House panel says Armenian deaths were genocide

March 4, 2010
Source: The New York Times

By Brian Knowlton

WASHINGTON — The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted narrowly on Thursday to condemn as genocide the mass killings of Armenians early in the last century, defying a last-minute plea from the Obama administration to forgo a vote that seemed sure to offend Turkey and jeopardize delicate efforts at Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.

The vote on the nonbinding resolution, a perennial point of friction addressing a dark, century-old chapter of Turkish history, was 23 to 22. A similar resolution passed by a slightly wider margin in 2007, but the Bush administration, fearful of losing Turkish cooperation over Iraq, lobbied forcefully to keep it from reaching the House floor. Whether this resolution will reach a floor vote remains unclear.

In Ankara, the capital, the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately issued a sharp rebuke. “We condemn this bill that denounces the Turkish nation of a crime that it has not committed,” the statement said. Ambassador Namik Tan, who had only weeks ago taken up his post in Washington, has been recalled to Ankara for consultations, according to the statement.

Historians say that as many as 1.5 million Armenians died amid the chaos and unrest surrounding World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey denies, however, that this was a planned genocide, and had mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign against the resolution.

A White House spokesman, Mike Hammer, said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had told Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the committee chairman, late on Wednesday that a vote would be harmful, jeopardizing Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts that last year yielded two protocols aimed at a thawing of relations. President Obama spoke to President Abdullah Gul of Turkey on Wednesday to endorse the efforts at normalization with Armenia, said Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman.

“We’ve pressed hard to see the progress that we’ve seen to date, and we certainly do not want to see that jeopardized,” he said.

The timing of the administration’s plea seemed to catch some committee members by surprise. Early in the meeting on Thursday, the ranking Republican member, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, said that the administration had taken no position on the vote. But several minutes later she requested time to correct herself: an aide had handed her a news article describing the administration’s newly announced opposition.

Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of Turkey’s Parliament who was in Washington to meet with lawmakers, said later that he thought the intervention by Mrs. Clinton — who was asked about the resolution last week before the same House committee, but did not condemn it explicitly — had come too late.

Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, also said he doubted that Mrs. Clinton’s intervention had changed much. “It was closer than anticipated,” he said of the vote, “but at the end of the day the truth prevailed and the members made a very affirmative statement in the face of the opposition.”

Committee members were clearly torn between what they said was a moral obligation to condemn one of the darkest periods of the last century and the need to protect a relationship with Turkey, a NATO partner vital to American regional and security interests. “This is not one of those issues that members of Congress look forward to voting on,” said Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York.

Like nearly every member, Mr. Berman saluted Turkey as an important ally. “Be that as it may,” he added, “nothing justifies Turkey’s turning a blind eye to the reality of the Armenian genocide.

“The Turks say passing this resolution could have terrible consequences for our bilateral relationship,” Mr. Berman said. “But I believe that Turkey values its relations with the United States at least as much as we value our relations with Turkey.”

While still in the Senate, Mr. Obama had described the killings of Armenians at Ottoman hands as genocide. Mrs. Clinton, also then a senator, had taken a similar stance.

Last year, she strongly supported talks that led to two protocols between Turkey and Armenia calling for closer ties, open borders and the creation of a commission to examine the historical evidence in dispute.

Those accords, not yet ratified by either nation’s lawmakers, could now be endangered, opponents of the resolution said. “This is a fragile process that destabilizes the protocols,” said Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana.

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.