Nominee to Be US Ambassador to Armenia Refuses to Call WWI-Era Killings Genocide


By Desmond Butler

WASHINGTON (AP) — A US diplomat nominated to be ambassador to Armenia came under intense questioning Thursday at her confirmation hearing over the US policy not to label as genocide the World War I-era killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and later the modern Republic of Turkey.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who blocked the Bush administration’s previous nominee over the issue, said he had not decided whether also to block career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch.

Menendez questioned Yovanovitch forcefully during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the facts surrounding the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Yovanovitch, current ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, explained administration policy, but would not comment whether she believed genocide had occurred.

“The US government — and certainly I — acknowledges and mourns the mass killings, ethnic cleansing and forced deportations that devastated over one and a half million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire,” said Yovanovitch in her opening testimony.

Her statement prompted Menendez to present several documents quoting Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Armenian Genocide.

By juxtaposing the eyewitness accounts of US officials at the time of the Genocide with the definition of the crime as outlined by the UN Convention on Genocide and Human Rights, to which the US is a signatory, Menendez asked whether Yovanovitch’s definition of “ethnic cleansing” matched the definition outlined in the UN Convention, based on the eyewitness accounts of the US diplomatic corps in the Ottoman Empire.

A hesitant Yovanovich, who seemed at a loss for words, sidestepped the question, merely stating that it is the president and the State Department who set the policy of defining historic events.

“It is a shame that career foreign service officers have to be brought before the committee and find difficulty in acknowledging historical facts,” Menendez said. “It is a ridiculous dance that the administration is doing over the use of the term ‘genocide.’”

At the same time, he expressed admiration for Yovanovitch. After the hearing, Menendez said he would review her written responses to questions before making up his mind.

Other Democratic senators also criticized the administration’s policy.

The administration has warned that even a congressional debate on the Genocide question could damage relations with Turkey, a NATO member and an important strategic ally.

In August, the White House withdrew its nomination of career diplomat Richard Hoagland after Menendez held up his confirmation through a Senate procedure.

The last US ambassador to Armenia , John Evans, reportedly had his tour of duty cut short by the administration because, in a social setting, he referred to the killings as genocide.

Armenian-American groups sought to prevent Hoagland’s nomination unless he made a clear statement affirming the genocide.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, criticized Yovanovitch’s responses in the hearing.

“We were troubled by Ambassador Yovanovitch’s refusal to offer any meaningful rationale for the administration’s ongoing complicity in Turkey’s denials,” he said in a statement.

In a statement, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, “The nomination of Ambassador Yovanovitch comes on the heels of a particularly difficult period in US policy toward Armenia. It is bad enough that Armenians everywhere have to endure a US President who refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide despite earlier promises to the contrary. But Armenians were also recently forced to witness the dismissal of a career US diplomat, Ambassador John Evans, who expressed his personal view that it is long past time that the United States call one of the greatest events of deliberate mass murder in the 20th century by its rightful name — genocide.

“I look forward to hearing Ambassador Yovanovitch’s thoughts on the Armenian Genocide, particularly in light of the genocide that is raging in the Darfur region of Sudan today,” she noted.

In a closing and forceful summary of his interrogation, Menendez took the occasion to lambaste official Washington’s position.

“It is a shame,” he said, “that career foreign service officers have to be brought before committees and find difficulty in acknowledging historical facts and find difficulty in acknowledging the realities of what has been internationally recognized.”

Menendez went on to say that the US policy against Armenian Genocide recognition is “detrimental to foreign policy”, further calling the policy a “ridiculous stance.”

Among observers of the hearing that included Armenia’s Ambassador to the United States Tatul Markaryan and Armenian Assembly of America Executive Director Bryan Ardouny, who said his organization “applauds the continued efforts of Senator Menendez for ensuring that the facts of the Armenian Genocide are brought to the forefront and not denied.”

For a few dozen Armenian Americans adding to the standing-room-only audience, a highlight of the afternoon session was Yovanovitch being introduced to the panel by former senator and presidential candidate, Robert Dole.

During his remarks Dole recounted his affinity for Armenia, born of his World War II experience, when he attributes an Armenian doctor with saving his life following battle wounds Dole suffered.

Included in his remarks, Dole said that Armenia “has some very serious problems; they need an ambassador.”

Before appointed to her current post Yovanovitch served as senior advisor to the under secretary for political affairs at the Department of State. Earlier in her career, she served as deputy chief of mission in Kiev. Yovanovitch received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and her master’s degree from the National War College.

The hearings will continue this summer.
(Stories from the Associated Press, Armenia Now and Arminfo were used to compiled this report.)