By Marlo Safi,
On Tuesday, a historic vote took place in the House on a simple resolution to recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when Ottoman Turkey massacred 1.5 million Armenians and other Christian minorities in the Empire, including Assyrians and Greeks. For the descendants of victims of the Armenian genocide, congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s attempt to justify her “present” vote when H.R. 296 was on the House floor was not only inappropriate, but featured the common denial tactics used by deniers of the Armenian genocide. Omar was the only Democrat to not vote in favor of the resolution, which was bipartisan and included only 11 nay votes (all Republicans).
Omar’s office sent a statement to CNN explaining her vote:
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 based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics. A true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country. For this reason, I voted ‘present’ on final passage of H.Res. 296, the resolution Affirming the Unites States record on the Armenian Genocide.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has been relying on his country’s inclusion in the NATO alliance as leverage over the U.S. That alliance could become especially fraught if the U.S. were to affirm that the genocide was indeed a “genocide,” something we haven’t done since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. (Denial of the Armenian genocide is widespread in Turkey.) Omar’s relationship with Turkey and Erdogan — whom she met with in 2017 — is a legitimate subject of inquiry, especially following her “No” vote on sanctioning Turkey following its offensive against Kurdish forces (which took place on the same day as the Armenian genocide resolution). Her position on both House resolutions is significant given that the vote counts in both were bipartisan and overwhelming. 27
The mention of an “academic consensus” being necessary for recognition is perplexing, given the consensus among historians that the genocide is historical fact. To dispute the existence of this consensus is shameful and akin to denial. For Omar to invoke a “whataboutist” argument, as she does in mentioning Native Americans, similarly discounts the matter that she was expected to consider exclusively when the resolution was on the House floor. Genocide-denial tactics used by Turkey include attacking the motivations of the truth teller. Omar does the same thing by framing this bill as a political cudgel (which it’s not — H.Res. 296 was introduced in April). An acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide does not preclude an acknowledgment of any other genocides, and Omar could have voiced her opinion on the atrocities she cites after voting to recognize the one that her colleagues resoundingly voted in favor or formally recognizing.
Omar’s decision, as well as the decision of eleven Republicans to oppose the bill, fails to live up to the role of a witness of justice. There is no justice without recognition, and opposing measures that aim to affirm the U.S.’ stance as a protector of the persecuted is dishonorable. Victims of genocide die two deaths. Once at the hands of their persecutor, and again when the genocide is denied.