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Voting ‘present’: Ilhan Omar’s disheartening response to the problem of genocide 

Recognizing genocides does not lead to further ignorance of other genocides, as the representative suggests. The opposite is true.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
Rep. Ilhan Omar
The Armenian genocide is an indisputable historical fact. The evidence that Ottoman officials set about on a systematic plan to annihilate its Armenian population is undeniable.

So too is the genocide of Native peoples in the United States, brought on by policies that varied from extermination to forced assimilation. The evidence of this points to “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” (U.N. Genocide Convention definition) the Native American populations in the United States.

On Tuesday, Congress voted to affirm its record on the Armenian genocide with formal recognition. Despite several congressional nonbinding resolutions, the House had never formally recognized the Armenian genocide. Until Tuesday. However, instead of addressing this historical injustice, Rep. Omar chose to vote “present,” essentially abstaining from the vote. She would later release a statement, in part stating: 

“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 the Native American genocide, which took the lives hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country.”

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The reality, though, is that recognition of one genocide does not diminish another. Drawing awareness of the Armenian genocide does not discount the historical and continued suffering experienced by Native or African peoples as a result of European colonialism. To that end, the recognition of one genocide has never been predicated on the continued denial of others. When the City Councils of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared that the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War paved the road to genocide, it didn’t mean that either city ignored other episodes of mass violence as a result.

Recognizing genocides does not lead to further ignorance of other genocides, as the representative suggests. The opposite is true. Recognition of genocide is an essential step in raising awareness of other episodes of mass violence.

Joe Eggers
Joe Eggers
Understanding painful aspects of history help build connections with other difficult parts of history and foster a greater awareness and empathy with the victims. Memory scholars Alejandro Baer and Natan Sznaider aptly describe this phenomenon, pointing to the fact that understanding episodes of genocide creates a “global memory constellation rather than a zero-sum game in which remembrance of history erases others from view.”

In fact, the concept of genocide was built on this very idea. Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin was shocked by the lack of legal recourse for the violence perpetrated against the Armenians when he coined the term genocide as a legal mechanism for understanding and prosecuting the crimes of the Holocaust. An understanding of episodes of genocide is fundamental to understanding others, and it is disheartening to see Omar ignore these interconnections.

Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide comes at a particularly tense time in relations with Turkey and is seemingly caught up in contemporary turmoil. It is no small irony that the recognition of the Armenian genocides comes as the global community worries of another potential genocide in that region, that of the Kurdish people in Northern Syria. Nevertheless, recognition of the Armenian genocide was overdue and the continued absence of American recognition of the genocide allowed for the Turkish state rhetoric to grow into a century of denial. 

It is time for Congress to acknowledge the genocide of Native peoples, too. Omar is right on that point. Her recognition of the Armenian Genocide would have been a step in that direction.

Joe Eggers is the research and outreach coordinator for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.