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About the credibility of the US in the prevention of genocide

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Alexis Krikorian


Bag with an American flag that belonged to Satenig Krikorian (née Mazmanian), orphan of Chabine Karahissar. According to an article in the New York Times of August 18, 1915: "At the beginning of this month all the inhabitants of Karahissar were pitilessly massacred with the exceptions of a few children".

In the recitals to Resolutions 296 and 150 recently adopted by the United States Congress, it is recalled in particular that: “Whereas President Woodrow Wilson encouraged the formation of the Near East Relief, chartered by an Act of Congress, which raised $116,000,000 (over $2,500,000,000 in 2019 dollars) between 1915 and 1930...".

After so many years and so many millions of dollars spent by the Turkish State to block the adoption of "similar" resolutions, the US Congress confirmed, for the first time as a whole, the recognition by the United States of the Armenian genocide, with the almost unanimous adoption of resolutions 296 in the House of Representatives and 150 in the Senate (on Oct. 29 and Dec. 12 respectively). Despite their non-binding nature, these resolutions represent an important, even historic, step forward, as the future will show. Indeed, it is the first time that the Senate, which plays a key role in foreign policy, has adopted such a resolution. Moreover, it is the first time in more than 30 years that the House of Representatives passes a resolution on the Armenian genocide. These two votes represent an important victory for Armenian Americans, including the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). It is also a victory for the Truth. The question now is whether the executive branch of the U.S. government will in turn recognize the Armenian genocide. At first glance nothing obliges it to do so, and nothing is less certain, as Turkey's membership in NATO seems to be the main pillar of American State policy (whether Democrat or Republican) vis-à-vis this ally seen as important. However, if a future Administration wishes to regain a minimum of credibility in its approach to the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities - in the wake of the Elie Wiesel law on the prevention of genocide - and beyond the question of NATO's Turkey membership, it will have to resolve this uncertainty, align itself with Congress and recognize the genocide of 1915 once and for all. Let us recall two things: 1. other countries have done so, notably France[1], and 2. the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide[2]. In addition to the United States, other international actors - NGOs & media especially - need adjusting.

A brief history of American recognition, the many obstacles to it and universal recognition

A first attempt to adopt a resolution (106 at the time) had failed in 2007. Although the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives adopted the resolution by 27 votes to 21, it was never brought to the House floor. The then Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said: "Although it happened a long time ago, there is a genocide going on in Darfur, there was one recently in Rwanda, and as long as there are genocides, we have to oppose it.... ...[3]". However, under pressure from the executive branch, she had to back down.

At the time, the opposition by the Turkish Republic and the (George W.) Bush Administration was massive. Articles with denialist rhetoric calling for the non-adoption of this resolution were published[4].

Beyond that, the State apparatus mobilized heavily against the passage of the resolution. Such as the former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the latter urging the American legislators to abandon this resolution, saying: "I continue to believe that voting for the resolution would seriously damage our relations with Turkey[5]". Perhaps most disappointingly, former US President Jimmy Carter, also founder of the Carter Center, also opposed the vote on the resolution in the House in an interview on CNN. He was thus joining no less than eight (!) former US Secretaries of State who also opposed the resolution[6].

The then Patriarch of the Armenian Community of Turkey, Mesrob Mutafyan, also opposed the resolution[7]. He said in an interview that he received daily threats. The newly appointed Patriarch of the Armenian community in Istanbul has just taken a similar stance[8]. Given the need to ensure the protection of the Armenians who remain in Turkey, these positions are not surprising and can easily be explained by a context of hatred towards minorities.

Some people pointed out, to a large extent rightly at the time, that Congress could not take a stand on this issue while ignoring the darkest pages of American history such as slavery and the extermination of Native Americans. We will come back to this later. However, it should not be overlooked either, as stated in resolutions 296 and 150, that the humanitarian movement and philanthropy of the modern era was born in the United States as a result of ... the Armenian genocide. Actor Jackie Coogan was for example a leading figure in the fundraising movement for Armenian refugees[9].

The same scenario was repeated a few years later when the resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee 23 to 22 on March 4, 2010[10]. The Obama Administration, in particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, strongly opposed the resolution. Leaders of major arms companies such as Lockheed Martin had also written to the Chairman of the Committee, Howard L. Berman, to inform him that the resolution would damage relations with an important NATO ally[11]. Thus, the resolution was once again not brought to the House floor.

Does this mean that the United States did not recognize the Armenian genocide until the end of 2019? No, of course not. In addition to the fact that 49 out of 50 American States recognize it, the United States has already officially recognized the Armenian genocide, as recalled in one of the recitals of resolutions 296 and 150, "through the United States Government’s May 28, 1951, written statement to the International Court of Justice regarding the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, through President Ronald Reagan’s Proclamation No. 4838 on April 22, 1981[12], and by House Joint Resolution 148, adopted on April 8, 1975, and House Joint Resolution 247, adopted on September 10, 1984".

At the same time, as Harout Sassounian recalls in a recent article[13], the Reagan Administration, after the presidential proclamation of April 22, 1981 recognizing the Armenian genocide, opposed the Congressional resolutions recognizing it. The George H. W. Bush Administration also opposed the efforts of the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole, to have the U.S. Senate pass a resolution on the Armenian genocide in 1990. Likewise, the Clinton Administration blocked the passage of the Armenian genocide resolution in 2000, moments before the House vote.

This demonstrates the consistency of the American State apparatus (beyond the Republican and Democratic presidents) in what could be called "light denial", but denial nonetheless, of the Armenian genocide over the last 40 years.

In light of this brief history, it is easier to understand why the identical, non-binding [14] resolutions adopted by the two chambers of Congress are an important step forward and even have the potential to be historic: for this is a first. The Senate, which plays an important role in US foreign policy, had never recognized the Armenian genocide before. Unlike previous attempts to pass "Joint Resolutions", the resolutions adopted on October 29 in the House (H. Res. 296) and on December 12 in the Senate (S. Res. 150) are "simple resolutions", which are not presented to the US President for action. They are not laws but resolutions, which, in a way, put pressure on the US Administration. Kim Kardashian, who has 153 million followers on Instagram [15] (!), called on the members of the Senate to approve resolution 150 on the very day of the vote. The forthcoming procedures for the confirmation of future US Ambassadors to Turkey and Armenia will be interesting to observe. Will the nominees of the future Administration be allowed to use euphemisms to describe the 1915 genocide while the Senate has finally recognized the Armenian genocide? Let us remember here that the American Ambassador to Armenia from 2004 to 2006, John Marshall Evans, was recalled to Washington by the State Department after publicly acknowledging the Armenian genocide. He was forced into early retirement. He described the denial of the Armenian genocide as "the worst case of alternative facts of the last hundred years"[16].

What do resolutions 150 and 296 say?

After a number of important recitals (on the past recognitions of the United States, on the American humanitarian effort following the genocide, on the invention of the term "genocide" by R. Lemkin in reference to the Armenian genocide, etc.), they say[17]:

"That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that it is the policy of the United States to—

(1) commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance;

(2) reject efforts to enlist, engage, or otherwise associate the United States Government with denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide; and

(3) encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the United States role in the humanitarian relief effort, and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity".

While in my opinion nothing is to be expected from the current Administration - the December 17, 2019 statement by the State Department that the Administration was sticking to the President's "definite" statement of April 24 2019 on the issue, and would therefore continue to use the term "Medz Yeghern" [18] in reference to the Armenian genocide, proves this easily - one can hope that the next American Administration, which will come out of the November 2020 elections, will finally follow the line taken by Congress at the end of 2019.

The last time a Democrat promised to recognize the Armenian genocide on the campaign trail, he then "betrayed" his word once in power. Samantha Powers, a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, who has long been advocating for the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the United States as a moral imperative against the despots - she also stresses the need for Washington officials to be empowered to tell the truth for the sake of overall American credibility[19] - initially defended this renunciation by saying that Barack Obama was a "consequentialist", i.e. someone who takes his decisions according to the consequences they have. In doing so, Obama renounced his campaign promise and aligned himself, like other American presidents, with the position of the State apparatus - some would say the American deep State[20] - which places the question of Turkey's NATO membership - and the arms sales that go with it - above any other imperative, even if it is a moral one. Indeed, it will take courage for the next President to adjust US policy on this issue in the face of the threats that will inevitably come from Ankara.

Just recently, Recep Tayip Erdogan threatened to close the Incirlik NATO base where US nuclear bombs are stored. This base is, let us recall, partly built on land stolen from Armenians after the genocide[21]. Will the American executive branch be one day ready to pay this price - the closure of this base - for a readjustment in a more moral sense of American foreign policy? Naturally, one can easily doubt it.

Beyond the closure of the NATO bases, Erdogan's Turkey has also threatened to recognize the genocide of the Native Americans. Lawyer Brett Chapman, a Native American leader, rejected this in these terms: "He is merely appropriating the suffering of our ancestors to further genocide denial in Turkey… He is just mentioning us in a insincere way so that he can lash back out at the United States Government[22]...".

After the failure to pass a resolution on the Armenian genocide in 2007, which some justified by the lack of congressional oversight of the darkest pages of American history[23], President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution into law on Saturday, December 19, 2009[24]. The Act "apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States". The law, which is sometimes seen as flawed[25], excludes, among other things, possible claims for reparations. But in the debate about reparations for African Americans, some, like Presidential candidate Elisabeth Warren, have called on the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the reparations debate[26].

What is the reason for this obstruction on the part of Turkey? State denial, which has its roots in the very origins of the modern Republic of Turkey that succeeded the Ottoman Empire, plays a major role in this uncompromising opposition.

State denial

Abroad, Turkish diplomacy is carrying out important lobbying work to oppose the recognition of the genocide. The Turkish government is deploying a budget and a network of considerable pressure to achieve its goals. To give an idea of the means at stake, in an area related to the genocide issue, Turkey is reported to have offered $15 million to Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to Donald Trump, for the capture of Gülen[27]. "We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective” Flynn wrote in a piece published on Election Day[28].

In a lecture he gave in June 2011, Turkish historian Taner Akçam said that a confidential source in Istanbul had "informed him about the Turkish government's scheme to bribe scholars (in the United States) to deny the Armenian genocide"[29]. In 2007, the Washington Times revealed that the Turkish Embassy in the United States was spending about $319,000 a month with lobbying firms and communications specialists to prevent the genocide resolution from being adopted by the House[30]. In March 2010, in another article, the same newspaper noted that "The Turkish government has spent millions on Washington lobbying over the past decade, much of it focused on the Armenian genocide issue"[31]. Samantha Powers for her part talks about $12 million spent on lobbying by Turkey in the United States in the first two years of the Trump presidency alone[32]...

New York Times, Dec. 15, 1915

About the credibility of the US genocide prevention policy

If the next US Administration wishes to regain a minimum of credibility in its approach to prevent genocide and mass atrocities, beyond the NATO issue, it will have to acknowledge the genocide of 1915. Let us not forget that denying genocide is the tenth and final stage of genocide[33]. One of the recitals of resolutions 150 and 296 also recalls that the "Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 (Public Law 115–441) establishes that atrocities prevention represents a United States national interest, and affirms that it is the policy of the United States to pursue a United States Government-wide strategy to identify, prevent, and respond to the risk of atrocities by strengthening diplomatic response and the effective use of foreign assistance to support appropriate transitional justice measures, including criminal accountability, for past atrocities".

The Elie Wiesel Act was signed into law in January 2019 by President Trump, after receiving bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. It requires the executive branch to report annually to Congress on identifying early warnings of genocide, training U.S. officials in identifying potential areas where genocide may occur and how any administration is mitigating genocide through U.S. mediation, among other means.

In its first report made public in September 2019[34], the White House states that it will lead the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force to enhance United States Government’s efforts to prevent, mitigate, and respond to atrocities, consistent with the Act. The Atrocity Early Warning Task Force (Task Force) will seek to accomplish the following[35]:

. Monitor developments in atrocity risk globally to alert the interagency to early warning signs;

. Improve interagency coordination on the prevention, mitigation, and response to atrocities to address gaps and lessons-learned, while leveraging expertise from civil society; and

. Facilitate the development and implementation of policies to build the capacity of the United States Government to prevent, mitigate, and respond to atrocities.

The Task Force plans to convene relevant Federal departments and agencies at the working level 4 times a year and at the leadership level once a year.

The Task Force succeeds the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), formed under President Obama, which was composed of representatives from the National Security Council, the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Treasury, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the intelligence community, which met monthly to assess the long-term risks of atrocities around the world.

In August 2011, President Obama issued Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10), creating the APB. PSD-10 already declared the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide to be a “core national security interest", but also a "core moral responsibility” of the United States.

Did the APB, which was chaired by Samatha Powers, work? In a National Review article, Elliott Abrams writes that an executive order that was supposed to have followed the President’s announcement of the Board and the Presidential Directive was quietly shelved without explanation[36]. Worse, he adds that no one can recall even a mention of atrocity prevention in State Department senior staff meetings.

The lack of transparency of the APB also lowered its profile among US policy makers[37].

US presidents[38] often declare themselves in favor of the principle of "Never Again". Reagan, as we have seen, clearly included the Armenian genocide in that "Never Again" principle. Since then, the Armenian genocide has been euphemisized into "Medz Yeghern" ("Great Crime") due to pressure from Turkey. Trump, in his statement of April 24, 2019 for the commemoration of the Armenian genocide, goes so far as to honor those who sought to ensure that such atrocities ("Medz Yeghern") would not happen again, such as human rights activist and lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin, as recalled in Resolutions 296 and 150, coined the term "genocide" in direct reference to the extermination of Armenians and other minorities in 1915. One could not be more ambiguous. It is as if the Administration is describing genocide without using the term in order to not "offend" its Turkish ally.

If in the future the United States wants to regain a leading role in the field of human rights and, in particular, if it wants to regain any credibility in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, the executive branch will have to resolve this unhealthy uncertainty and therefore renounce its case of light denialism by aligning itself definitively with the legislative branch of government - recognizing the Armenian genocide once and for all. This is the course of History. Otherwise, it might just as well deny the Armenian genocide outright by aligning itself with the Turkish State line once and for all. The United States would thus clearly renounce its moral status on this central human rights issue. One last time, as Genocide Watch President Dr. Stanton tells us, denying genocide is the last stage of genocide[39].

The responsibility of other international actors

Other international actors should also reassess their position in light of the facts. A news agency such as Agence France Presse (AFP) or a global media outlet such as the BBC would be inspired to align themselves with reference media such as the New York Times[40] or the Los Angeles Times, which recognize the Armenian genocide and have long since dropped the quotation marks around the word "genocide" or the old refrain "according to the Turks" and "according to the Armenians". In doing so, they would finally be in line with the scientific consensus on the issue and would be more supportive of human rights defenders in Turkey, who risk their lives on a daily basis, than of the Turkish State.

Likewise, human rights NGOs should, as this blog has already pointed out, include the recognition of the Armenian genocide - and other mass crimes committed in Turkey such as the Dersim massacres in 1937-38 - in their advocacy portfolio on Turkey - nationally and internationally to the United Nations, etc. - as well as the right to the truth on the part of their State about what happened in 1915-23, 1937-38 (...) for the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Alevi and Kurdish minorities. This is a question of addressing the root causes of human rights violations in Turkey and therefore of responding to them sustainably and not on a case by case basis. Beyond the emblematic Turkish case, many other countries could be concerned by this type of approach.

New York Times, Oct. 10, 1915

Finally, Turkey itself. It is right to stress the existence of genocide against the Rohyingas in Myanmar[41] or to point fingers at the role of Europeans in the extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas. On the other hand, it is fundamentally wrong to believe that the Turkish nation - whether one emphasizes its secular character as the Kemalists of the CHP do (e.g. the mayor of Istanbul) or its Sunni character as the AKP does - is incapable, in its DNA somehow, of genocide[42]. Genocide is genocide. Whether it targets Muslims, Buddhists or Christians.

Let us recall two elementary truths recently underlined following the vote on the American resolutions by Garo Paylan, Armenian MP of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pachinyan. According to the former, such a resolution should be adopted by the Turkish Parliament itself and according to the latter, the denial of the Turkish State remains a threat to Armenia's security[43]. Only massive support for the Turkish democrats, which necessarily involves a power relationship as represented by the resolutions 150 and 296 adopted by Congress - and which must then, if they are to be meaningful, be embodied in an alignment of the Administration with the position of Congress - will in the long run contribute to this ideal of peace and democracy in Turkey and in the region.

In order to regain a modicum of credibility in its approach to the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities - especially in the wake of the Elie Wiesel law on the prevention of genocide - the United States executive branch must finally align itself with Congress and recognize the Armenian genocide once and for all.

[11] Id.

[12] Extract: "Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it — and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples — the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten".

[14] Simple Resolutions - A matter concerning the operation of either the House of Representatives or Senate alone is initiated by a simple resolution. A resolution affecting the House of Representatives is designated “H.Res.” followed by its number. They are not presented to the President for action.

[18] "Great crime," which in Armenian is synonymous with the word genocide. The term is used in the April 24 statements of the US Presidents since Obama at least as a euphemism to describe the genocide of the Armenians. The Trump Declaration of 2019 also refers to R. Lemkin, the inventor of the word "genocide". The ambiguity of this type of declaration, which describes the genocide without using the term in order not to offend the Turkish ally, is therefore strong and may therefore be tantamount to light negationism.

[20] Notion also very present in Turkey (« derin devlet »).

[22] NPR, December 2019.

[23] It should be noted, however, that Congress had already apologized in 1993 to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii for the overthrow of their kingdom in 1893:

[30] White House And Turkey Fight Bill On Armenia: Genocide Label for WWI-Era Killings Has House Support, By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, October 10, 2007.

[31] Armenia-Turkey dispute over genocide label sets off lobbying frenzy, By Dan Eggen, Washington Post, March 4, 2010.

[35] Id.

See an example of joint statement issued by the AKP and CHP parties on the Armenian genocide issue (here at the time of the Bundestag resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide).

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