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November 27th, 2019

The Double Standard of Ilhan Omar

by:Ithamar Handelman-Smith

Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) has come under fire once again.

On Tuesday, 30 October, Omar was the only Democrat representative to vote against a bill to impose sanctions on Turkey over Erdogan’s invasion of northeast Syria and abstain on a separate bill to call out the Armenian genocide.

The Armenian Genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire from about 1915 to 1923. It is thought to have claimed the lives of more than a million people, though figures are in dispute. The deaths occurred as the empire collapsed under the weight of World War I, and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Armenians to the deserts of Syria and elsewhere. Victims were killed by Ottoman forces or died of starvation and exhaustion.

As mentioned, the Armenian Genocide vote was accompanied by another motion to sanction senior Turkish officials and the country's army in response to Ankara's invasion of northeastern Syria. 

U.S. lawmakers have mobilized against Turkey following "Operation Peace Spring," launched earlier in October shortly after President Trump’s announcement of withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria in order to clear Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The SDF is one of the main U.S. allies in the campaign against ISIS, and suffered more than 12,000 casualties in the process. Turkey considers its lead element—the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG)—an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been waging an intermittent guerrilla war in Turkey since the 1980s.

Both motions passed with huge support: 405-11 on the bill noting that the Ottoman-era killing of 1.5 million Armenians was indeed genocide, 403-16 on the sanctions measure.

But Ilhan Omar sustained from both votes. Omar was heavily criticised for refusing to back the House vote on recognising the early 20th century Armenian Genocide. 

Responding to the criticism, Omar released a statement explaining her stance and suggesting that votes to acknowledge historic human rights abuses should not be a political weapon used as a stick against America's opponents.

Omar went on to say that while she believes that accountability for human rights abuses is "paramount," she also believes that "accountability and recognition of genocide 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." If Congress truly wishes to acknowledge historic crimes against humanity, Omar added, it should look closer to home. She argued that such a step "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 of hundreds of millions of people in this country." For this reason, Omar voted "present" on the bill. 

One can agree with Omar on the problematic nature of weaponizing historical trauma for a current political battle, but the question is - if there were a vote, say, about the recognition of what is known as the Palestinian Nakba (the Palestinian exodus that occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Israeli- Palestinian war) what would Omar, a staunch critic of Israel, have voted then?

The problem with politicians such as Omar is that, sometimes, especially when it concerns the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, there seems to be a certain double standard. Omar has been very firm and vocal in criticising Israel and the lack of civil rights in the Occupied Territories, but at the same time she voted “present” when these two anti-Turkish motions have been put to vote. This double standard plays into the hands of right-wing media pundits and politicians.   

“Rep. Ilhan Omar is showing a strange reluctance to cross Turkish tyrant Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” wrote the New York Post following the vote. The Post added that “Omar says sanctions are part of a ‘failed foreign-policy playbook.’ And she said she couldn’t support the genocide resolution because it didn’t mention ‘the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide.” The Post concluded its editorial by saying that it “Looks to us more like the Islamist ruler of Turkey has at least one ally in Congress.” 

Even if we disagree with the NY Post’s conclusion, we cannot ignore the idea that if someone is so vocal in his criticism of certain human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, they should show at least the same level of solidarity with the Armenian struggle for recognition and the Kurds’ long and bloody battle for independence.     

Image: Prachatai

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