocating for the state-by-state passage of the Genocide recognition resolutions. The nearly unanimous number of states shows that a “lot more people than a few congressmen from California believe we have convincing evidence and justice on our side.”

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Mississippi remains the one state in the United States that has not had a Genocide resolution adopted by its Legislature or (as was done by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey in March) signed as a proclamation by its governor. And with the Mississippi state Legislature convening in January, ANCA has begun rallying among the small number of Armenians who live in the state as well as members of the Greek and Assyrian communities there to join in backing a resolution.

Perhaps because the approval of the proclamations on the state-by-state levels are symbolic in nature and carry no foreign policy consequence, they have gained little national publicity. But the near-unanimous adoption of it by the states is as an important point of political achievement for the Armenian-American community. Historians and Armenian civic leaders said they were especially encouraged by the value the state adoptions bring towards advancing a Genocide recognition legislation in Congress.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis
California acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in 1968 while three years before, on the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, similar resolutions were passed in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Illinois. 

“Of course, state recognition, such as that in Alabama, does not constitute US government recognition but it adds a moral and small legal advantage,” said Richard G. Hovannisian, professor emeritus at the University of California. “Thus, whatever the motivations in the Alabama case, the recognition must be welcomed.”

Just the Right Words

Colgate Professor Peter Balakian, whose 2003 prize-winning book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, helped renew international attention to the Genocide, believes the wording of the resolutions is vitally important and lauded the one passed by the German parliament in 2016 as a “thorough and in-depth statement” and a model for others.

“The German Bundestag not only acknowledges the events of 1915 as Genocide, by goes on to deplore the Turkish state’s denialism,” Balakian said, adding that it recognizes that “a full discussion of these events of the past in the Ottoman Republic is still not possible today in Turkey. Scientists and writers who wish to deal with this aspect of Turkish history are being prosecuted and exposed to public defamation there.”

Although the German resolution also called upon the Turkish government to work to redress the harms that the Ottoman Republic had done to the Armenians, Turkey continues, as it has done for decades, opposing the passage of a similar proposal in the US Congress.

Presidential leadership, an essential element that would propel serious consideration of the resolution, is still missing from the debate. President Trump has done nothing to indicate that he would rally the Republicans in favor of passage.

The need to gain a persuasive Republican voice fighting for the resolution suffered a serious blow in 2014 when Rep. Eric Cantor, one of the strongest Republican voices in Congress, suffered a surprising loss in his re-election bid. Cantor, who had risen to House majority leader and was on the road to becoming House speaker, might have been able to provide convincing advocacy to gain passage of a resolution through Congress — as he had when he was a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

In 2000, he steered the resolution through Virginia’s lower legislative branch and gained a last-minute compromise with Virginia Senate that assured its statewide passage. Cantor, whose State House staff included a long-time legislative researcher of Armenian heritage, also signed his name to the resolutions that were introduced in Congress during his term in office.

On the other side of the political aisle, several Democratic hopefuls on the presidential campaign trail — including former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — have stated they would sign a Genocide recognition proposal if they are elected. But that remains a very big if. At the present time far less than a needed majority of congressmen have signed their names supporting the resolution that was filed in April by Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Republican of Florida.

In the interim, the effort to gain passage of the resolution in the Mississippi, the only state in the nation which has yet to adopt it, will hold center stage. The drive to gain recognition of the Genocide began in California in the mid-1960s, according to an archive assembled by the Armenian National Institute.

California Led the Way

In 1968, the California Assembly passed a resolution honoring the construction of an Armenian Martyrs Memorial outside of Los Angeles and those who had been martyred in the “Genocide.”

As the sensitivity towards what their ancestors had suffered in 1915 grew in the Armenian-American community, as well as the importance for political awareness, groups in other states began to press their political leaders to join the national drive and give official recognition of the Genocide. With the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Assembly separately providing support within the confines of their legal limits (the Assembly as a tax-exempt organization is restricted from lobbying on political issues) the drive for adoption of the resolution became primarily a grass-roots effort with local Armenians leading the drives for passage.

Stephen Kurkjian

But because the state-by-state passages have taken place without national publicity, the Turkish lobby has been relatively silent. But there is no underestimating Turkey’s opposition to the Schiff-Bilirakis proposal that is pending in Congress. Concerned about the blow that such a condemnation would bring to its international prestige, Turkey appears willing to spare no expense to derail passage of the Genocide resolution.

Its team of lobbyists has included former top congressional leaders Democrats and Republicans including former Speaker Richard Gephardt and Republican Bob Livingston. Since Donald Trump’s political rise, Turkey has added such favorites as Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security advisor, and Brian Ballard, who has been described by Politico, “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”

(Stephen Kurkjian served as chief of the Boston Globe’s Washington Bureau as well as a founding member and later head of its investigative Spotlight Team during his 40-year career with the newspaper.)

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