President Joe Biden was the first US president to officially label the atrocities against Armenians as “genocide” on Saturday, 106 years after the Ottoman Empire began an eight-year ethnic cleansing campaign between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians dead.
Former presidents have failed to use the word “genocide” in connection with the mass atrocities committed against the Armenian people in the early 20th century, and Turkey categorically denies that genocide took place. So Biden’s statement represents a major break with the precedent and could signal an increase in tensions with Turkey, a long-time ally of the US and NATO.
“Every year on that day we remember the lives of all those who were killed in the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman era, and we re-commit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever occurring again,” said Biden in a statement on Saturday. “And we remember that we are always vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
The move is the fulfillment of an election pledge for Biden, who pledged on April 24th last year to recognize the genocide if elected. There is also a symbolic date: April 24th is the day of commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, a holiday celebrated in Armenia and by members of the Armenian diaspora.
And it is a symbol of the Biden government’s desire to mainstream human rights into its foreign policy agenda, even at the expense of a deterioration in relations with Turkey.
Biden is the first US leader in decades to use the word “genocide” in connection with the events of 1915-1923. Previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, made similar campaign promises to recognize the Armenian genocide, but were never implemented in office, and Bush later asked Congress to reject such a nomination. In 1981, in a speech in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, Ronald Reagan referred temporarily to the “genocide of the Armenians”.
The Trump administration inadvertently recognized last year’s genocide when White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany referred to an “Armenian Genocide Memorial” in Denver, Colorado – but rejected non-binding House and Senate resolutions to do so to explain.
Both House and Senate measures, though not endorsed by Trump, were passed overwhelmingly in 2019, paving the way for Biden’s action on Saturday.
With the addition of the US on Saturday, 30 countries – including France, Germany and Russia – now recognize the genocide, according to a list from the Armenian National Institute in Washington, DC.
Biden spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday ahead of the US official announcement. It was the first conversation between the two Allied leaders since Biden took office more than three months ago that some regional experts have seen as a sign of a cooling off in relations between the countries. According to a reading of the appeal published by the White House, the leaders agreed to hold a bilateral meeting “on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June”. And according to news reports – but not the ad – Biden told Erdogan of his intentions to acknowledge the genocide.
Saturday’s statement officially recognizing the genocide nonetheless sparked a tough reaction from Turkey.
“We strongly condemn the statement by the President of the United States on the events of 1915, which was made on April 24 under pressure from radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkish groups,” said the Turkish Foreign Ministry in a statement on Saturday on Biden to “correct this serious mistake”.
“This US statement … will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual friendship and trust,” said the State Department.
Prominent Armenians, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, welcomed the news on Saturday. Pashinyan tweeted a brief statement, saying in a letter to Biden that the president’s words would “pay tribute” to the victims of the genocide and also help prevent “the recurrence of similar crimes against humanity”.
“I very much appreciate your position of principle, which is an important step towards the recognition of truth, historical justice and invaluable support for the descendants of the victims of the Armenian genocide,” he wrote.
American lawmakers also welcomed Biden’s decision. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, celebrated the statement in a tweet on Saturday.
“Grateful @POTUS aligns with the consensus of Congress and academia,” Menendez wrote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Twitter account. “As I said in 2019, when our decision to recognize and commemorate genocide was passed by the Senate, it is not what we as a people are, to overlook human suffering. It’s not what we stand for as a nation. “
Grateful that @POTUS aligns with the consensus of Congress and academia. As I said in 2019, when our resolution to recognize and commemorate genocide was passed by the Senate, it is not what we as a people are to overlook human suffering. It’s not what we stand for as a nation. pic.twitter.com/1UH8YvG3rE
– Senate External Relations Committee (@SFRCdems), April 24, 2021
Former Senator Bob Dole, who has campaigned for recognition of the Armenian genocide throughout his career, also tweeted his appreciation for Biden’s words – alongside documents showing his own attempts to recognize the genocide in Congress in the 1970s and 1980s .
Hooray for @POTUS! I am very happy to hear that he has officially recognized the Armenian genocide. This is a proud and historically significant moment for the United States, for Armenia, and for Armenians around the world. It was foreseeable for a long time. pic.twitter.com/UQJ39aPkDg
– Senator Bob Dole (@SenatorDole) April 24, 2021
“This is a proud and historically significant moment for the United States, for Armenia and for Armenians around the world,” wrote the 97-year-old former presidential candidate. “It was to be seen for a long time.”
Biden takes a new approach to US-Turkey relations
The vehemence of Turkey’s reaction to the US recognizing the Armenian Genocide is not particularly surprising, given that the issue has long been an international point of contention for Turkey.
Genocide allegations, in particular, are viewed by Turkey as “an insult to Turkishness” – an offense that has historically brought criminal charges – because they affect people who helped found the modern state of Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 to have.
Turkey’s aggressive efforts to roll back attempts to recognize the atrocities committed against Armenians as genocide make Biden’s decision all the more extraordinary.
Previously, Turkey responded to countries that recognize the genocide by recalling diplomats, including ambassadors to Germany and the Vatican. Pending a statement from Biden on the matter, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned on Tuesday that Biden’s words could have consequences.
“Statements that are not legally binding are of no use, but they damage ties,” said Cavusoglu. “If the United States is to make relations worse, the choice is theirs.”
As Vox’s Amanda Taub explained in 2015, such concerns about strategic interests in the region have long led the US and allies like the UK to avoid labeling mass atrocities against Armenians as genocide.
Turkey is an important ally of the US – especially now that the US depends on Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS in Syria. US officials have compromised how to relate to the murders. When Obama delivers a speech on Friday on the anniversary of the genocide, White House officials say he will use the term “Meds Yeghern” instead of “genocide”.
Likewise, the UK has not recognized the genocide, apparently out of concern that it would jeopardize its relationship with Turkey. A leaked briefing from the Foreign Office in 1999 stated that Turkey was “neuralgic and defensive against charges of genocide”. Therefore, the “only possible option” was that the UK continued to refuse to recognize the killings as genocide because “our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey are important”.
However, the Biden administration has already taken a tougher line on US relations with Turkey than previous governments. Biden named Erdogan an “autocrat” in an interview with the New York Times, and last month his government condemned “significant human rights problems” in what is now Turkey, including the imprisonment and alleged torture of journalists, activists and political dissidents.
While it is unclear exactly what the impact of Saturday’s announcement will be, other factors have already rocked the U.S.-Turkey relationship. For example, in December last year, shortly before Biden took office, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey for buying Russian military hardware. In 2019, the US also removed Turkey from their joint F-35 stealth fighter program with the same purchase.
Turkey is a powerful country in a critical region. It’s part of NATO. Our relationship is important. But President Erdogan’s success in blackmailing and bullying the US (and other countries) into not recognizing the Armenian genocide likely encouraged him as he became more repressive. 4/7
– Samantha Power (@SamanthaJPower) April 24, 2021
On Saturday, former US ambassador to the UN was Samantha Power, who was also Biden’s nomination to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide argued that the decision was an important step in rolling back Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.
“Turkey is a powerful country in a critical region,” wrote Power on Twitter. “It’s part of NATO. Our relationship is important. But President Erdogan’s success in blackmailing and bullying the US (and other countries) into not recognizing the Armenian genocide likely encouraged him as he became more repressive. “