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Armenia: U.S. Congress Nears Action On Armenian Genocide Resolution

  • Andrew Tully

Other pressing business has forced a leading committee in the U.S. Congress to postpone consideration of a resolution urging the U.S. government to officially recognize as genocide the many deaths of Armenians in Turkey from 1915-1923. But even if the measure passes, the president is unlikely to follow the recommendation.

Washington, 29 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An influential committee of the U.S. Congress is finishing work on a resolution urging the American government to recognize that Armenians were the victims of genocide early in the 20th century.

On Thursday (Sept. 28), the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives had hoped to complete work on the measure and send it to the full House for a vote. But the press of other congressional business forced the panel to suspend work on House Resolution 398 and resume sometime next week.

Thursday's committee meeting coincided with a conference held in Washington on historical evidence supporting the argument that the Armenians were victims of genocide. The meeting was held at the U.S. Library of Congress, the national library of America. The conference was co-sponsored by the library and the Armenian National Institute, an advocacy group for Armenian issues.

The U.S. administration opposes this resolution arguing that Turkey has been a loyal ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for 40 years, and that it is strategically situated to the southeast of Europe.

Most recently -- on Wednesday (Sept. 27) -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke forcefully against the legislation. She told the International Relations Committee that the resolution could hurt -- not help -- relations between Armenia and Turkey. And she said it would not promote peace in the region.

Beyond that, Albright added: "I have to tell you frankly that passage could also undermine U.S. national interests in which Turkey is a partner, not just bilateral relations with a NATO ally, but also Turkey's cooperation on the Cyprus talks and the Nagorno-Karabakh process and Iraq."

At Thursday's Library of Congress conference on Armenia, panelists discussed their conviction that Turkey's Ottoman Empire deliberately sought to eradicate the Armenians from 1915-1923.

The keynote speaker at the library meeting was Jay Winter, a historian at England's Cambridge University who is an expert on World War I, which coincided with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.

Winter said genocide could exist only in the context of what he calls "total war" -- a 20th-century way of making war that takes advantage of radically new technologies and targets civilians and military personnel. But he stressed that during the first "total war" -- World War I -- it was Turkey alone that committed genocide.

Today, Winter contended, Turks try to use World War I as a way of rationalizing the deaths of Armenians. Turks argue that many Turks, as well as Armenians, were killed in fighting between Turkey and Russia during the war.

The Cambridge historian also offered an explanation for the attitude of the U.S. government toward recognizing the Armenian genocide. Winter said America was not as fully involved in World War I as the nations of Europe, and its territory was never seriously threatened.

"Clearly, the fact that Americans did not go through the full experience of total war -- and certainly not in 1915, when they weren't in the conflict in the first place -- meant that their point of departure [point of reference] in viewing all aspects of the conflict would be different from that of other combatant nations who bled from the beginning and continued to bleed for 1,500 days. Knowledge is one thing, understanding is another. This may help to explain some of the abstract elements of American foreign policy, perhaps its idealism, its strong points, and its blind spots too."

Winter was introduced at the conference by James Billington, a historian specializing in Russia who is now serving as the Librarian of Congress, or head of America's state library. Billington said it is important for all humankind to learn as much as it can of its past -- the bad as well as the good -- in order to learn how best to face the future.

"Only in the restoration of memory and the recovery of all things that have happened -- the dark as well as the brighter side of the human picture -- can we really cure the ongoing curative process of the human species."

But Winter was less gentle in his own conclusion.

"We must confront the nature of genocide and call it by its name in order to locate it within the terrifying history of total war in the 20th century."

And yet despite the urging of such eminent historians, it does not appear that Washington will risk offending as valuable an ally as Turkey.