The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly reaffirmed that the U.S. government should recognize the century-old killings of 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide.
The resolution, which is not legally binding, marked the first time in 35 years that either chamber of Congress labeled as genocide the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which is now modern-day Turkey, between 1915 and 1923 . A similar House resolution passed in 1984.
Support for the measure — particularly among some Democrats — grew after Turkey’s recent offensive against the Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border, which killed about 200 Kurds and displaced more than 200,000.
“Given that the Turks are once again involved in ethnic cleansing the population — this time the Kurds who live along the Turkish-Syrian border — it seemed all the more appropriate to bring up a resolution about the Ottoman efforts to annihilate an entire people in the Armenian genocide,” said resolution sponsor Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).
The vote on the bipartisan resolution came on the heels of House passage of economic sanctions against Turkey.
Turkey crossed the border on Oct. 9 and began attacks across a broad swath of northern Syria after President Trump’s announcement that U.S. forces would withdraw from the area. The United States had previously allied with Syrian Kurdish forces against Islamic State militants. The withdrawal drew swift condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans.
More than 40 states, including California, and several countries have recognized the genocide. But the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge it. And the U.S. government has stopped short of recognizing it by calling the deaths an “atrocity.”
The Turkish government acknowledges that the killings occurred but rejects the use of the term “genocide” to describe it, saying other countries should not pass legislation judging another nation’s history.
Schiff, who represents many of the estimated 200,000 Armenians living in Los Angeles County, has pushed the government for decades to recognize the genocide but hasn’t been able to overcome opposition from the Turkish government, a NATO ally.
Although there are no plans to bring the companion resolution up for a vote in the Senate, Schiff said the 405-11 bipartisan vote sent a strong message. “The Turkish lobby has few friends and allies anymore,” he said.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas) questioned why the House was taking time to debate a nonbinding resolution dealing with atrocities committed 100 years ago when Congress had a lot left to accomplish in scant days before the end of the year, including preventing the government from shutting down when its spending authority expires Nov. 21.
“It remains unclear why we are urgently considering this resolution,” he said.
But longtime supporter of the effort Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge) said it was important for the United States to take a stance, even so long after the fact.
“It is critical that we counteract Turkey’s genocide denial because genocide denial is the last act of a genocide,” Sherman said. “First, you obliterate a people, then you seek to obliterate their memory, and finally you seek to obliterate the memory of the obliteration.”
Southern California is home to the largest Armenian community outside Armenia, and each spring, thousands march on a day of remembrance.