A century on, regional politics force White House to avoid the term 'Armenian genocide'

Four leading US senators introduced a resolution this week to recognize as a genocide the 1915 slaughter of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by the Ottomans.

April 23, 2015 22:39
1 minute read.
armenia genocide

People mourn at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Museum in Yerevan. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON -- One hundred years since a flailing Ottoman Empire slaughtered 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, the casting of that massacre is still politicized in the United States.

On Capitol Hill, four leading senators introduced a resolution this week which would recognize the event for "what it was: a targeted ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population," Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said in a statement.

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"This resolution makes clear that it is unacceptable to deny the facts and history of the Armenian Genocide and continue to silence the voices of those who perished," he continued, releasing his comment alongside co-sponsors Mark Kirk (R-IL), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Cory Gardner (R-CO).

But at the White House, the president and his team have once again made the decision not to use the term "genocide" in referencing the event. The president, instead, will use "frank" language to describe the atrocities of 1915, in commemorative remarks on the anniversary of the massacre on April 24.

"We know there are some who I think were hoping to hear some different language this year. We certainly understand their perspective," State Department Acting Spokesperson Marie Harf said on Wednesday. "Even as we believe that the approach we have taken in previous years remains the right one– and again, the approach we’re taking this year– both for acknowledging the past and also for our ability to work with regional partners to save lives in the future."

Harf is referring to only one regional partner: Turkey, a NATO ally which plays a specific strategic role in the US-led fight against Islamic State militants. While Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 vowing to recognize the Armenian genocide, his current calculus appears primarily concerned with that theater.

The White House has provided no evidence that Turkey, overlooking the fight against Islamic State on its borders, would change its role to a less cooperative one should Obama use the term. Nevertheless, the calculation is an old one, faced by several presidents before him, challenging the US-Turkey relationship and the liberal American tradition of human rights advocacy.

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