White House officials on Tuesday told representatives of Armenian advocacy groups that the Obama administration once again will avoid the word “genocide” to describe the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians when they were forcibly deported from what is now Turkey during World War I.
Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, met with the representatives for an hour at the White House and discussed the centennial commemoration of the deaths and deportations that will be held Friday in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
“They discussed the significance of this occasion for honoring the 1.5 million lives extinguished during that horrific period, and welcomed the principled advocacy of the Armenian American community on behalf of justice,” a White House statement about the meeting said. “They pledged that the United States will use the occasion to urge a full, frank, and just acknowledgment of the facts that we believe is in the interest of all parties.”
But the officials said the White House will not use the word genocide to describe what took place.
Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, who was at the meeting, described himself as disappointed. He said that despite recent White House statements indicating that the word genocide would not be mentioned in U.S. statements on the commemoration, he’d hoped recent developments might change U.S. policy. He cited an April 12 statement by Pope Francis and recent statements from the German government and the European Parliament referring to the Armenian expulsion and massacres as genocide.
“We thought this would be a moment for the United States to become one of the nations on the right side of history,” he said.
Hamparian said the White House officials cited “regional priorities” for the decision. Turkey has long opposed labeling the Armenian exodus and deaths as genocide.
Rep. Adm Schiff, D-Calif., also criticized the White House decision.
“I’m deeply disappointed that the president, once again, will fail to properly describe the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 for what it was – genocide,” he said in a statement. “How long must the victims and their families wait before our nation has the courage to confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire?”
The White House said that Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew would lead the U.S. delegation to the Yerevan ceremonies.