WASHINGTON—With an overwhelming vote of 405 to 11, and 3 voting present, the U.S. House of Representatives cast a historic vote on October 29, ending Ankara’s 35 year veto on honest U.S. remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, rejecting U.S. complicity in Turkey’s denial of this crime, and calling for education about the Armenian Genocide aimed at helping prevent modern-day atrocities.
Introduced by House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Florida Republican Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) in April, 2019, the measure (H.Res.296) had been gaining momentum in recent weeks, particularly following Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. By October 22nd, one week prior to the day of the vote, news about a possible House action on the measure began to surface. “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,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Engel told reporters, according to an NPR report.
And the countdown to the vote began.
T-7 and Counting: ANCA Issues Call to Action; Congressional Armenian Caucus Rallies Support; Coalition To Adopt H.Res.296 Grows
On the Congressional front, with the House Majority Leader announcing that H.Res.296 would be on the House agenda the following week, Armenian Genocide Resolution lead sponsors Adam Schiff and Gus Bilirakis and the combined leadership of the Congressional Armenian Caucus started calling on their colleagues to end U.S. complicity in Turkey’s genocide denial and bring America back to the right side on the Armenian Genocide. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA), whose Assyrian-American father and Armenian-American mother had both survived the Armenian Genocide, offered a very personal and passionate plea for immediate action on the measure.
The ANCA’s regional and local chapters stepped up district-by-district outreach to all 435 Congressional offices through calls, meetings, and letters. The ANCA Rapid Responder system – which allows advocates to take immediate action on pressing Armenian American concerns was working full swing, with over 10,000 letters sent to Congressional offices within the first 48 hours. Then the ANCA’s Quick Connect Call nationwide campaign directly connected thousands of constituents to their legislators, with the ANCA upgrading its servers to accommodate both email and phone traffic in the days leading up to the call. ANCA Western and Eastern U.S. spokespeople took to the Armenian news airwaves urging the broadest possible Armenian American civic participation. Armenian Youth Federation Eastern and Western U.S. mobilized on social media. The ANCA’s Aram Hamparian was offering daily updates from Washington.
By the weekend, some two dozen ANCA staff and volunteers were headed from states across the U.S. with a singular mission – to meet with all 435 Congressional offices, information in hand, to answer questions and gauge support for the October 29th vote – building on constituent input they had received not only over the past week – but over some 3 decades of steady grassroots effort.
By Monday morning, after a briefing at the ANCA headquarters, the ANCA Government Affairs Director Tereza Yerimyan led the action teams to Capitol Hill for non-stop Congressional outreach that lasted until the last vote was cast on H.Res.296.
In many cases, as team members were entering Congressional offices to offer their views, staffers were fielding calls from district constituents urging the legislator to “Vote Yes on H.Res.296”. There were meetings where teams were warmly greeted by the intern or staff assistant at the office and quickly directed to the respective staffer working on H.R. 296. In certain offices, within two minutes, multiple staff members assured them, “it will not be a problem and you should expect a yes.”
The flip side was true as well –with the office of Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) a classic example. ANCA Western Region Community Outreach Coordinator Simon Maghakyan reported via Twitter that Rep. Johnson’s Chief of Staff – Murat Gokcikdem – announced that the Congresswoman would definitely vote ‘no’ in solidarity with the staffer, “since he is a Turk.” Maghakyan told the staffer that during the Genocide, his great-grandmother was saved by a kind woman of Turkish origin – to which the staffer reportedly replied “she was a traitor.” Rep. Johnson, who voted ‘present’ would be the only U.S. House member submitting a statement opposing the measure.
As the number of meetings grew, team members were impatiently keeping a tally and reporting updates to our national, regional offices and local chapters for action. Constituents from districts where the U.S. Representative had not yet made a decision were encouraged to step up calls – to ensure the community’s voice is heard.
Allies in the Greek, Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac, Christian communities including the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), American Hellenic Institute, American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association (AHEPA), In Defense of Christians, The Philos Project, A Demand for Action and so many others issued statements, op/eds, and their own community calls to action in support of the measure. Jewish American organizations – including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League – which had opposed similar legislation in the past, sent letters to Congressional offices and turned to social media to share their support for the legislation.
T-1: House Rules Committee Clears Path for House Consideration of H.Res.296
On Monday evening, October 28th, with phones still ringing in Congressional offices, the ANCA team split into two groups – those continuing Congressional visits and those attending the House Rules Committee meeting where Members of Congress would decide how the Armenian Genocide Resolution would be discussed.
All resolutions coming to the House floor must have a “rule” by which they would be considered. Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) opened the hearing with powerful opening remarks, stating that H.Res.296 “is an opportunity for the House to speak loudly about the Armenian Genocide and finally acknowledge what it actually was, a genocide. Although the executive branch has issued proclamations and Congress has passed measures over the years on this, none in modern times have actually relayed all the facts and called it what it really was. Enough with the euphemisms, facts are important, speaking the truth is important, and if dark chapters in our history are not acknowledged, they are doomed to be repeated.“
Chairman Engel, House Foreign Affairs Committee Senior member Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Eshoo offered powerful testimony as to why H.Res.296 should come directly to the House floor, without Committee consideration, for immediate consideration.
“Many of us are concerned with what’s going on in various parts of the world. The Armenian Genocide is a Genocide, and many of us are concerned with, frankly, others, including the Kurds. It is happening right now and Turkey is again in the thick of things. So, I think if there was never a right time to release this before, now is definitely the right time,” said Chairman Engel.
“They [Turkey] threaten other countries! They threaten us! When I had a hearing in 2000, the ambassador of Turkey, because I had both sides at the table – the Armenians and the Turks – he threatened us with Incirlik. Frankly, with a friend like that in NATO, who needs enemies?” said Rep. Smith.
Procedural opposition to the resolution was raised by Congressman Rob Woodall (R-GA) and Rules Committee Ranking Republican Tom Cole (R-OK), who noted that H.Res.296 is moving straight to the House floor without a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Chairman McGovern, Chairman Engel and Rep. Smith responded noting that multiple Congressional hearings about the Armenian Genocide had been held over the years, and that the resolution had the support of both Chairman Engel and the Ranking Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Mike McCaul (R-TX).
Other Rules Committee members speaking in favor of the measure included Rep. Joseph Morelle (D-NY), who noted his support for Armenian Genocide legislation when he served in the New York State Assembly and Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), who is of Lebanese origin and who described how her Maronite family was displaced during the Armenian Genocide. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) noted that she was an original cosponsor of the measure and supports its adoption, and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), noted that she learned about the Armenian Genocide through archives in Pennsylvania and the Mher Statue in downtown Philadelphia.
In the end, the Rules Committee recommended a “closed” rule – meaning no changes would be offered on the House floor, with one hour of debate regarding the measure.
After the hearing, Rep. Eshoo and Rep. Smith, both decades long advocates of Armenian Genocide legislation, were in tears, hugging Armenian American advocates who praised their leadership on the issue – with anticipation high for a full House floor consideration of the measure.
T-0: Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.296): The Debate on the Rule
The morning of October 29 – the day of full House floor consideration of the Armenian Genocide Resolution – volunteers and staff gathered at the ANCA office at 8:00 am for a final huddle with Hamparian and Yerimyan before heading to the Hill for a final series of visits to Congressional offices yet undecided on H.Res.296.
The constituent calls through the ANCA’s Quick Connect Congressional outreach portal got a sudden boost with Kim Kardashian tweeting her support for the Armenian Genocide Resolution and encouraging fans to visit anca.org/call to contact their legislators. ANCA IT Director Nerses Semerjian upgraded the ANCA’s contract for the remote servers handling the calls to accommodate the increased civic participation.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) offered a one minute morning statement before the House began its official order of the day. “It is time that we recognize the genocide because genocide denial is the last act of the genocide. First, you obliterate a people; then, you seek to obliterate their memory; and, finally, you seek to obliterate the memory of the obliteration. But genocide denial is also the first step in the next genocide,” stated Sherman.
Similarly, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), stated, “Today, I stand with my constituents from across my district, but particularly from Watertown, Massachusetts, home to a thriving Armenian diaspora community, to urge this House to pass H. Res. 296 and recognize this crime against humanity for what it was, a genocide.”
By noon, the ANCA staff and teams of volunteers had gone up to the House Gallery to watch the Congressional debate live. It was a diverse crowd including Armenian Ambassador to the U.S. Varuzhan Nersesyan, Republic of Artsakh Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian, Republic of Artsakh Representative Robert Avetisyan, ANCA staff and volunteers, Armenian Americans from various organizations and backgrounds– veteran advocates to children 7 and up.
WATCH THE DAY’S EVENT
By 12:39 p.m. EST, Chairman McGovern began the debate on the “Rule”, to confirm the Committee’s recommendation from the night before. Adoption of the “Rule” would clear the way for U.S. House consideration of H.Res.296 later in the day; failure would kill the measure altogether. Veteran advocates knew that in 1985 and 1987, previous Armenian Genocide legislation had been defeated because the Rule was voted down – so this portion of the consideration was critical.
A shortened recap of the debate includes:
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX): While there is historic precedent for recognizing the Armenian genocide, passing such a resolution today could complicate the situation with a NATO ally. Previously, this has resulted in protests at and around the Incirlik Air Base that have affected our men and women in uniform who were stationed there. While the desire to recognize the Armenian genocide is laudable, these events took place over 100 years ago. It remains unclear why we are urgently considering this resolution.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA): I am disappointed and somewhat offended at the implication that this is not an important matter. Let me remind him that 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and the emerging nation of Turkey. Let me remind him of the countless hundreds of thousands of people who had to flee because of that oppression. Let me also remind him that it is not the official policy of the United States Government.
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL): My grandparents left the Ottoman Empire to escape that genocide just ahead, but their relatives were not as lucky. My grandparents were Maronites. I remember my grandmother’s tears as she spoke of their Armenian friends and the many Maronites and Amalekites who were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire. As a child, I remember the tears and the suffering of our Armenian neighbors and the many members of the other communities whose tears I could not erase.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA): I have just returned from Armenia, where I went to the Armenian Genocide Museum. I cannot get the pictures that I saw out of my mind: Armenian women and children murdered in mass graves, Armenian leaders hung as examples to others, Armenians forced onto long death marches without food or water. This vote to finally acknowledge the Armenian genocide should have come sooner, because of people in my district like Joseph ‘‘Bebo’’ Manjikian. When I met him, he was 104, but from his wheelchair, he told me about the many family members he lost in the genocide. Bebo passed away before he could see this day. He didn’t forget them, and neither can we.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ): This crime against humanity would serve as the blueprint for other genocides in the Nazi concentration camps and massacres in Poland, Germany, and eastern Europe and, more recently, in Bosnia and Rwanda. The passage of this resolution is an important step in raising awareness and showing the world that we have a commitment to human rights and the dignity of every human life.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA): It is heartbreaking that some choose to deny our past rather than to learn from this painful moment in history. It is an insult to millions who died and the millions who risked their lives to escape violence. Denial is all too easy. It is harder to face the truth, and facing the truth is the right thing to do. When we rewrite the darkest chapters of our history, we open the door to them happening again. The United States cannot be complicit in that denial.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR): Mr. Speaker, for years, we have danced around this. It is complex with the Turks, in terms of the relationship that we have tried to deal with. But denying genocide has not helped resolve those issues. It hasn’t changed the behavior of the Turks. Look at what is happening with the Kurds today. Failure to acknowledge this horrific episode is a burden for us all—standing up for human rights, acknowledging the truth, giving a sense of closure and solace to the people who endured this horrific activity, and making sure that we are united in our opposition to those genocidal activities.
The House adopted the “Rule” by a highly partisan vote of 223-191 – an expected outcome as “closed” rules are always highly politicized with the majority party (in this case, Democrats) voting in favor and the minority party (in the case, Republicans) opposing.
T-0: Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.296): The Discussion on the Resolution
2:19 p.m. EST: This was the House floor debate everyone was waiting for – the main discussion of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, leading to a vote on the measure. Chairman Engel opened up the proceedings managing the discussion for Democratic speakers; Rep. Chris Smith managed the discussion for Republican speakers. A snapshot of the remarks follow:
Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY): Many American politicians, diplomats, and institutions have rightly recognized these atrocities as a genocide, including America’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henry Morgenthau, and later, President Ronald Reagan. It is time that we set the record straight. Only by shining a light on the darkest parts of our history can we learn to not repeat them. And properly acknowledging what has occurred is a necessary step in achieving some measure of justice for the victims.
Rep. Chris Smith (D-NJ): The resolution also points out that the U.S. played a major role in the humanitarian relief efforts and, of course, the Near East Relief agency saved tens of thousands of Armenians and others. As a matter of fact, the historian, Howard Sachar, noted it ‘‘quite literally kept an entire nation alive,’’ and that is reflected in the resolution. Yet, today, the Armenian genocide is the only genocide of the 20th century where survivors, family, and all those who care about this important issue, have been subjected to the ongoing outrage of a massive, well-funded, aggressive campaign of genocide denial, openly sustained and lavishly funded by the State authority, in this case, the Government of Turkey.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD): This resolution, Mr. Speaker, recognizes the horrific and systematic efforts to commit genocide against the Armenian people a century ago. There can be no denial of the Armenian genocide, which is evidenced by historical documentation and the emotional scars still borne by the descendants of its survivors. It was a campaign of ethnic cleansing committed by the Ottoman Empire during and after the First World War, and it led to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians alongside other targeted groups.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA): 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 from Turkish bombs and marauding militias, how can we truly say the crimes of a century ago are in the past? We cannot. We cannot pick and choose which crimes against humanity are convenient to speak about. We cannot cloak our support of human rights in euphemisms. We cannot be cowed into silence by a foreign power.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA): This is deeply personal for me. I am the only Member of Congress of Armenian Assyrian descent and one of only three of Armenian heritage in the House of Representatives—I think in the entire Congress, Senate and House. Some of you know that I had members of my own family who were among those that perished, and my parents fled with theirs to America. As my father said: The best idea that was ever born was America.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY): 104 years ago, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Empire in the first genocide of the 20th century. Ever since, Armenian communities from across the world, including those in my district, have been forced to fight for recognition and justice for Turkey’s denial in so many ways, from the illegal invasion of Cyprus by Turkey to the vicious attacks on Kurds within and without the borders of Turkey.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA): Even Russia’s President Putin had said the Armenian people ‘‘went through one of the greatest tragedies in human history.’’ Iran’s former Vice President stated: ‘‘The Ottoman Turkey Government perpetrated genocide in 1915.’’ If our rivals can talk about this, if they can take a stand, certainly we can. Armenian genocide, we must say it here: It happened, and it will never happen again. We must make that commitment.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL): Genocides, wherever and whenever they occur, cannot be ignored, whether they took place in the 20th century by the Ottoman Turks or mid-20th century by the Third Reich and in Darfur. Genocide must be acknowledged for what it is: a scourge on the human race. Genocide is genocide, Mr. Speaker, even if our so-called strategic allies perpetrated it.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI): In order to prevent future genocides and mass atrocities, it is vital that we never forget those that have already occurred. For too long, we have allowed foreign interests to lobby the United States in favor of turning the other way and not wholly recognizing the truth of the Armenian genocide. That ends today.
Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA): Many of these survivors settled in my district in the San Joaquin Valley, where they lived and their children have enjoyed the blessings of liberty and lived the American Dream. This incredible, diverse valley that I have the honor to represent we sometimes refer to as the Land of William Saroyan, a noted Armenian author. And Fresno State University is the only university in the United States that has a memorial dedicated to the Armenian genocide, a very moving memorial to their ancestors.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA): The United States of America should never be afraid to tell the truth, and yet, for too long, we did not recognize the Armenian genocide. That ends today. The House of Representatives is going to formally recognize the Armenian genocide.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): I rise to join my colleagues in solemn remembrance of one of the great atrocities of the 20th century, the systematic murder of more than 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children by the Ottoman Empire.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD): However, Turkey’s actions against the Kurds in Syria have reinforced what many of us have long known: Erdogan’s Turkey does not stand for human rights or religious freedom, but instead spreads authoritarianism wherever it goes. Erdogan’s disdain for democracy and contempt for an ally was on display 2 years ago when his bodyguards attacked peaceful demonstrators right here in our Nation’s Capital.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI): To many Americans of Armenian descent who continue to strengthen our country today, we honor those contributions with an honest statement of history, recognizing the massacre of 1.5 Armenians as the 20th century’s first genocide.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX): I rise in support of finally having this Nation take this stand. Bloodshed and genocide should not be tolerated no matter how long we have come to that. And so I stand with the words that we now, therefore, will commemorate as the United States of America the Armenian genocide through official recognition and remembrance. We will reject efforts to enlist, engage, or otherwise associate the United States Government with the denial of the Armenian genocide or any other genocide.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX): This counterproductive resolution does not tell the full story of the region during World War I and reopens a wound between Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and other ethnic groups in the region. Favoring the preferred storyline of one of these groups without considering information provided by other ethnic groups in the region would serve as a failure on our part to do our due diligence and hear out all sides on this matter of historic significance. No hearings have been held on this resolution and it has come to the floor without being marked up by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA): I am honored to have supported this resolution my entire tenure in Congress. Although it should not have taken this long, today is a historic day in that the House is finally acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, recognizing the heroic efforts of many in our government to help the Armenian people, and honoring the victims of this tragedy.
T-0: Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.296): The Vote
5 p.m. EST: The presiding officer Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) calls the U.S. House of Representatives to order, calls for the reading of the title of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.296), and gives 15 minutes for Members of Congress to cast their votes.
Armenians in the House Gallery and across the U.S. were impatiently watching the vote tally to see the outcome. For a great portion of the 15 minutes, very few people had voted leaving followers concerned about the outcome. The 15 minutes came and went, with a majority of Members having still not voted. Since it was the first vote of that hour, the timeline was extended. Members of Congress could be seen on the House floor milling about waiting for the votes to come in. Two-hundred-eighteen would be the magic number for victory. As the number crept up – 210 – 216 – 218 – 221 – cheering could be heard from the gallery, with the children leading the way. Two Armenian American members of Congress – Rep. Jackie Speier and Rep. Anna Eshoo – could be seen hugging. Republicans and Democrats – often at odds on broader political issues – shook hands in celebration. As the number rises – 300 – 350 – 400… the gavel is struck and the vote is announced – 405 to 11 and 3 voting present.
A roaring cheer can be heard from the House Gallery, with members of the U.S. House – including Speaker Nancy Pelosi – waving to ANCA activists in acknowledgment. Cheers were shared by social media across the country and the world. Armenian school children – in the U.S. and Canada – who had set aside classwork to follow the proceedings were seen jumping for joy. The ANCA Facebook and Twitter feeds erupted in response to the U.S. House decision.
After 35 years – the U.S. House had spoken with overwhelming force in support of honest remembrance of the Armenian Genocide – breaking Turkey’s veto on U.S. policy regarding this crime.
As the Armenian Americans in the U.S. House Gallery were leaving, they were greeted by Rep. Eshoo and Rep. Shalala – hugging and celebrating the House’s principled position.
Many of those in the House Gallery would go to the Embassy of Armenia for a brief celebration. But the tens of thousands of ANCA supporters following the measure – on Capitol Hill and across the U.S. – had already set their sights on the next challenge – Senate adoption of the measure (S.Res.150).
And, the ANCA’s battle for truth and Armenian Genocide justice continues.