WASHINGTON, DC – Senators Spencer Abraham (R-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) were joined by House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-VA), International Relations Committee Chairman Ben Gilman (R-NY), Democratic Whip David Bonior (D-MI), and more than thirty-five other Members of Congress at the Armenian National Committee of America’s (ANCA) May 2nd Capitol Hill observance of the 85th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
The Senators and Representatives participating in this 6th annual observance represented a diverse, bipartisan cross-section of Congress united by their support for passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution. Among those at the event who spoke forcefully for its adoption were the lead co-sponsors of this legislation, introduced by Rep. George Radanovich (R-CA), Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), and Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ). H.Res.398 reaffirms the extensive U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide. It represents a Congressional effort to ensure that all Americans, including elected officials and diplomats abroad, learn the lessons of the Armenian Genocide in order to ensure that such terrible crimes are never again visited upon the Armenians or any other peoples.
More than thirty members of Congress delivered remarks during the program, which was presided over by ANCA Eastern U.S. Steering Committee member Aram Sarafian. In addition to Congressional speeches, attendees heard remarks from Armenia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Armand Kirakosian, Armenian Parliamentarian Alvart Petrosian, and Nagorno Karabagh Public Affairs Office Director Vardan Barseghian. Georgia Armenian community activist Aroutioun Agasarkisian and Georgia State Senator Van Streat, who spearheaded legislation commemorating the Armenian Genocide in the Georgia State Senate, presented Amb. Kirakosian with a proclamation from the Mayor of Atlanta marking the Genocide and a letter from former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young.
Genocide survivors Ashkhen Shamigian and Rose Baboyan were honored guest at the observance. Among the senior Administration officials who attended were Amb. Steve Sestanovich, who is responsible for U.S. policy toward the New Independent States; Amb. Carey Cavanaugh, the U.S. negotiator for the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, and; Randy Carlino, the Desk Officer for Armenia. Also in attendance was Keith Bush, a leading figure in the Washington foreign policy community and the Director for Eurasian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Tom Albert, from Democratic National Committee, attended on behalf of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee. Representatives were present as well from the embassies of Greece, Cyprus, Russia, and Ukraine.
Armenian Americans serving on Congressional staff were also well represented by Jim Derderian, chief of staff of the House Commerce Committee; Greg Aftandilian, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-NJ); Dean Shahinian who serves under Sen. Paul Sarbanes on the Minority Staff of the Senate Banking Committee, Raffi Hamparian, foreign affairs aide to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), and Roseanne Haroian, long-time staff member with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). Aram Kailian from the Vice President’s office was also in attendance. The national leadership of a number of Armenian American organizations also participated, including Homenetmen Central Executive member Sarkis Doudaklian, ARS Central Executive chairwoman Maro Minassian, and ARS Eastern Region Chairwoman Taline Daghlian.
Chairman Gilman Offers Moving Remarks, but no Promise of Support for H.Res.398
House International Relations Committee Chairman, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), offered words of remembrance for “those who died almost 85 years ago at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish forces in a campaign of genocidal attacks. Indeed hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in that time as a result of the brutal actions undertaken by the Turkish Ottoman Empire… The independent state of Armenia stands today as clear proof that the Armenian people have been able to survive such attacks and indeed have survived all such challenges throughout the past.” Chairman Gilman did not, however, give any indication that he would schedule Committee action on the Armenian Genocide resolution (H.Res.398). Without this support, the legislation will likely remain bottlenecked in Committee and not reach the House floor for a vote.
Representatives Cite Importance of U.S. Recognition of Armenian Genocide
Throughout their remarks, Representatives called for passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution (H.Res.398), citing the dangers inherent in not holding the perpetrators of genocide accountable for their crimes. Democratic Whip Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), spoke strongly in support of the Genocide resolution, noting that, “We’re here because we want to remind America that the suffering of the Armenian people wasn’t the result of a civil war, but a policy of genocide by the Turkish government. And speaking out and telling that truth has never been more important than it is right now. Because the suffering that was once Armenia’s past could easily become its future. That’s why our efforts can’t end with winning passage of the genocide resolution.
Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes, a vocal advocate for Armenian Genocide recognition and outspoken leader on efforts to maintain Section 907, explained that “not only was it [the Genocide] a horrendous crime inflicted on the Armenian people, but it later served as a terrible model for the Holocaust. This century has witnessed several genocides. If the international community had made an effort then, we may not have had those that came later, and we need to keep that in the forefront of people’s thinking.” Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney (D-MA) concurred, stating that “The failure to act in the 1915-1923 period may well have led to the failure to act in the holocaust, may well have led to the killing fields of Cambodia, may well have led to many atrocities that should not have gone to the extent that they had, and should not have ever started.”
Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), an outspoken human rights activist, expressed concern about the U.S.goverment’s failure to affirm the record of the Genocide. “If the United States government is going to stand for anything, it needs to stand up – four square – in support for human rights. And if we truly care about human rights and believe our rhetoric, then the United States will formally and appropriately recognize the Armenian Genocide. I think its sad that we haven’t done it. We need to redouble our efforts to make sure our government does the right thing and I am with you until we do that.”
Rhode Island Congressman and Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), argued for learning the tragic lessons of the past. “Unfortunately however, because so many people want to deny not only your Genocide but also the Holocaust, we continue to have genocides to this day… the fact of the matter is it will be with us again unless we learn the lessons and make sure we recognize history for what it is. And that is why we need to pass this resolution, to ensure that we make it part of history – to make sure that Turkey will be unable to erase history, because when they erase history, we are bound to repeat history. And we do not want to do that.”
Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD), who visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial last August during her visit to Armenia, noted her commitment to the passage of H.Res.398. “We will continue to work on the [Armenian Genocide] resolution, we will continue to make sure that members of Congress and our constituents all understand that we have people who have families who were destroyed during that genocide and there is a legacy of cleansing which can only take place if we do have that recognition.”
Rep. Joe Moakley (D-MA), the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, said that, “I’m in my 29th year in Congress and every year this bill has come up I have been voting for it. . . It’s a shame that the genocide that wiped out a million and a half Armenians is still not being owned up to by Turkey and we will keep fighting until it happens.”
Members Cite Importance of Including Armenian Genocide Education in School Curriculums
In addition to Armenian Genocide recognition, several members cited the importance of including this human rights issue in school textbooks and curriculum. Former New York State Senator, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), explained that “when I was in the state legislature, I authored a bill that required the teaching of not only the Great Hunger, but of the Holocaust and also the Armenian Genocide into the curriculum of the students in the State of New York. It is probably the bill that I am most proud of that I sponsored in the state legislature. But we need to do one on the national level as well, to keep the pressure on the Turkish Government until one day they recognize what they have done to the Armenian people.”
California Democrat Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) concurred, stating that the “fact that at your school, the Mesrobian School in Montebello, children are being taught the real history, that is important. We need that kind of information in the other schools so that other young people will understand and look at what has happened in past years, in history, and how many ethnic groups and races have been discriminated against – basically they tried to wipe them off the face of the earth. We cannot, as a society, allow that to happen.”
House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Bliley (R-VA), a long-time supporter of Armenian American concerns who will be resigning at the end of this year, noted that “constantly we have to be aware of man’s inhumanity to man. You experienced it tragically 85 years ago, we had the holocaust and we now see what is happening in Bosnia, in Kosovo and the Balkans… It is good people like yourselves who remind us continually that we cannot forget this [the Armenian Genocide] because there are revisionists out there who would like us to forget this. We must remember this in order that we may educate future generations to make sure that it is not repeated in some other part of the world.”
Armenian American Vigilance Cited as Key Factor Gaining U.S. Recognition
Perhaps the most consistent theme of the evening was the importance of the Armenian community’s vigilance in bringing about international recognition and commemoration of the Genocide. Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) stressed that “it is people like yourselves coming down here and your contacting all of us as elected officials that makes the difference. That is the only reason why we continue to get more aid for Armenia, that’s the only reason why we keep Section 907 in place, and it’s the only reason why we will ultimately pass an Armenian Genocide bill in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate – because of all of your involvement.”
House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee member Nita Lowey (D-NY) concurred, stating that “We may have the privilege of serving on the Committee, speaking out for human rights, speaking out against the abuses of the Turks. But the power comes from you – your talking to your representatives. Your helping them understand the pain and suffering of the Armenian people. Your helping us understand why it is so important that we never forget makes the difference.”
Rep. Sue Kelly (R-NY) remarked that she is “so glad to see you here today because what you do is you keep the memory alive about that genocide. You keep it in the forefront and you help us recognize the fact that we need to recognize the fact that this was genocide. We need to acknowledge it, accept it and make sure that the world does that also.”
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), who has announced his candidacy in the Los Angeles mayoral race this November, explaining the growing support for Armenian Genocide recognition, noted that, “it’s not that we know so much, it’s that we have experienced so many things similar in some of our own backgrounds. It’s not difficult to know what to do when you learn about the experience of others. We are all family at the end of the day and we all have to work. But, often times people forget, and it’s up to you to – not to the Members of Congress – its up to you to make sure that you remind those of us who had the good fortune and privilege to get elected that we must do the right thing.”
“I want to thank you for educating me about issues that I did not know much about, and that I now do,” stated Watertown, Massachusetts Representative Michael Capuano (D-MA).”The people that I have dealt with on Armenian issues have all been a forward-looking people and I want to thank you for that.”
Greek American Congressman Michael Bilirakis (R-FL) noted that “I can’t really commend you enough for gathering together, for retaining your heritage, for retaining your religion and the language. We’ve got to keep all of these things alive. Stay with us. Try to remember who your friends are when it comes to elections. I can’t tell you how important that is. I preach it to my Greek Americans all the time, that they must get involved in politics, they must look and see, not just rhetoric and words, but the people who really are there when it counts.”
Growing Call for Turkish Acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide
Throughout their speeches, several members of the House International Relations Committee condemned continued Turkish efforts to deny the Armenian Genocide and urged the Turkish government to own up to its past. Outspoken advocate, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), stressed that, “It’s about time that Turkey follow the lead of other countries who have recognized their own failings. Where would America be today if we did not acknowledge that our treatment of native Americans, that our treatment of African Americans in slavery was wrong, where would we be as a country. Where would Britain be as a country if they did not acknowledge their role in the Irish Famine. Where would Germany be today if they were denying the Holocaust. It is time for Turkey to go forward and the first step is by acknowledging the past.”
Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) concurred, noting “the necessity for the Turks in their own interest, in not just in the interest of truth and justice, but in their own selfish, political interest to acknowledge the Genocide. Because I tell you, they will never be recognized by honorable people – by freedom loving people around the world – no matter what the situation, until they do so.”
Questioning State Department arguments that Armenian Genocide recognition could harm U.S.-Turkey relations, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) explained that “we cannot consider an ally simply an ally because at some times it benefits us. We must be able to look that ally in the eye and say to that ally ‘you must live up to your responsibilities and your obligations both in history as well as for what you do wrong’… We cannot afford to turn our eyes away from the prize and that is getting Turkey to make its commitment and its obligation to recognize what it did during that horrible period of time.”
Members of Congress Rededicate Themselves to “an Independent, Democratic Armenia”
While commemorating the Armenian Genocide, Senators and Representatives also voiced their commitment to the democratic development and economic strengthening of Armenia. Commenting on Armenia’s geopolitical situation, Michigan Republican, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI), stressed that “Armenia has to reach out and we’ve got to reach back to them to help them. Let’s talk about the future. Armenia, frankly, is in danger of losing potentially some of the funding that was established in prior years… This year, unfortunately, the Administration has requested a higher number for Azerbaijan and a lower number for Armenia. That has to change. My committee, the Foreign Operations subcommittee, goes into business in the next few weeks to make sure that that does not stay the way it currently is.”
New York Democrat, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) expressed concern about the Administration’s lack of “appropriate attention to Armenia and the Southern Caucasus generally. [We must] commit ourselves to the economic needs of that area, and to increase our economic assistance so they can realize what I believe is an enormous economic potential. The quality of people living in Armenia is extraordinary. They ought to have the opportunity to express those talents and by doing so they will not only benefit themselves and their families and their country , but the rest of the world as well.”
Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI), who led efforts on the Senate floor last June to maintain the Section 907 ban on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan, explained that during that battle, the final vote had to be postponed several times in order to garner the necessary support for his measure. The delay became so long, that several Senators asked him to call a vote so that they can go home to dinner. In anticipation of future legislative battles, Sen. Abraham said that he “wanted to come by today to promise you this. In the U.S. Senate, and we may have a fight again this year, I promise you that those of us who fought hard last year are going to make sure that nobody goes home for dinner until we continue to win this fight – year after year after year. And with your help, we will.” Rhode Island Senator Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) noted, “I will continue to work so that we can support the Republic of Armenia – so that our words and encouragement for their democratic progress is not just words but real support, real encouragement, real cooperation.”
Speeches by Amb. Kirakossian, Armenian Parliamentarian, and NKR Office Director
In a moving speech, Arman Kirakossian, the Armenian Ambassador to the U.S stated that the “stability and strength of the Armenian-Turkish bilateral cooperation can only be based on the historic rapprochement between the two nations. A greater acknowledgment of the Genocide by the community of nations raises the standards to which Turkey is aspiring to adhere and will ultimately promote the understanding of the issue in Turkey proper. Only acceptance of the historic truth can heal the deep-running discord between the Armenian and Turkish people.”
Vardan Barseghian, the director of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic Public Affairs Office, stressed that “one of the main reasons why Azerbaijan was sure that it could solve the legal question of Nagorno Karabagh by killing Armenians is the fact that, until today, its patron state, Turkey, has not been held legally responsible for the 1915 Genocide. If we want to prevent humanitarian catastrophes, if we want to prevent future genocide – Holocausts, Kosovos, Rwandas, East Timors, Karabaghs – the organizers of all these crimes should be held accountable for their inhumane actions.”
Visiting Armenian Parliamentarian Alvart Petrossian, who serves on the Central Executive Board of the Armenian Relief Society, read a letter that she had brought to the observance from the President of Armenia Robert Kocharyan. In her own remarks, addressed to the Congressional supporters of the Armenian Cause, she stated that, “I know that our friends have gathered here. I know that you are struggling for us. May God bless you and thank you. By defending our cause, you are foremost defending your moral values, your spiritual foundation.”
In his invocation, the Very Reverend Khoren Habeshian of Soorp Khatch Church, reminded those in attendance that “the souls of the innumerable martyrs of all nations, who at different times and different places, different ways and different conditions, through death offered their lives to you in faithful obedience to your faith and love… [thanks] for the wonderful rebirth of the Christian nation of Armenia on its own homeland and in all corners of the earth where Armenians live with the same spirit of faithfulness and dedication.”
The observance was organized by the ANCA regional offices in Boston and Los Angeles and co-hosted by over seventy Members of Congress. Several Congressional Representatives met with community representatives but did not have the opportunity to address the group including Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA) and Representatives Shelly Berkley (D-NV), Barney Frank (D-MA), Joe Hoeffel (D-PA), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Steve Horn (R-CA), Sander Levin (D-MI), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Michael McNulty (D-NY), George Radanovich (R-CA), Henry Waxman (D-CA), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). Co-hosts unable to attend included: Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), James Jeffords (R-VT), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Carl Levin (D-MI), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Rick Santorum (R-PA), Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) and Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA), Jerry Costello (D-IL), John Dingell (D-MI), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Phil English (R-PA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Bob Filner (D-CA), Bob Franks (R-NJ), Martin Frost (D-TX), Sam Gejdenson (D-CT), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), John LaFalce (D-NY), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Matthew Martinez (D-CA), Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), Martin Meehan (D-MA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Richard Neal (D-MA), John Olver (D-MA), Major Owens (D-NY), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), John Porter (R-IL), Lynn Rivers (D-MI), James Rogan (R-CA), Marge Roukema (R-NJ), Ed Royce (R-CA), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Nick Smith (R-MI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), John Sweeney (R-NY), John Tierney (D-MA), and Peter Visclosky (D-IN).