Congressional Recognition of the Armenian Genocide – 104 years of Denial
By: Anoush Baghdassarian
On December 12th, 2019, the United States Senate unanimously passed Senate Resolution 150 (S. Res 150) recognizing the Armenian genocide. This is the first time in history that both chambers of the US Congress have officially recognized the Ottoman Empire’s systematic killing of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-1923. This is a historic moment for Armenians around the world, as well as for humanity. Recognition like this is a rejection of denialism, an acknowledgement of victims’ realities, and ultimately, an essential part of justice. Even 104 years after the horrific massacres, forced deportations, and great personal losses suffered by the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, recognition is something Armenian diaspora communities have been struggling to achieve for years. But why? If those who suffered an atrocity know the truth about what happened, why does it matter that others know, accept, and acknowledge it too?
This piece will argue that Congress’ recognition of the Armenian genocide matters for three reasons: 1) It is essential to survivors’ humanity and sense of dignity that people believe them and accept what they have suffered; 2) It is essential to the prosperity of their new communities; and 3) It is essential because it affects people in modern day who are future victims of perpetrators who have continued to act with impunity, as seen by the Turkish attacks on the Kurds in Northeastern Syria.
This piece was inspired by the recent acts in the United States Congress and therefore will largely focus on why recognition of the Armenian genocide is an important component of justice for the Armenian people. However, it also includes an analysis of why recognition for atrocity crimes, like the crime of genocide, is a critical component of justice in every instance that mass atrocity attacks individual dignity and challenges humanity. Transitional justice (TJ) scholars argue that recognition is a critical component of “justice” and although the Armenian genocide is not a transitional justice case by definition, the same analysis applies to protracted, intractable conflicts like this one.
In the face of mass atrocities, nothing can ever really repair the harms that people have suffered. Redress and justice can only ever be symbolic. In most cases they can only ever be symbolic because the harm is too great to ever afford any type of satisfactory repair, thus leaving victims in a position to accept a “rough justice.” Furthermore, any type of delayed justice is likely to be more symbolic than reparative because the longer justice is denied, the less likely it is to be attained. In the Armenian case, justice has been delayed for over one hundred years. Not only has justice been delayed, but the Turkish government has run rampant denialist campaigns throughout their own country and abroad. Recognition of the Armenian genocide by the United States is an important part of the process of symbolic reparation because it helps restore a sense of dignity to the community of genocide survivors and their descendants living throughout the United States today.
“The truth must be known”
Acknowledgement and recognition of the harm and pain that victims have endured is a critical form of redress. It is essential to humanity and dignity to acknowledge others’ suffering. Recent research conducted by Anoush Baghdassarian with about 50 descendants of Armenian genocide survivors demonstrated that when asked what they would like most as “justice” for the Armenian genocide, descendants’ most desired reparation was official recognition of the genocide by Turkey.  The study results suggest that descendants of Armenian genocide survivors’ notions of redress are largely dictated by more than a century of systematic denial and feelings of “ethical loneliness.”
In her book, Ethical Loneliness, Jill Stauffer coins the titular term and defines it to mean “the experience of being abandoned by humanity, compounded by the cruelty of wrongs not being acknowledged.”  Expanded upon, her theory of ethical loneliness is applicable to groups that have been abandoned by humanity. In the first instance, this abandonment comes from having grave crimes committed against them and their peoples without the world stepping in to stop the harm soon enough. They then undergo a further abandonment through the injustice of not being heard—their plight unrecognized by the world, and their pain and loss unacknowledged by the perpetrators. This theory of ethical loneliness can help one understand why the desire for this kind of reparative justice has been a fundamental element, and even end-goal, of so many transitional justice efforts of the past, including truth commissions and national trials.
“Truth” is an incredibly important element of human dignity. Humans want to live in a fair and moral world where the truth is well known. This desire for truth is evident in truth commissions like the TRC in South Africa, and in community-oriented justice mechanisms, like the Gacaca courts in Rwanda. Another ripe example comes from Argentina, where many years after the last military dictatorship, the government eventually lifted the amnesty laws and created “the right to memory and the truth.” (Not coincidentally, this is the law one Argentine lawyer, Gregorio Hairabedian, utilized to have the Armenian genocide recognized in Argentina.) Why is the truth such an important part of justice? Largely because, “a survivor whose story cannot or will not be heard is likely also someone whose harms have not yet been addressed.” It is one thing to destroy a group’s dignity by committing an atrocity against the group, but to then deny the act is to destroy their dignity even further. To relieve this burden of ethical loneliness from the victims’ shoulders would be to restore a sense of equality or at least normalcy to a situation that is anything but that.
For the Armenians, the desire for the truth has amplified as denial of their pain and the wrongdoings inflicted by the Ottomans has intensified over the past one hundred years. Cooper and Akçam explain how rampant Turkish nationalism has led to a stricter denial of the Genocide in Turkey, including disseminating denialist propaganda and criminalizing any admission of guilt on the part of the Ottomans. It is clear that the Armenian global community has put a great deal of thought, effort, and time into notions of repair and justice; one might even go so far as to say that it has been a damaging or all-consuming effort at times, taking attention and resources away from focusing on more modern issues of injustice facing Armenian societies. However, this course of action is understandable, though deeply regrettable. It is widely held in TJ scholarship that “the refusal of aggressors to acknowledge the pain of the hurts inflicted on victims, and therefore the absence of remorse by the aggressors, creates an overwhelming sense of injustice in the victims.” The need to escape from the torture of ethical loneliness is a motivating factor for generations to continue fighting for what they believe they deserve. It has become “widely believed that the legacy of these massive crimes cannot simply be buried, and must somehow be addressed.” This leads to the second claim of this piece, that the desire to have these crimes addressed affects diaspora Armenians’ ability to move forward.
Identity and Moving Forward
“For many Armenians, remembering the genocide comes to be acknowledged as one of the markers of Armenian identity”
“It is a continuous genocide, the Armenian one, because our children do not preserve their identities.”
For the past 100 years, Armenians in the diaspora have been fighting for genocide recognition. The preoccupation of the diaspora, primarily among diasporan Armenians originally from Western Armenia, with recognition of the genocide has had an effect on the formation of a dual-Armenian identity. In some ways, the community has been stuck 100 years in the past, fighting for recognition instead of focusing on developing Armenia. In the Armenian-American community specifically, there are instances where it seems Armenians have created a false choice between developing modern day Armenia and recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Calling it a “choice” is misleading, however; it is not a choice, but rather an essential part of Armenian identity that the community itself must remember. If they don’t, who will? The Armenian-American community is consumed with preserving its stories because politics have not been on its side, nor has history (or at least the history books). In order to move forward and fully focus on the present, this community needs its past to be recognized. Recognition does not mean that the Armenian community will care any less about preserving these stories and passing them down to its children, but it does mean that it can trust that people outside the Armenian community will know, believe, and preserve its realities too. The Armenian genocide is a part of Armenian identity in the diaspora, particularly diasporan Armenians from Western Armenia. For many diasporan Armenians, it is the reason they are living in the countries they live in now (e.g. Australia, Uruguay, Canada, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, England, Ethiopia, etc.). For many of these diasporan Armenians, when they explain their nationality, Armenian comes first, and then the country in which they currently live. It is understandable then, that when the United States did not acknowledge what happened to the Armenians with the gravity it merits (circumventing the use of the word “genocide” and using all imaginable alternatives), it was akin to denying a core element of the group’s identity and hindering their growth as they struggled to preserve and defend their identity instead of allocating resources to growth and prosperity.
Around the world, the Armenian Genocide still influences notions of identity for Armenians in the diaspora. Take this anecdote, for example, from Dzovinar Yeretsian, a 59-year-old woman from Qamishli, Syria responding to a question about why memorialization is important for the Armenian Genocide:
“In my grandfather’s life, he never laughed. He never had a smile. We would say, “Dede, why don’t you laugh?” He said, “How could I laugh? When I was seven years old, I lost my seven siblings and saw my mother leave my baby brother behind in the desert. I will never be able to not see that.” He never laughed…. It is very good to tell these stories so that we as Armenians do not forget or lose them. Our generation and our kids’ and their kids’ generations should know that Armenians still exist. Yes, we are few, but we are Armenian, and we will not forget it.”
One of the most common reasons amongst the respondents in the study cited above for wanting reparations was identity. In different types of explanations—whether it was a loss of identity that the Ottoman Turks inflicted upon the Armenian people by taking away their lands and homes and what they knew as normal, or whether it was because of the repercussions of that displacement which led to a perceived weakening of Armenian identity in terms of language retention and increased assimilation for the younger generations—the Armenian persecution (and subsequently, the struggle for reparations) has become intricately tied to Armenian identity.
The Armenian people over the past century have tried to address these crimes in various ways, demonstrated through their efforts for accountability in trials in 1919, as well as their efforts of taking justice into their own hands through the killing of the Ottoman minister of interior, Talaat Pasha, the principal architect of the Armenian Genocide. However, none of these efforts have truly produced satisfactory redress. This leaves many Armenian people feeling indignant, living in the past and seeking justice for a crime that was committed 100 years ago instead of focusing on the present or the future. Recognition may move this community one step closer to the justice it has been denied.
History Repeats Itself
“Who after all today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The abovementioned quote is one many Armenians know well. It was spoken by Adolf Hitler before he carried out an extermination of a group of Polish Jews. To help justify his actions, he asked his men, “Who after all today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” It is a clear example of the maxim “history repeats itself.” Hitler used the impunity from the Ottoman massacres to justify his killings. While it’s not certain that he would have refrained from planning such mass extermination if there had been some type of punishment for the genocide, at least the world would have condemned such actions and Hitler might have known that the world does not tolerate these atrocious crimes.
In response to the unimaginable harm the Nazis committed, the world agreed that states could infringe upon one another’s sovereignty in the face of mass atrocity. At the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, delegates declared what a state can and cannot do to its own people. Prior to 1948, the notion of absolute sovereignty incentivized awful acts, with the tacit guarantee that states would not intervene—their silence was complicity. These limitations on state sovereignty set the stage for international criminal law. While even after these changes in international norms and laws there have still been many atrocities on unimaginable scales (South American dictatorships, Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and more), such violence has not often come from repeat offenders.
Often, countries forced to acknowledge the harms they perpetrate have not committed atrocities near that same scale again. Germany, for example, is a country where recognition and memorialization of the Holocaust are integral to the nation’s identity. Berlin has a notable number of commemorative spaces for the Holocaust. The Stolpersteine on the ground are commemorative brass stones that visitors “stumble upon” almost everywhere—they often have the individual names and dates on them of someone who was taken to a concentration camp at the site where the stone sits, whether that be on the train platform or outside a home. Berlin also has countless museums and national commemorations, and teaches the Holocaust in public school history courses. On the other hand, countries that have not faced accountability for their acts might feel that they are able to continue such acts with impunity. Turkey is one such example. The institutionalization of genocide denial in Turkey has led to a systemic disregard for minority rights that has allowed for the government’s actions in Northern Syria to occur.
On October 8th, 2019, the president of the organization Genocide Watch announced his belief that Turkey was planning genocide and crimes against humanity in northeastern Syria. There are strong parallels between what is happening in northeastern Syria, a region largely occupied (presently and historically) by the Kurds, and what happened during the Armenian genocide. Turkey has said that they want to create “safe zones,” but many human rights organizations have spoken out against this. MENA director at HRW, Sarah Leah Whitson, stated that, “contrary to Turkey’s narrative that their operation will establish a safe zone, the groups they are using to administer the territory are themselves committing abuses against civilians and discriminating on ethnic grounds.” These safe zones have displaced 400,000 Syrian Kurds, including 70,000 children. Moreover, the current plan to resettle 2 million Syrian Arabs in Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria is forced demographic change and a form of ethnic cleansing. President Trump’s remark on Turkey’s invasion as a case where “they had to have it cleaned out” ominously highlights how silence in the face of genocide and the tacit approval it implies, are powerful enablers for the perpetrator.
The Turkish narratives about the Kurds are strikingly similar to the Ottoman narratives of deporting Armenians during the genocide for their own safety. Additionally, the Turkish government has long denied the cultural, linguistic, and political identity of the Kurds in Turkey and refused to identify them as Kurds, but instead labeled them as “mountain Turks.” It is also illegal to speak or teach Kurdish in public schools in Turkey, and arbitrary arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists is very common in Turkey. Similarly, when the Ottoman Empire carried out its plan of systematic annihilation of the Armenians, they imposed a tax on Armenians, took away their arms, and the government shifted the public perception from Armenians being neighbors to being infidels and traitors. Nationalistic campaigns in Turkey have historically and repeatedly oppressed minorities. However, recognition on a global scale of such atrocities might prevent such repetition. This belief is shared by Mr. Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who said on the day after Congress’ recognition that “the US Senate’s resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide will prevent Turkey from carrying out massacres against Kurds in northeast Syria.” This is a powerful demonstration of the force that something as symbolic as “recognition” can hold. Another Armenian puts it beautifully:
“Generations later, we experience trauma on top of trauma because the original crime was never acknowledged by the perpetrator. It is also not lost on us that the country that gave its tacit consent to this latest episode has been dragging its heels on recognizing the Genocide for decades. We were right not to let go because we knew that history would repeat itself. Turkey consolidated its gains in a land emptied of Armenians. Is that the legacy we want to leave to the grandchildren of today’s Kurdish survivors?”
Recognition is important not only for the Armenians, but also for the Kurds in Syria and for history itself. It seems this was an impetus to encourage some members of the House of Representatives to reconsider the genocide resolution back in October immediately after US withdrawal of troops from northern Syria. The December success in the Senate come after an overwhelming success in the House in October. Congress’ bicameral recognition of the Armenian genocide creates a newfound hope that the US will intervene in a positive way to prevent other ethnic cleansings and mass exterminations, especially those committed by a repeat offender.
“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope too can be given to one only by other human beings.” – Elie Wiesel
As this piece has articulated, recognition is an essential part of justice: for human dignity, for the Armenian community’s ability to move forward, for history’s sake, and for future generations of potential victims. The US has given the Armenian community, and so many other oppressed communities in the world, a newfound hope. The lobbying system in the US is theoretically sound: it should represent the views of the American public. However, it is not immune to geopolitics. For years, Turkey has used high priced lobbyists to stop S.Res 150 from passing. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (a campaign finance watchdog group), Ankara spent more than $6 million to press its agenda in Washington in just 2018. The geopolitical reality would indicate that the Armenians would never receive recognition from the US; however, the Senate’s decision proved otherwise. Turkey could previously use the US’s refusal to acknowledge the acts of 1915 as genocide to add credibility to their narrative. Now that the US has essentially taken away this shield, Armenians are one step closer to justice from Turkey.
For all those skeptical about setting human rights higher than political interests on an agenda, the Senate’s passing of S.Res 150 demonstrated that maybe there is a world where governments can uphold human rights even if it might cost them political capital. Prioritizing human rights is often treated as idealistic, but with this resolution, the United States showed the world that it is not a mere fantasy; it can be a reality. December 12th was a victorious day for all Armenians around the world, and for humanity. In a world that puts human rights after political expediency, justice might be delayed, but Thursday’s decision was a sign that if you fight for long enough, it can’t ever be denied.
 Anoush Baghdassarian is an Armenian-American in her first year at Harvard Law School. She is the co-founder of the Rerooted Archive, the largest archive to date of Syrian-Armenian refugee testimonies, and author of Found, a historical fiction play about one woman’s experience in the Armenian Genocide. She received her BA from Claremont McKenna College in Psychology, Spanish, and Holocaust/Genocide Studies, and her MA from Columbia University in Human Rights Studies.
 Menendez, Robert. “Text – S.Res.150 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): A Resolution Expressing the Sense of the Senate That It Is the Policy of the United States to Commemorate the Armenian Genocide through Official Recognition and Remembrance.” Congress.gov, 12 Dec. 2019, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-resolution/150/text.
 S.Res 150 is a simple resolution which means it does not require the President’s signature. So, while this is the first time Congress has wholly recognized the acts committed against the Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915 as genocide, the President has yet to do so. The State Department recently issued a statement that the President’s views have not changed since last April 24th, indicating that he will not be recognizing the acts committed in 1915 as Genocide: https://thehill.com/regulation/international/474869-trump-administration-rejects-senate-resolution-recognizing-armenian
 Elazar Barkan, “Introduction: Historians and Historical Reconciliation,” The American Historical Review 114, no. 4 (2009): 899–913.
 There are about 1.4 million Armenians living in the United States today (However, it is important to note that not all of these Armenians are descendants of genocide survivors). http://www.haias.net/news/_armenian-population.html
 A 93-year old Syrian-Armenian survey respondent, Interview March 2019.
 Columbia University Libraries, “Assessing Attitudes of Syrian-Armenian Refugees toward Redress and Justice in Post-Conflict Syria,” Academic Commons, 4 Dec. 2019, https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/d8-7ad8-j742
 Stauffer, Jill. Ethical Loneliness: the Injustice of Not Being Heard. Columbia University Press, 2018. P. 13. Full definition: “Ethical loneliness is the isolation one feels when one, as a violated person or as one member of a persecuted group, has been abandoned by humanity, or by those who have power over one’s life’s possibilities. It is a condition undergone by people who have been unjustly treated and dehumanized by human beings and political structures, who emerge from that injustice only to find that the surrounding world will not listen to or cannot properly hear their testimony.”
 Both philosophers and psychologists have posited this for centuries: there is something at an individual’s core that is reflective of who they are, that is, their “true self” and human beings want this to be “good,” and with that, comes truth, fairness, and justice. Plato argues this in The Repbulic. Similarly, Freud, in his Civilization and its Discontents, outlines three stages by which justice and fairness have become important matters to the human being. Rousseau’s On the Social Contract argues that an individual’s moral obligations depend on the society’s needs. It is because of society that we feel obliged to act in morally good ways even if it is against our best interest. We uphold these behaviors for the sake of maintaining society’s order. It is a part of the “contract” that you sign upon entering a society. Adults must have some faith in those in their community; a belief that these individuals would not harm one another just for the sake of harming someone. We expect others to be “good” and honesty comes with that. This can help explain how humans are doubly affected psychologically when an atrocity is committed against them: it changes their view of how the world should be, and the denial and dishonesty disrupts that order even more.
 “Juicio Por La Verdad Del Genocidio Armenio (2001-2011).” Fundación Luisa Hairabedian, 13 Mar. 2018, http://verdadyjusticia.org.ar/programa-de-desarrollo-y-estrategias-juridicas/juicio-por-la-verdad-2001-2011/
 Stauffer, 2018, pg. 20.
 Belinda Cooper and Taner Akcam, “Turks, Armenians, and the ‘G-Word,’” World Policy Journal 22, no. 3 (2005): 81–93.
 The Turkish government also has just created a new website denying the Armenian Genocide: https://massispost.com/2019/12/turkey-launches-new-website-denying-armenian-genocide/
 Joseph Montville, “Justice and the Burdens of History,” Reconciliation, Justice, and Coexistence: Theory and Practice, 2001, 129–144, p. 131.
 This piece does not afford the opportunity to delve into this, but relevant social psychological studies, like Tajfel & Turner’s social identity theory, help explain that the fact that people are so hurt by being abandoned by humanity is because we are social beings and define ourselves by our relationships with others.
 Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths 2e: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions (Routledge, 2010) at 8.
 Altug, Seda. “Sectarianism in the Syrian Jazira: Community, Land and Violence in the Memories of World War I and the French Mandate (1915-1939).” PhD Thesis, Utrecht University, 2011.
 Survey respondent, Interview March 2019.
 The definition of Genocide includes an “intent to destroy in whole or in part” and this is often the hardest element to prove when claiming something is a genocide. Using the term “genocide” has become politicized and the US has instead often resorted to: “Meds Yeghern” which translates from Armenian to, mass killings. However, there is a great deal of significance to the victims in recognizing the Armenian massacres as a genocide, a systematic plan to exterminate the race, and the use of that word on December 12th was historic and long-awaited. https://www.cfr.org/expert-roundup/hundred-years-armenian-genocide-reverberates
 Eric Bogosian, Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide (Hachette UK, 2015).
 “Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Nazi Germany (1933-45).” Adolf Hitler — Statement on the Armenian Genocide, https://www.armenian-genocide.org/hitler.html.
 Stanton, Gregory H. “Genocide Watch: Turkey Is Planning Genocide and Crimes against Humanity in Northeastern Syria.” Genocidewatch, Genocide Watch – Prevention, Analysis, Advocacy, and Action, 8 Oct., 2019, https://www.genocidewatch.com/single-post/2019/10/08/Genocide-Watch-Turkey-is-planning-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-in-Northeastern-Syria?fbclid=IwAR3YjXQ79rb2nrO1X9EK0ZXQ0T74ZIwUD8X3–slZlLHW5izRKLeE3aAUUo
“Syria: Civilians Abused in ‘Safe Zones’. Human Rights Watch, 2 Dec. 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/27/syria-civilians-abused-safe-zones
 Evans, Dominic. “Turkey’s Plan to Resettle Refugees in Northeast Syria Alarms Allies.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 8 Oct. 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey-refugees-graphi/turkeys-plan-to-resettle-refugees-in-northeast-syria-alarms-allies-idUSKBN1WN28J
 Papenfuss, Mary. “In Chilling Echo of Ethnic Cleansing, Trump Says North Syria Needed To Be ‘Cleaned Out’. HuffPost, HuffPost, 18 Oct. 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/trump-edogan-kurds-ethnic-cleansing-syria-ceasefire_n_5da8e1eae4b0bc924759b575.
 Letsch, Constanze. “In Turkey, Repression of the Kurdish Language Is Back, With No End in Sight.” The Nation, 21 Dec. 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/in-turkey-repression-of-the-kurdish-language-is-back-with-no-end-in-sight/
 Siobhán O’Grady, Miriam Berger. “Who are the Kurds, and Why Is Turkey Attacking Them?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Oct. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/10/11/who-are-kurds-why-is-turkey-attacking-them/.
 History.com Editors. “Armenian Genocide.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 1 Oct. 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/armenian-genocide
 Titizian, Maria, “Turkey, the Kurds and the Generational Trauma of the Armenians,” EVN Report, https://www.evnreport.com/opinion/turkey-the-kurds-and-the-generational-trauma-of-the-armenians
 “Livid at Turkey’s bloody military assault in northern Syria, some lawmakers saw an uneasy parallel between the Armenian genocide and the bitter warnings from Kurdish forces that the withdrawal of American forces would lead to ethnic cleansing of their people.” Edmondson, Catie, and Rick Gladstone. “House Passes Resolution Recognizing Armenian Genocide.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/29/us/politics/armenian-genocide-resolution.html
Shesgreen, Deirdre. “Senate Recognizes Armenian Genocide over Objections of Trump and Turkish Government.” USA Today, Gannett, Satellite Information Network, 13 Dec. 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/12/12/senate-senate-recognizes-arrecognizes-armenian-genocide-over-objections-trump-and-turkish-government/4410046002/
 President Erdogan (the President of Turkey) issued a statement saying this will deeply disrupt US-Turkish relations and Turkey’s communications director took to Twitter to condemn this act as endangering the future of US-Turkey bilateral relations. https://www.npr.org/2019/12/12/787582258/senate-passes-armenia-genocide-measure-ignoring-white-house-objections