The House voted Tuesday to overwhelmingly pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.
Lawmakers adopted the House resolution by a vote of 405-11, affirming the United States record on the massacre and displacement of Armenians carried out 104 years ago by the Ottoman Empire, which is now the country of Turkey.
The measure gained increased support after Turkey’s recent invasion into northeastern Syria, a region that was held by Kurdish people until the attack. The Turkish invasion has left hundreds of Kurds dead and more than 200,000 displaced.
“It is always the right time to recognize genocide, but it is particularly so today,” said resolution sponsor Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is vice chair of the Armenian-American Caucus. “For when we see the images of terrified Kurdish families in northern Syria, loading their possessions into cars or carts and fleeing their homes headed to nowhere except away from Turkish bombs and marauding militias, how can we say the crimes of a century ago are in the past?”
Schiff represents a huge block of the country’s Armenian American constituency in Los Angeles County. Southern California has the largest Armenian community outside Armenia, with thousands marching every year to remember the genocide, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We cannot pick and choose which crimes against humanity are convenient to speak about,” a tearful Schiff said on the House floor. “We cannot cloak our support for human rights in euphemisms. We cannot be cowed into silence by a foreign power.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who is Armenian-Assyrian American, said she was grateful that genocide survivors will have peace after a long history of facing denial.
“Members of my own family were among those murdered, and my parents fled with my grandparents to America. What all of the persecuted had in common was that they were Christians,” Eshoo tweeted Tuesday. “This resolution not only honors and commemorates my ancestors who perished but all those who were lost in the first genocide of the 20th century.”
The Ottomans carried out the systematic genocide of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923, and also killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Assyrians and Chaldeans. Turkey, a NATO ally, has pressured the U.S. for dozens of years to avoid recognizing the event as a genocide, despite most historians using the term.
Schiff said he’s been trying to push the resolution for 19 years, but opposition from the Turkish government made it difficult to win enough support from Congress. Turkey has acknowledged that the Armenians faced a years-long massacre but has denounced calling it a genocide.
“The resolution … is devoid of any historical or legal basis,” the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement after the resolution passed. “The U.S. Administration and politicians as well as the American people are best placed to consider the damages this resolution seeking to disrupt Turkey-U.S. ties does and will inflict upon the U.S. interests at an extremely fragile time in terms of the international and regional security.”
Schiff said that for Armenian genocide survivors and their descendants, “the word ‘genocide’ is sacred because it means that the world has not and will not forget.”
“To deny genocide, on the other hand, is profane,” he continued. “It is, in the words of [Holocaust survivor] Elie Wiesel, a ‘double killing.’”
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was one of three House members who voted “present” on the resolution. Omar, who came to the U.S. as a Somalian refugee, told CNN that she voted that way because “accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight.”
“A true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country,” she said.
Omar affirmed her decision later Tuesday, saying that her issue was not with the substance of the resolution but rather the “timing and context.” The congresswoman received bipartisan backlash on Twitter for her refusal to vote in favor of the resolution.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday encouraged the Senate to take up the House’s now-adopted resolution, though it’s unclear if the upper chamber will actually do so.
This article has been updated with comment from Rep. Ilhan Omar.