Last week, the U.S. House voted to recognize the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre and displacement of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. This angered the government of Turkey, which has consistently denied that genocide occurred.
The vote in the house was a bipartisan and overwhelming 405-11. Of the dissenters, by far the most attention has been focused on Ilhan Omar (D-Minn), who voted present.
Why Omar Didn’t Vote Yes
Omar’s office provided a statement to explain her vote. The statement seemed to indicate questions about the ‘academic consensus’ regarding this genocide and the sentiment that it is problematic to condemn one genocide without in the same breath condemning all others. This statement was widely and justifiably criticized (perhaps her staff did not realize how much scrutiny it would receive and how carefully each word of it would be parsed), and she altered her rationale somewhat in further clarifications released later on. Taking her at her word those are not the points that she meant, here is the excerpt from her original statement that seems to most accurately reflect her reason for not voting yes:
I believe accountability for human rights violations — especially ethnic cleansing and genocide — is paramount. But accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight. It should be done. . . outside the push and pull of geopolitics.
Timing Was Political
There is, in fact, ample evidence that last week’s resolution was not the product of the U.S. house wanting to finally address events of over a hundred years ago, or learning new information about history. Instead, it was intended to send a message in the context of current frictions with Turkey’s government.
Adam Schiff (D-Calif), whose district contains the largest concentration of Armenian Americans in the U.S., has been sponsoring this resolution for the last 19 years. In all that time it was never allowed to the floor for a vote. This is because of pressure from the Turkish government and Turkey’s status as a NATO ally. More recently, Turkey has been an important ally for U.S. forces operating in Iraq and then Syria, so the U.S. did not want to risk rupturing that relationship. Now, with the U.S. and Turkey at odds over Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria, there seemed to be a sense that a political poke in the eye for Turkey would be right.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) indicated a clear connection to current tensions when he told reporters “I’m sure the government of Turkey is not happy with [these plans], but then again we’re not happy with the government of Turkey.” In the runup to the resolution, Schiff explicitly argued that it was necessary to condemn the Armenian genocide now in order to further rebuke Turkey for its actions against the Kurds.
Omar’s View of When Genocide Should be Condemned
So Ilhan Omar’s position seems to be that she is absolutely in agreement with condemning the Armenian genocide. But she wants that to be done for its own sake, just because issuing that condemnation is the right thing to do. She believes genocide condemnation should not be used to further an unrelated political agenda or to send a message in a separate fight.
In a sense, Omar is quite close to articulating here what must be the guiding principle in all human rights advocacy and investigation. Genocide, along with all other human rights violations, are wrong. They must be condemned consistently and even handedly, regardless of which direction the political winds are blowing. Turkey’s strategic importance to the U.S. or the current state of U.S.- Turkey relations shouldn’t matter- genocide should be condemned (and punished) whether the perpetrator is an enemy or an ally.
Reasons To Vote Yes
But of course, there’s an opposing view. “Is there a right or wrong time to … stand up for justice that she claims to be a champion for?” asked the Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul.
Adam Schiff, the bill’s primary sponsor, seemed to sense Omar’s criticism in his speech on the House floor before the vote. Here’s what he said:
It is always the right time to recognize genocide, but it is particularly so today. For when we see the images of terrified Kurdish families in Northern Syria, loading their possessions into cars or carts and fleeing their homes headed to nowhere except away from Turkish bombs and marauding militias, how can we say the crimes of a century ago are in the past?
In other words, Schiff is saying that yes, this should have been done decades ago, Turkish feelings be damned. But it wasn’t. So even though now this condemnation is motivated primarily by current events rather than historical truth, that isn’t a reason not to do it. And if passing this resolution now can help combat war crimes today that is a good thing, after all. Isn’t the primary benefit of debating the past to learn lessons that help us build a better future?
Conflict Between Peace, Truth, and Justice
So who is right? I turn to the end of the first chapter of the Mishnaic Tractate Ethics of the Fathers. Rabban Gamliel says that the world stands on three things: On justice, on truth, and on peace.
In other words, justice, truth, and peace are all necessary, but they are all quite different and at times can even conflict with one another. In this case, the U.S. government has insisted for years that insistence on truth regarding the Armenian genocide would endanger peace as embodied by a strong U.S.- Turkey alliance via NATO. Then again, if we don’t promulgate the truth about what happened in World War I, it emboldens the descendants of those who committed that injustice to carry out further injustices today against similar enemies, such as the Kurds.
As we work to further respect for human rights, we need to be conscious of this balance. We need to speak out for truth, but at the same time not forget the real consequences for peace that a total or blind commitment to truth or justice may bring.
View news coverage of this issue, including sources quoted above, here:
Photo is of Ottoman military forces marching Armenians to an execution site. From the U.S. Holocaust Museum.