By Emil Danielyan
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans has publicly referred to the 1915 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as “genocide,” signaling a significant shift in the U.S. government’s position on the highly sensitive issue.
In separate statements issued late on Thursday, the two leading Armenian-American lobbying groups said Evans recognized the genocide during his ongoing series of meetings with representatives of the influential Armenian community in the United States.
A statement by one of those organizations, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), quoted the ambassador as declaring at a meeting in California: “I will today call it the Armenian Genocide … I think we, the U.S. government, owe you, our fellow citizens a more frank and honest way of discussing this problem.”
“The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century. I pledge to you, we are going to do a better job at addressing this issue,” he added to rapturous applause from the Armenian audience, according to the ANCA.
“We welcome the Ambassador’s honest approach to Armenian history,” a local ANCA leader, Roxanne Makasdjian, was quoted as saying.
Evans’s use of the word “genocide,” which is bound to anger Turkey, was also announced and welcomed by the chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, Anthony Barsamian. “In his public commentaries, Ambassador Evans repeatedly employed the words “Armenian Genocide” to properly characterize the attempted annihilation of our people by Ottoman Turkey,” he said in a speech in Los Angeles.
Barsamian was addressing more than 270 community leaders that gathered to pay tribute to countries that attempted to stop or recognized the genocide.
Evans thus became the first U.S. official since former President Ronald Reagan to publicly describe the mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenia as a genocide. Reagan did so in an April 1981 statement on the genocide committed in Cambodia in the 1970s.
It is not clear if Evans’s remarks represent a change in the position of the U.S. government that has avoided using the term for fear of antagonizing Turkey, a key U.S. ally. The U.S. envoy said, according to the ANCA statement, that he studied the subject in detail and consulted with a State Department lawyer before going on record.
In his annual addresses to the Armenian-American community, President George W. has stopped short of calling the events of 195-18 a genocide, while using phrases like “one of the great tragedies of history” and “annihilation of approximately 1.5 million Armenians.”
Bush, according to Barsamian, “set forth the textbook definition of genocide without using the word.” “Ambassador Evans completed the thought,” added the Assembly chief.
Assembly leaders appear to link the apparent change in Washington’s rhetoric to a study by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization, which concluded in February 2003 that the Armenian massacres meet the definition of genocide set by a 1948 UN convention.
The ICTJ study was commissioned by the now defunct Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) which was tacitly backed by the Assembly but strongly criticized by the ANCA. In an April 2003 statement, Bush praised TARC and its “recent and significant achievements.”