This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide—when Ottoman authorities arrested more than 200 prominent ethnic Armenians living in Constantinople in 1915. Also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the Medz Yeghern (“Great Crime” in Armenian) refers to the systemic extermination and mass deportation of ethnic Armenians living within the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I. Ultimately, more than 1.5 million were killed, and millions more were displaced from their ancestral homelands in Anatolia. Each year, on Apr. 24, Armenians all over the world honor the dead, along with the governments of more than 20 nations, including Canada, Sweden, Italy, France, Argentina, and Russia, to name a few.
The United States of America—home to the second-largest Armenian community outside of Armenia—does not.
On Mar. 18, 2015, four US congressmen—representatives Robert Dold of Illinois, Adam Schiff of California, David Valadao of California, and Frank Pallone of New Jersey—introduced a bipartisan resolution to formally recognize the Armenian genocide at the federal level. According to a press release, the Armenian Truth and Justice Resolution “calls upon the administration to work toward equitable, constructive and durable Armenian-Turkish relations based upon the Republic of Turkey’s full acknowledgement of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.”
That last part is important. If you’re wondering what’s kept the US government from recognizing the Armenian genocide all these years, the answer is simple: the Republic of Turkey. The successor state to the Ottoman Empire has adamantly denied the Armenian genocide for decades—preferring to characterize the violence as part of the broader chaos that broke out in the wake of World War I. Historians generally agree that Turkey’s Armenians were targeted for supposedly cooperating with the Russians during the war. Others, however, point out that interethnic animosity between Turks and Armenians stretches back hundreds of years.
In 2014, members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations adopted a resolution to “remember and observe the the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on Apr. 24.” Turkey’s government objected strongly, claiming the verbiage (referring to the conflict as a “genocide,” to be precise) “distorts history and law.”
“We condemn those who led this prejudiced initiative,” the Turkish foreign ministry wrote in a statement.
In January 2015, sitting Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an “impartial board of historians” to review the matter. “If the results actually reveal that we have committed a crime, if we have a price to pay, then as Turkey we would assess it and take the required steps,” he told Turkish state media, according to Agence France-Presse. “If [the Armenians] are really sincere in this matter, let us give it to the historians. Let the historians deal with the matter. We have opened our archive and presented more than a million documents,” he added. “If Armenia also has an archive, then they should open it too … Then we can sit and talk as politicians.”
Armenian leaders have refused any such arrangement, believing—along with most of the world—the genocide to be a fact of history. The concern therefore is that any supposed “impartial review” would actually serve as an opportunity for the Turkish government to its revisionisms into mainstream thought. Yerevan, rightfully so, is not willing to compromise the truths of what is probably the most definitive event in modern Armenian history.
And yet, despite what appears to be blatant doublespeak on the part of Turkish lawmakers, the US government remains steadfastly silent on the issue. At the same time, it’s not exactly difficult to determine why. Given the fraught nature of US operations in the Middle East today, it’s likely the nominal recognition of the Armenian genocide isn’t a top priority for the White House or state department—Turkey being a key regional ally.
These political considerations doesn’t cut it with everyone in Washington, however.
“But we cant’t play politics with something this important,” Dold insisted to Quartz. “This is about recognizing right versus wrong.” For Dold, it’s also an issue that hits close to home—he represents Illinois’s tenth congressional district, home to a sizable community of Armenian diaspora. “I have constituents whose family members were lost in the genocide,” he explains.
But, for Dold, the need for formal, US recognition of the genocide goes far beyond even what it would mean to Armenian Americans. “It’s not just an obligation to the Armenians, it’s an obligation to mankind,” he says. The purpose of federal recognition is to create an official framework to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring. He notes an infamous quote attributed to Adolf Hitler, when briefing his generals before the 1939 invasion of Poland: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
“If we really want to believe ‘never again,’” Dold says, recalling the popular slogan for Holocaust remembrance, “We first have to recognize what’s gone on.”