Ilhan Omar faces blowback after voting 'present' on Armenian genocide resolution

Armenian advocacy groups expressed dismay that Omar did not back the measure, which overwhelmingly passed the House by a 405-to-11 margin.

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By Daniel Arkin

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., faced criticism Wednesday after voting "present" on a House resolution to formally recognize the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as a genocide.

The measure, H.Res.296, passed the chamber by an overwhelming 405-to-11 margin, representing a forceful rebuke to Turkey following the NATO ally's recent incursion against the Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Two other House members also voted "present" with Omar: fellow Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, and one Republican, Paul Gosar of Arizona.

But it was Omar's vote that drew the dismay of Armenian advocacy groups and political organizations.

Omar's "votes and actions ... do not represent the best of American or Muslim values," said Van Krikorian, the co-chair of the Armenian Assembly of America. "Innocent people were and are being slaughtered, and there is a universal need to defend the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing, not to stand with or defer to the murderers."

Krikorian said his organization would request a meeting with the freshman Democrat to "clarify her views."

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In the statement to CNN on Tuesday night, Omar said she believes "accountability for human rights violations — especially ethnic cleansing and genocide — is paramount."

She went on to say those goals "should not be used as a cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics," adding that a "true acknowledgement of historical crimes against humanity" would also include the transatlantic slave trade and mass killings of Native Americans.

Armenian groups and other critics voiced displeasure over that statement, however, with some accusing the congresswoman of parroting Turkish government talking points and effectively punting on what they consider an issue of grave importance.

Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said he was especially troubled by the reference to "academic consensus," because in his mind the genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians around World War I is a settled historical fact.

Turkey has long disputed the description of the killings as a genocide, insisting that the death toll has been inflated and the people who died were victims of a civil war.

"It worries us," Hamparian said in a phone interview, referring to Omar's statement and its implications. "It reminds us of talking points from Ankara."

The Armenian Council of America, a California-based group, went even further, accusing Omar of using "official genocide denialist rhetoric to justify her silence" and suggesting that the lawmaker, who regularly speaks out on issues of human rights, was behaving hypocritically in this case.

Omar also faced blowback from Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter, a Swiss-born Turk who has been vocal in his criticisms of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Omar's home newspaper, The Star Tribune, published an article Wednesday morning that quoted some of her constituents in the Minneapolis and Twin Cities area criticizing her for the "present" vote.

Michele Byfield Angell, the parish council chair at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, told the newspaper that she wished Omar had approved the resolution.

"If [she] is going to be representing our community here, she should hear us," Angell was quoted as saying. "If she’s voting present as acknowledging it but not doing anything about it, then what is she doing?"