Sen. Robert Menendez

After the Armenian Genocide Senate Resolution, Quo Vadis?

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WASHINGTON — The United States Senate voted unanimously on December 12 to adopt Sen. Res. 150 on the Armenian Genocide after unrelenting efforts led by Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

The House of Representatives had passed a similar bill, H. Res. 296, on October 29.

For the first time both houses of Congress proclaim that it is official US policy to recognize and commemorate the Armenian Genocide and reject its denial, while encouraging education and public understanding on its facts and relevance. The resolution notes that Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, Maronites, and other Christians were also subject to genocide alongside the Armenians in the 1915 to 1923 period.

Sen. Ted Cruz

The Senate vote took place after three failed attempts over the three previous weeks, each blocked by a Republican Senator at the request of the White House in order to preserve US-Turkey relations. This time no one stood up to object. The context to the success of the two resolutions is the changed geopolitical situation. There is increased tension between the two countries primarily as a result of Turkey’s assault on northern Syria, allowing Kurds there to be exposed to ethnic cleansing, and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, along with several other issues. Consequently, the US has less reason to avoid upsetting Turkey.

An additional factor may have been the increased public pressure on the senators to vote in favor when celebrity Kim Kardashian West asked her over 150 million followers to weigh in with their legislators on the day of the vote, as she did previously during the House resolution’s vote.

The House at the end of October also passed a bill calling for sanctions against Turkey, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a similar bill on December 11 which has yet to come before the entire Senate for a vote.

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As these twin resolutions are not bills or official laws, they do not require the signature of the president. Senator Bob Menendez declared that the passage of the Genocide resolution meant “The Senate finally stood up to confirm history: What happened from 1915 to 1923 was — most assuredly — genocide….our foreign policy should always reflect this.”

Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of one of the Armenian Assembly of America, said, “It sends a strong message that the United States stands on the side of human rights.” He reflected on the process behind the scenes to get the resolutions passed and said, “It has been a long journey, literally decades in the making through educating members of Congress about the proud chapter in America’s history in helping to save the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the importance of affirming the Genocide, especially in the face of Turkey’s campaign of denial. We never gave up. We kept fighting even when it looked impossible. We also recognized the changing geopolitical dynamics and prioritized passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution, which was reinforced by our 2018 and 2019 Advocacy Conferences with hundreds of Hill meetings discussing the importance of the legislation.” He acknowledged the support of the Armenian Church and all Armenian organizations, as well as non-Armenian coalitions and organizations.”

Peter Balakian

Writer and activist Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of Humanities at Colgate University, pointed out the role of scholars, cultural figures and writers in leading to the resolutions and acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in broader society. He said, “Although there are always political issues at play when the Armenian Genocide resolution is put forward, and this time those forces were favorable for an ethical statement to be properly made, one thing seems clear: the collective work done by scholars, writers, artists, film makers, and journalists over the past 30 years has made a big difference. Hundreds of scholarly, artistic, literary, and journalistic works and texts created by writers and artists from dozens of nations all over the world have created a rich body of knowledge and public awareness about an event that had been inadequately understood. In 1989 to 1990, when Senator Dole brought the Armenian Genocide commemorative bill to the Senate floor, there was a much scanter understanding in the mind of the general public about this history. There has been something like a sea change in the Armenian Genocide discourse over the past 30 years, and this reveals, I think, how the power of knowledge and creativity make an ethical difference in the wider world.”

As one example, he pointed out “that Senator Menendez — the cosponsor of the resolution — read a passage from Grigoris Balakian’s Armenian Golgotha on the Senate floor in order to convey in vivid depth the slaughter of the Armenians in Ankara in the summer of 1915 also speaks to the power of survivor testimony and how it can be ethically necessary and historically important more than a century later.”

Prof. Taner Akçam of Clark University
Prof. Taner Akçam

Taner Akçam, the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Professor of Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, saw the resolution as positive for both Armenians and Turks.

He said, “Whatever the motives behind the resolution might be, this is a historic decision. It is the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. This decision is a moral victory for Armenian people and I salute all those individuals and organizations who meticulously have fought over the years for the recognition of Armenian Genocide. Even though they might have difficulty to understand it in its early stage, this is also an important moral victory for the people of Turkey who have been fighting for truth and justice in Turkey. Maybe not in the very short run, but in the long run, this decision will advance the fight of those Turks and Kurds for human rights and democracy.”

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of the Republic of Armenia on December 13 declared, after thanking the US Congress, that the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide was important both for recording the historical truth and as part of the process of preventing genocides. He added, “the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide has a security component as it will help thwart potential threats to the security of our country and people. I would like to emphasize that not the Genocide of 1915, but Turkey’s policy of denial makes us state that Turkey continues to be a threat to our nation and to the Republic of Armenia. In fact, Turkey has been keeping the Armenian border closed for almost 30 years, which follows up the logic of genocide denial”

Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the Senate vote as “a shameful example of the politicization of history,” while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called it a “political show.” The US ambassador in Ankara was summoned for a dressing down and several threats of retributive action have been made by the Turkish government.

Armenian Assembly Co-Chair Anthony Barsamian said the resolutions mark an important turning point for the US position on the Armenian Genocide. He declared: “I don’t think the US is going to revisit the issue. They are not going to have this fight anymore. The president should use the word and I actually said in an interview in Armenia that he may make a political calculation and use the word. I think it is political… Morally the House and the Senate knew they needed to do this but were held up by perceived issues of national interest or foreign policy.”

What Lies Ahead

Armenian Democratic Liberal Party Supreme Council member Edmond Y. Azadian said, “The passage of the Senate resolution gives us an historic opportunity which was meant to come sooner or later. This gives Armenians cause for jubilation and also for action. Armenians must capitalize on this to enhance its position in the Caucasus region and the diaspora must move to the next phase of compensation.”

Ardouny similarly stated, “Adoption of these resolutions will present new opportunities and new possibilities going forward.” Furthermore, he continued, “The Armenian Assembly of America will also redouble its commitment to genocide prevention and ethnic cleansing, not only for Armenians in threatened communities, but for all nationalities and religious groups subjected to gross abuses of human rights.”

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the second major Armenian lobbying organization in Washington, said, “Having locked in US legislative recognition, the ANCA is hard at work breaking Ankara’s grip over Executive Branch policy on the Armenian Genocide.” He specified: “We are pursuing a broad array of strategic policy priorities – institutionalizing national remembrance, promoting genocide education, and rolling back and rooting out remaining forms of official US government denial — all with the long term aim of pivoting American policy from recognition to pro-active justice-based remedies, in the form of returns, restitution, and reparations.”

Akçam recognized that it is possible that nothing substantive is going to change after the resolutions. The recognition by France and Germany did not lead to anything concrete. What may make a difference is the response of the American legal system, he said, pointing to the example of Holocaust litigation cases. He concluded, “For me, the most important issue is now to file well prepared law suits in United States. I assume that the law suits will be a game changer in the new future.”

Southern California attorney Brian Kabateck, who played an important role in lawsuits against insurance companies withholding money from heirs of victims of the Armenian Genocide (https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/04/19/commemorating-genocide-kabateck-still-pursuing-legal-remedies-for-historical-injustices-while-advocating-economic-boycott-of-turkey/), spoke about revisiting the lawsuits rejected in California appellate court in the light of the new situation. He said, “I have given it a lot of thought. It is a hopeful light, but not a guarantee.”

The California 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the case of Armenian Genocide victims’ descendants against Victoria Versicherung AG, a German insurance company, and two other German companies, in 2013, and the US Supreme Court struck down a California statue, often called the Poochigian bill after its main proponent, as it supposedly interfered with federal foreign policy, which did not recognize the Armenian Genocide at the time.

Kabateck said that though it is Congress and not the executive branch that has just acted, it is interesting in several respects. At the end of October Kabateck met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a day after the House Genocide resolution passed, and asked what the administration is doing. Pompeo, with a wry smile, responded that we are looking at it. Pompeo said, you know, it is a political issue, while Kabateck retorted that he didn’t think so.

Nonetheless, Kabateck said, the fact that Senator Lindsey Graham, who appeared to be working at the beck and call of the president, did not intervene once again, nor did any other Republican senator, may indicate that the president is softening on this issue and may ultimately relent and acknowledge the Genocide. “If that happens,” Kabateck said, “then this will open the floodgate to lawsuits.” It might be possible to get California to reopen the statute of limitations for Armenian Genocide insurance cases.

For now, the official US State Department policy on the Genocide has not changed to recognition, however, and this was confirmed by a terse December 17 State Department statement (see related story on Page 1.)

Barsamian said that at this point, with prominent discussion of the Genocide continuing on all levels, “There is much more penetration into the American psyche. Now America understands the issue. It has been discussed for so long that they understand it is genocide, with politics playing with historical fact.” He also predicted new cases in courts concerning the Armenian Genocide and more legislation in states mandating the teaching of the Genocide.

Barsamian said, “Everything is on the table. I think we need to develop a strategy. We have won this round. We feel emboldened, but the question is where we go from here… We need a little time to digest it. Everyone wants a reaction but it may be just to stand back take the wind and decide what we are going to do to go forward.” He said that there was a need to make Armenia whole again, but said, “I am not sure at this point that Turkey is there yet.”

Barsamian suggested that aside from specific work concerning the Armenian Genocide, Armenians should also try to help Syrian Kurds and Christians in the region who are now under threat. He said, “Our ancestors were on the same roads so we have to make it part of our legacy to stop atrocities in the region. We have a moral obligation to that. Frankly I would like to start focusing on others. The reason why this [resolution] passed is that there are atrocities going on in the region and Congress signaled that what happened to Armenians should not happen to others.”

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