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White House Avoids Calling Massacre Of Armenians Genocide

  • RFE/RL

People mourn at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Museum in Yerevan on April 21.

People mourn at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Museum in Yerevan on April 21.

WASHINGTON -- The White House has stopped short of using the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire two days ahead of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

The White House said in a statement that chief of staff Denis McDonough and deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes met with Armenian-American leaders on April 21 and "discussed the significance of this occasion for honoring the 1.5 million lives extinguished during that horrific period."

But the statement did not use the word "genocide."

Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said the officials informed him and others at the meeting that U.S. President Barack Obama would not use the word “genocide” in his planned April 24 speech commemorating the tragedy.

“We’re outraged,” Hamparian told RFE/RL.

"Essentially, what we’ve done as a country is we’ve outsourced our policy on the Armenian genocide to Recep [Tayyip] Erdogan, the president of Turkey,” he said. “We’ve allowed him, a foreign leader, to dictate to us what we can and can’t say about this human rights issue."

During his 2008 campaign for the White House, then-Senator Obama pledged to "recognize the Armenian genocide."

The slaughter and deportation of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks is considered by many historians and several nations as genocide.

Turkey objects, saying that Armenians died in much smaller numbers and because of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate the Christian minority.

The White House said that U.S. officials “know and respect that there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year” and alluded to the potential fallout with Turkey should Obama describe the tragedy as a genocide.

“We understand their perspective, even as we believe that the approach we have taken in previous years remains the right one -- both for acknowledging the past, and for our ability to work with regional partners to save lives in the present,” a senior U.S. administration official said.

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat-California) said he was "deeply disappointed" by Obama’s decision.

"The United States has long prided itself for being a beacon of human rights, for speaking out against atrocity, for confronting painful chapters of its own past and that of others," Schiff said. "This cannot be squared with a policy of complicity in genocide denial by the president or Congress."

Also on April 21, the White House announced that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will lead a presidential delegation to Armenia on April 24, when the country will commemorate the anniversary of the killings.

The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, Richard Mills, and four lawmakers will also be included in the delegation.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and national-security adviser Susan Rice met with Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington.

In brief comments to reporters, neither Kerry nor Cavusoglu mentioned Armenia or the upcoming April 24 anniversary.

The White House said Rice encouraged Cavusoglu to take "concrete steps to improve relations with Armenia and to facilitate an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the 1915 atrocities."

The European Parliament on April 15 overwhelmingly passed a resolution which uses the word "genocide" to describe the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, triggering angry reactions in Turkey.

Pope Francis sparked a diplomatic row on April 12 by saying the killings were widely considered "the first genocide of the 20th century," quoting from a 2001 statement by Pope John Paul II and the Armenian patriarch.

His remarks prompted Turkey to summon the Vatican's ambassador to Ankara and to recall its own.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters