MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Beginning in about 1915, before the word genocide was even coined, an atrocity began. Although the exact number is unknown, the scholarship indicates that some 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed over the course of a few years in the Ottoman Empire, now modern-day Turkey. Armenians fled across the globe, many coming to the United States, which is now home to hundreds of thousands of people in the Armenian diaspora.
For years, members of this diaspora and those who represent them have sought to have the U.S. government formally acknowledge this as genocide, which Turkey denies. A resolution has bounced around the House, but the U.S. has been reluctant to embrace it because of Turkey's critical role as a U.S. ally. But this week, the House Rules Committee is expected to take up a resolution which would formally acknowledge and condemn those events as the Armenian genocide.
Joining us now to talk about this is the chairman of the Rules Committee, Jim McGovern. He's a Democrat from Massachusetts. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.
JIM MCGOVERN: I'm happy to be with you.
MARTIN: So there are memorials across the United States acknowledging the genocide. Congress has passed resolutions acknowledging the atrocity before President Reagan mentioned it. I understand that some 49 states have adopted this, Mississippi being the exclusion. But what is different about this resolution? Why does this matter?
MCGOVERN: Well, this matters because it's the first time that the House of Representatives has unequivocally stated the facts of what happened in Armenia and called it a genocide. You know, for a long time, various administrations have used euphemisms to describe what happened in Armenia. I mean, they call it a mass atrocity or something like that. But this calls it what it is. It is a genocide, and it is the right thing for us to do.
MARTIN: I think the position of the Turkish government has been throughout all this, this was not ethnic cleansing or genocide. This was part of a conflict that was taking place in some part of the empire - basically, part of a civil uprising. I guess that's their position. Have you ever talked to members of the Turkish government about this? And why do they say that, and why do you disagree?
MCGOVERN: Yeah. Well, I think over the years, you know, I have interacted with various members of the Turkish government. And there are many lobbyists who have worked successfully to keep this bill off the House floor for many, many, many years. But they're wrong. And, you know, there is research, there is documentation on this matter. And the bottom line - it is a genocide.
And look - we haven't recognized it formally - and let's be very honest - because various administrations were afraid to get Turkey mad. They were willing to sacrifice the accurate history for not making Turkey feel uncomfortable. And the fact of the matter is, our refusal to formally recognize this and call it for what it is, I think, is a dark stain on our human rights record.
MARTIN: Well, you spoke about the relevance to the current moment. As you mentioned, Turkey's been considered a key U.S. ally. But tensions with Turkey have been on the rise as well as - as you, I think, are alluding to - what is understood to be human rights violations in that country. So is adopting this resolution in part a way to send a message to Turkey right now?
MCGOVERN: Well, I - yeah. But many of us have been pushing for this for years because we think that it has implications in terms of how would-be authoritarian leaders in other countries might approach situations in their own countries. You know, the idea whether or not it makes Turkey feel uncomfortable or whether or not this is in response to something Turkey has recently done - this is - we should have done this a long time ago.
When you don't acknowledge what has happened - and in this case, a genocide - it paves the way for other authoritarian leaders, other dictators to - you know, to also commit genocide. So this is something important to do from a human rights perspective.
MARTIN: That was Congressman Jim McGovern. He's a Democrat from Massachusetts. He's the chairman of the House Rules Committee. He joined us from his district office.
Congressman, thank you so much for talking with us today.
MCGOVERN: Thank you very much.
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