Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Peter Balakian and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chair Nadine Maenza joined last week with Members of Congress on Capitol Hill in commemorating the Armenian Genocide, the first such in-person gathering since the U.S. Congress and President fully and formally recognized this crime, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
In eloquent remarks, Balakian expressed gratitude to Congressional leaders and President Biden for recognizing the Armenian Genocide, while forcefully challenging Turkey’s denials and obstruction of justice for this crime. “More than 30 nations have passed Armenian Genocide resolutions in Europe, in the Middle East, South America, and North America as statements of moral redress to Turkey for its failure to face its genocidal crimes,” stated Balakian. “Think of Germany’s restitution and reparations for Israel and the Jewish people as the high moral ground. Reparations and restitution are always a necessity, as it is now in the Armenian case.”
Balakian argued that Genocide recognition is also important in understanding our contemporary world. “The Turkish extermination marks the first time a modern government used its bureaucracy, parliament, advanced technology and communications, organized killing squads, and extreme nativist ideology – Pan-Turkism – to target and destroy an ethnic group in a concentrated period of time,” explained Balakian. “We can learn from the Armenian case a good deal about what the Nazi regime did to the Jews and Roma of Europe; what Pol Pot did in Cambodia; what the Hutu did to the Tutsi in Rwanda; and, the fates of Bosnian Muslims, Rohingya, Uighurs and other ethnic groups in our time, who are being subjected to the same.”
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Nadine Maenza explained the pivotal role President Biden’s first Armenian Genocide acknowledgment played in 2021. “As USCIRF said then, this step finally and firmly placed the United States on the right side of this terrible tragedy,” stated Maenza crediting the Armenian American community for its steadfast pursuit of recognition and justice. “As we reflect on this genocide of the past, let’s not forget the places where genocide is happening right now and other crimes against humanity. Let us renew our commitment to always stand together and stand against acts of hatred and intolerance wherever they may occur,” she concluded.
“Our community and coalition partners were honored to have Peter Balakian and Nadine Maenza at our first Congressional observance since the United States officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, and – of course – are gratified by the growing support for the Armenian Genocide Education Act,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “We look forward to working with legislators from across the aisle to see this bipartisan measure – introduced by Representatives Maloney and Bilirakis and supported from the podium by so many of the speakers at this year’s Capitol Hill remembrance – enacted into law.”
Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, the Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist for the Library of Congress and an internationally respected Armenian Genocide scholar, offered remarks at the solemn observance and emceed the evening. “When we achieve acknowledgment, we are only starting the path to remembering, commemorating, and giving meaning to that action of acknowledgment,” stated Mouradian. “We can transform our reality for sure. I say this because if it was possible a hundred years ago, it is possible today. If a hundred years ago under the most dire circumstances, transforming our reality – yes it took a long time – but it was possible, it is also possible today, because we have stronger communities and because we have allies who have joined us today,” concluded Mouradian.
Republic of Nagorno Karabakh Representative to the U.S. Robert Avetisyan, greeted with a standing ovation, explained that for Artsakh, which continues to be the target of Turkey and Azerbaijan’s attacks, genocide recognition is an existential issue. “When we talk about genocide recognition, the scope is pretty different. I know that for many of us sitting here and around the world, it is a moral restitution test. For many of us, it is a material restitution test. For Artsakhtsis, it is a matter of life and death. It’s a different scale for us. It’s a different perspective. And, the consequences and the effect of genocide is absolutely different when it comes to Artsakh. This is our hope. This is our expectation. This is why we give such huge importance to recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the rest of the world and, first and foremost of course, by Turkey and other countries. It’s not there yet, which means that the struggle continues.”
Joining in the commemoration were Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chairs Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Jackie Speier (D-CA), Armenian Genocide Education Act lead author Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA), Judy Chu (D-CA), Jim Costa (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Susie Lee (D-NV), Katie Porter (D-CA), John Sarbanes (D-MD), and Brad Sherman (D-CA), as well as, Maryland State Representative Lorig Charkoudian. Maria Martirosyan, Chair of the Congressional Armenian Staff Association, and the Armenian Ambassador were among others offering remarks. Fr. Sarkis Aktavoukian of Soorp Khatch Armenian Church in Bethesda, MD offered the invocation for the evening.
Congressional Leaders Agree – After Recognition, Education
Throughout the commemoration members of Congress stressed their support for the Armenian Genocide Education Act (H.R.7555) introduced earlier in the week by Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL). In moving remarks, Rep. Maloney explained, “We have done the work to advance the recognition. Now we have to renew our commitment to raising awareness and further education about the Armenian Genocide. Let’s not forget it was the United States and our people who were some of the first to speak out about this atrocity, and that many of our firsthand documents about the Genocide, as Peter [Balakian] pointed out, are those from American diplomats such as Morgenthau, missionaries, and aid workers. And while the problems of the past are getting the attention they finally deserve, Armenia and her people still face trials today.”
Rep. Sarbanes concurred, noting that “It was your pressure keeping this issue front and center – day in day out, year in year out that got us to this place of heightened vigilance and the kind of formal recognition that we have had. It is now incumbent on all of us to ensure that the education around the Armenian Genocide is as deep, broad, and compelling as it could possibly be.”
Virginia Congressman Don Beyer stressed that “genocide scholars rightfully acknowledge that unless we study history, unless we admit it, unless we record it, that’s absolutely vital to prevent it from happening again. And, the violence and the instability that we have witnessed in the Caucasus in recent years are just proof that these crimes from decades ago are not irrelevant. They’re not forgotten. They’re still relevant to our lives today and they’re warnings of what can happen to us if we don’t remain vigilant.”
Striking a Blow Against Genocide Denial
Throughout the evening, Members of Congress stressed the important role of international Armenian Genocide recognition in the battle against genocide denial.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, who shared a captivating account of how the Armenian Genocide Resolution was brought to the U.S. House floor for a vote in October 2019, shared her reaction upon its passage. “When it happened, we cried. We watched the votes pile up and, in that short period of time, and over 100 years of official U.S. denial was wiped out,” stated Rep. Eshoo.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence recounted her Congressional trip to Turkey, where she stood up for truth against the Erdogan government’s denial machine. “I want you to know, I stand here today, just like stood on the soil of Turkey and looked them in the eye, I will stand with you against anyone who tries to deny the history [of the Armenian Genocide] so we can be committed to ‘never again,’” stated Rep. Lawrence.
Senator Van Hollen, remarked, “as we gather here to remember history, and to remember the Armenian Genocide, it’s really that opportunity to say ‘never again’ and to make sure that we put that into action in events that are going around the world here today.”
Fighting for Increased Aid to Artsakh; Zero Military Aid for Azerbaijan
In many of their remarks, Members of Congress cited the key role U.S. aid to Artsakh can play in response to Turkey and Azerbaijan’s 2020 attack against Armenia and Artsakh while arguing for cutting all military assistance to Azerbaijan.
Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone explained, “we are going to continue to fight, not only because we believe there is a genocidal aspect to this, but because we believe the future of the Armenian Republic and Artsakh is very important. We believe that America must keep pointing out that these two countries very much share our values and our democracy and that we recognize that fact as an important part of the Armenian experience.”
Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Jackie Speier concurred, noting, “Now, we have been working with the State Department and trying to get them to recognize how Azerbaijan has not been a friend of this country, that it is certainly not a friend of Armenia, that they have been aggressors much like we have seen Russia be an aggressor. So we continue to make sure that there is not going to be more funding like that $100 million that originally went to Azerbaijan. We draw attention to the fact that in Artsakh, for three weeks, there was no gas; and, that more recently, a village was taken. We have made it very clear through letters that we have sent that we have got to come up with the lasting settlement; that Artsakh has a right to survive and to exist.”
Senior House Foreign Affairs Committee member, Rep. Brad Sherman, spoke out against President Biden’s 2021 decision to waive Section 907 restrictions on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan. “It is not enough for the President to recognize the Genocide. He has to stop granting any waiver under Section 907 for the sale of weapons to a regime in Azerbaijan, which is trying to obliterate Artsakh and has designs on parts or all of Armenia as well. With so many people displaced, with so many towns destroyed, America needs to be there, not only to take care of refugees, and humanitarian concerns, but to make it clear that this ceasefire is not a permanent resolution, that the land of Artsakh needs to be restored, and the Minsk process cannot be kept in the freezer forever.”
Orange County, CA Representative Katie Porter asserted, “we have to prioritize peace and global security. Azerbaijan’s aggression in Armenia is the antithesis of those values, which is why I cosponsored a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s attacks on Artsakh and affirming the role of the OSCE Mink Group in negotiating peace.”
New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who recently had a poignant meeting with Artsakh refugees from the 2020 war, noted “I will stand strong with our ally [Armenia] in the face of threats and continued attacks from its neighbors, that includes continuing our call for the release of Armenian prisoners of war detained by Azerbaijan, as well as continued support for critical humanitarian assistance to Artsakh.”
Nevada Congresswoman Susie Lee stated, “unfortunately right now, the war on Artsakh by Azerbaijan and Turkey is just a continuation of the existential threat that the Armenians face today in your homeland and what remains the Republic of Artsakh and the borders of Armenia. I condemn Azerbaijan’s reckless military attacks against Armenians and continue to stand with the Armenian community. As an advocate seeking a resolution to this conflict, Turkey must acknowledge and take accountability for its past. As a people, Artsakh and Armenia continue to face the threat of state-sponsored hate and ethnic cleansing.”
Central Valley California Congressman Jim Costa praised President Biden for recognizing the Armenian Genocide but said more needs to be done to help the people of Artsakh. “We have built on that [recognition]. The funding that we’ve provided, is a start. The money for [Artsakh] demining is important, but it’s not enough. Going back and trying to hold Azerbaijan’s feet to the fire, notwithstanding the Minsk accords.”
Increasing Armenian American Presence in the Nation’s Capitol
Congressional Armenian Staff Association Chair Maria Martirosyan shared the important role Armenian American staffers play in incorporating the community’s experiences in shaping U.S. policy. “These staffers, many of whom are direct descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors, work each day at the nation’s capitol to support members of Congress shape domestic and international policies. While centuries of persecution and displacement may have resulted in lost family histories, generational trauma, and lost economic opportunities it has also instilled in us the ability to survive persevere and thrive. And today, Armenian American congressional staffers harness their experiences, strengths, and talents to help shape the future of this nation and the world.”
Martirosyan also chairs the ANCA’s Hovig Apo Saghdejian Capital Gateway Program Advisory Committee (CGPAC), which, along with ANCA staff and supporters, helps recent graduates start their careers in policy, politics, and media in the nation’s capital.