Politics & Government

Resolution calls Armenians' slayings genocide

WASHINGTON -- A resolution that would label the slaughter of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 a "genocide" appears back on track after months of delay with a key House panel's decision to debate it next week.

A clear majority has signed on to the diplomatically controversial resolution that's being pushed hard by San Joaquin Valley lawmakers.

Though it's strongly opposed by the Bush administration -- which fears it would harm relations with Turkey -- the resolution seems certain to win the approval of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

"It's good news," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said Tuesday. "I think this will give my Armenian constituents some hope."

The congressional authors call their resolution the "affirmation of the United States record on the Armenian Genocide," and it has strictly symbolic value. It is not a law, it does not need Senate approval, and it does not need the president's signature.

It does send an electrifying message, and it antagonizes a key U.S. ally.

The resolution was written by lawmakers who represent large Armenian-American populations, including the 50,000-plus estimated to live in the San Joaquin Valley. The resolution declares that "overwhelming evidence" shows the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. The measure further notes that the term "genocide" itself was coined in 1944 with the Armenian events in mind.

President Reagan commemorated the Armenian genocide in 1981, but presidents generally have avoided using the term for fear of antagonizing Turkey.

"Turkey is an indispensable partner to our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping U.S. troops to combat terrorism and build security," Henry Kissinger and seven other former secretaries of state wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in late September.

The Turkish government lobbies intensely against the resolution, employing several former high-ranking House members. Turkish officials insist the Armenian death count has been exaggerated, and officials say whatever tragedies ensued occurred during a complex, multifront war.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee's newly scheduled Oct. 10 session marks the first time since 2005 that the committee has considered the Armenian genocide issue. The resolution will then need approval by a majority of the House.

The resolution already has 226 co-sponsors, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and 22 other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In 2005, the committee -- with some different members -- approved a similar resolution by an overwhelming 40-7 margin. The hefty co-sponsorship list means the resolution is essentially guaranteed to pass in the 435-member House if it comes up for a vote.

Consequently, the key decision turns on whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agrees to let the resolution reach the House floor. In 2000, and again in 2005, House Republican leaders blocked a vote on a similar genocide resolution.

Pelosi is still playing her cards close to her chest, but resolution supporters generally believe the committee's decision to act foreshadows a green light to the House floor.

"I think this is a good sign from Speaker Pelosi," Radanovich said.

Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, agreed that resolution supporters "start from a position of strength." The Armenian Assembly and like-minded organizations including the Armenian National Committee of America have spent months rallying grass-roots support for the resolution.

The chairman of the foreign affairs panel, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, co-sponsored an Armenian genocide resolution in 1984. By 2000, he had changed his mind and warned that "there is a long list of reasons why our NATO ally at this point should not be humiliated."

Lantos switched again in 2005, declaring that Turkey needed chastisement because it "ignored our interests" when it refused to allow the U.S. 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) to invade Iraq from the north in 2003. He has not yet indicated how he will vote this year, although some Armenian-American activists believe he remains sympathetic.

"He usually doesn't like to telegraph his feelings in advance," Lantos spokeswoman Lynne Weil said Tuesday.