Lawmakers in the House are pushing to mark the 100th anniversary of mass killings of Armenians during World War I with a controversial resolution that would officially label it an act of genocide.
Coming at the centennial, the proposal — which dates back decades — has reignited a lobbying battle, with each side more resolved than ever.
“We’re going to see a level of grassroots activism all across the country that will be unprecedented: huge marches and protests and commemorations, a national campaign to try and move the Congress and the president to recognize the genocide on its centennial,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffJan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth Jan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back MORE (D-Calif.), one of the resolution’s initial sponsors. “If not after a hundred years, then when?”
Opponents of the measure, led by the Turkish government, have supporters outmatched.
Turkey recognized last year that Armenians faced “inhumane” treatment at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, but its leaders refuse to refer to the mass killings that began in 1915 as genocide.
Unsatisfied, the Armenian National Committee of America spent $120,000 last year lobbying the U.S. government, the most it has spent in at least seven years.
Since 2006, the group has spent $840,000, according to records.
But before lawmakers introduced the Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution last week, Turkey renewed its contract with Gephardt Government Affairs, run by former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.), for $1.7 million.
Signed on March 1, the contract also includes payments to four other firms working on behalf of the Turkish government, including Dickstein Shapiro and Greenburg Traurig. The two firms enlist help from former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.).
Armenian groups also have public relations operations in place, something the resolution’s supporters hope will make a difference.
“There’s going to be a lot more attention this year,” Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America said of the events planned to mark the centennial. “Issues like this — human rights issues — tend to do well in the spotlight. They tend to be defeated in the shadows when no one’s looking.”
The issue has been debated in Congress for three decades. Although the resolution has never come to a full vote in Congress, it received as many as 212 co-sponsors in 2007. In 2010, it had under 200. This month, it was introduced in the House with 43.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is passing around a “Dear Colleague” letter to urge members not to support the nonbinding resolution. He says its adoption would be “cataclysmic.”
Turkey, a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East, lobbies on many issues involving its reputation and relationships with American politicians and groups. But its outspoken disapproval of the term “genocide” to describe the mass killings has garnered the most attention. Since 2008, the Turkish government has paid lobbyists more than $12 million.
“Every cycle of Congress, there is a draft resolution,” a Turkish official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told The Hill.
“We are not happy, because our position has not changed, in two ways:
The fact that [the resolution] does not help anyway, to bring a fair memory or to actually bring reconciliation between Turks and Armenians,” the official said. “To politicize a debate is not helpful at all. … The two communities have suffered.”
A new U.S.-based advocacy organization, Turkish Institute for Progress, recently registered with Levick — and former Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) — to lobby on its behalf in regards to Turkish-Armenian relations. While it does not agree with the resolution, the group said it would not be lobbying against it.
“We believe the resolution introduced last week is shortsighted and only serves to exacerbate the division between two countries that have so many strategic and economic interests in common,” said Derya Taskin, the president of the organization, in an email.
However, the dispute between the two countries may not be solved without a more public debate.
“We are confident that, as has been the case for the 30 years, the U.S. Congress will do the right thing and not get involved in this historical debate,” the Turkish official said.
“The genocide issue is the central issue between the Armenian and Turkish peoples,” said Hamparian. “Ignoring it, or forcing others into silence about it has not worked. It’s beyond being just being morally wrong; it practically hasn’t worked.”
This April marks 100 years since the Ottoman Empire, partly composed of present-day Turkey, began a massacre and relocation of ethnic Armenians, whom it accused of supporting its Russian enemies in World War I. More than 1 million people perished.
How the events are described has caused tension, not only between the two countries but between those countries and the U.S.
As a senator and presidential candidate, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report To advance democracy, defend Taiwan and Ukraine Press: GOP freak show: Who's in charge? MORE promised to be the first commander in chief in 30 years to use the term “genocide” to describe the killings. However, since being elected president, he has avoided the word.
Opponents have said that referring to the events as an act of genocide, which is a punishable crime, as opposed to an act of war could cause an undue rift between the United States and Turkey. In past years, Turkey has threatened to recall its U.S. ambassador and restrict U.S. access to a geographically important military base.