Armenian-Americans fought for decades to give President Joe Biden the political space for his historic recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Now they’re ready for the next fight.
In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Lobby Report this past week, activist Aram Hamparian reflected on the long road to last weekend’s announcement and the diaspora’s priorities going forward.
Hamparian is the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), one of several groups representing a politically powerful diaspora that’s estimated to number between 500,000 and 1.5 million people.
ANCA was founded in 1941 as an outgrowth of the post-World War I American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA). The group first officially registered to lobby in 2009 and reports spending $30,000 on lobbying per quarter.
Hamparian said Biden’s declaration has breathed new life into years-old lawsuits by the descendants of genocide victims against the Turkish state and private companies. It has re-energized efforts to commemorate the events of 1915 and teach their history in US schools. And it will fuel Armenians’ lobbying case against Turkey and its allies, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, with Capitol Hill and the administration.
The Armenian-American community scored a great victory over the weekend after decades of advocacy. How did the US get to this point, and why did it take so long?
Decided on the merits, this issue would have been resolved decades and decades ago. Our effort was to create a situation where recognition of the Armenian genocide could be undertaken on the merits. But to make that possible, we had to clear the field of foreign influence. That is the conceptual framework of what happened.
It wasn’t a battle so much of this fact versus that fact, as just allowing America to make a decision on the merits. I feel good as an American that Americans were allowed to speak in an American voice. That’s the relief we feel. This is no longer a policy that’s set in Ankara, exported to DC and then enforced by Republican and Democratic presidents. It’s now an actual American policy, based on the US archives, based on our values, based on our own history.
Turkey has been losing traction in Washington for years, with the Pentagon in particular souring on Ankara over its purchase of Russian weapons. How much did that factor in the president’s decision compared to years of advocacy work by groups such as ANCA, the Armenian Assembly of America and many others?
There is timing, and there’s politics. We live in a political town, and we understand that. Our job was to present the facts, to make the moral case, to put pressure — and then look for the right opportunities. None of those pieces work independently. They all have to work together: The facts, the moral case, and then the timing.
If you do all those things and the timing isn’t right, then it doesn’t happen. In the same sense, if you haven’t done the prep, you haven’t done the political stuff, then nothing gets accomplished. So it’s a combination of what’s within our control, and what’s not within our control. You have to always be ready.
Last year’s deadly conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave (known as Artsakh to the Armenians) galvanized the diaspora. Do you think the war actually helped the case for genocide recognition?
It certainly energized Armenians around the very, very serious threats to the Armenian homeland. And Number Two, it helped American policymakers — including legislators —understand the ongoing genocidal threat to the Armenians. That it didn’t end in 1915. That when [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says publicly, “we will get rid of the remnants of the sword,” a phrase that’s used to refer to Christian [survivors] of 1915, it’s a very menacing comment. When he says stuff like that, every Armenian around the world is like, “I know exactly what he means.” (Editor’s note: Some Turkey scholars have defended the comments, saying the expression can refer to any group defined as bandits by the state, including terrorists).
How does the Armenian-American community plan to build on the momentum from the designation?
Lock in the remembrance and institutionalize it, in the form of annual observances, memorials, museums, things of that sort. Institutionalization is one.” (editor’s note: a proposal for an Armenia genocide museum in Washington has been around for two decades).
Number two is education. I think at least a dozen states have formal provisions regarding Armenian genocide education; many more states actually teach about the Armenian genocide.
What about the legal implications? In 2000 the state of California passed a law extending the statute of limitations for life insurance claims for victims of the genocide, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down. Does President Biden’s genocide recognition change the equation?
[The courts] have often cited federal pre-emption — that states cannot take action that is inconsistent with federal policy. Several state laws were struck down on that legal basis. Ultimately the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case on the basis that the California law itself was unconstitutional because of federal pre-emption. Everything we did in that [pre-recognition] world that got shot down, and this took us years, that entire arena is now open to us. So there’s the legal avenue, and I think that will be pursued very meaningfully.
The courts can no longer say, this is contradictory to US federal policy. That had been a great source of frustration for us. The State Department always made the point of saying, ‘well, we’re not denying anything’. But somehow, their statements ended up blocking lawsuits. So it was denial.
What about international repercussions?
There’s the broader question of justice, and reparations, and restitution. America signed the UN genocide convention, along with Turkey. The title of the convention is the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Basically the world believes we should punish genocide, because we want to prevent genocide.
The common definition of justice is make the victim whole, that which can be returned should be returned that which cannot be returned should be compensated. I think everything should be on the table. I think we’re talking about property, and land, access to the sea. But we cannot have that discussion, Turkey’s unwilling to have that discussion, because they’re still in denial.
Why did they invest so heavily in this issue, for so long, in DC? Because they don’t want to be isolated on this issue. They want, in their denials, to have others that they can point to. As they find themselves increasingly isolated and alone, their denials become less and less tenable.
Where can we expect to see legal action pick up?
There can be justice at three different levels.
One is individuals, people. For example, Incirlik air base is on farmland owned by Armenians, illegally seized from them as a result of genocide. So there’s individual claims that can be pursued. (editor’s note: In 2010, alleged descendants of Incirlik’s disposed owners sued Turkey in Los Angeles Federal Court seeking more than $65 million. Incirlik hosts a key US Air Force base in the Middle East.)
Second, are organizations, institutions, such as the Armenian church. So for example, the Armenian church has sued for the return of its headquarters [in present-day Kozan] , which were destroyed and stolen during the genocide, and those are making their way through the courts in Turkey and in Europe (editor’s note: the next hearing in the case has been scheduled for May 6).
And then finally there’s the state level. Armenia, as a member of the UN, has standing to pursue cases.
And then on top of that you’ve got claims against American or international firms (including life insurance companies with genocide-related claims).
Wearing our ANCA hat, we won’t [get involved in more lawsuits]. But we work with a lot of different groups and this is a topic of very intense discussion right now.
Will you be extending your lobbying to take on Turkey’s allies? Pakistan for example denounced what it called Biden’s “one-sided approach” to the genocide question, earning plaudits from Ankara.
We’re working closely with Indian-American and Hindu-American allies highlighting Pakistan’s anti-Armenian policies (editor’s note: Armenia has accused Pakistan of providing military help to Azerbaijan in last year’s conflict, which Pakistan denies). They don’t recognize Armenia (the only country not to). I think that partnership’s only going to grow over time.
For example, we would like to see members of Congress focus on the issue of Turkish-Pakistani cooperation on nuclear weapons. We’re making a concerted effort to share that concern with members of Congress. Along with Greek-Americans, Indian-Americans, increasingly Jewish-American voices are concerned about the subject. (editor’s note: Turkey had recently intensified its military cooperation with nuclear-armed Pakistan, fueling reports of possible covert support for a Turkish nuclear weapons program).
With the fight for genocide recognition now over, what are your top lobbying priorities for Congress and the Joe Biden administration?
Foreign aid for Artsakh. That’s a huge priority. Having the president enforce Section 907 that restricts US aid to Azerbaijan, that’s another very high priority. (editor’s note: Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992 bans direct US assistance to Azerbaijan but the president can waive the provision on national security grounds. Armenian-American groups and Azerbaijan are currently locked in a congressional lobbying fight over who should get funding to rebuild Nagorno-Karabakh after last year’s fighting).
And the return of prisoners. Six months after the end of the war, Azerbaijan is still holding prisoners. And unfortunately our State Department is calling them detainees, which is a legal work-around to avoid the protections that are normally afforded to prisoners of war. Obviously they’re prisoners of war. There was a war. People were taken prisoner. The US government should be calling them prisoners of war and saying they’re entitled to the protections for prisoners of war under the Third Geneva Convention.
You started our conversation by saying that genocide recognition only became possible once the field had been cleared of foreign influence. Here at Foreign Lobby Report we’ve closely tracked the Armenian diaspora’s successful campaign to get firms to drop Turkey as a client since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out last fall. Do you see that campaign having a lasting impact on the Washington influence scene?
Turkey has always paid well. For a long time, [representing Ankara] was good business. But that is really changing. Their place in the lobbying ecosystem has really shifted dramatically. More and more firms see it as a career liability. It should be a career liability. And we’re active in that area.
This interview has been edited for clarity and context.