The genocide of Armenian people committed by Turkey in 1915, was officially recognized by US President Biden on Saturday in an official declaration. This has now ended a consistent policy of non-recognition that has long guided Biden’s predecessors.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” the American President said.
The full statement by the White House
Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring. Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination. We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.
Of those who survived, most were forced to find new homes and new lives around the world, including in the United States. With strength and resilience, the Armenian people survived and rebuilt their community. Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores. We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.
Today, as we mourn what was lost, let us also turn our eyes to the future—toward the world that we wish to build for our children. A world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security. Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.
The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.
How Biden Decided to Recognize the Armenian Genocide
In his first phone call on Friday to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Biden said he would use the term “Armenian Genocide” on the 106th anniversary of the killings.
In the White House’s readout of the call, there was no mention of the Armenian Genocide, but sources revealed to Reuters previously that the president planned to do so on on April 24 which is known as Remembrance Day for the genocide.
By recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Biden has broken away from the precedent of former presidents declining to do so for fear of injuring relations with Turkey.
For decades, Turkey relied on the importance of the so-called “strategic partnership” to veto any American recognition of the systematic killing of Armenians in 1915 during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.
For Biden, recognition follows through on his promises to center his foreign policy around human rights. It would also fulfill another pledge he made to Armenian-Americans a year ago to do so as part of this agenda.
In a Medium post written last year on Remembrance Day, Biden pointed to his past support for bipartisan Congressional resolutions to recognize the Armenian Genocide and pledged to support them if he won in November.
“If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority for my administration,” he wrote.
Congress calls for recognition of Armenian Genocide
In the run-up to Biden’s call with Erdogan, he was on the receiving end of appeals from Congress to adopt previous resolutions to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
The first letter was from the Senate and led by the chairman of its Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and was signed by 37 other senators in both parties. Together they called on Biden to follow through on his promises to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.
“Administrations of both parties have been silent on the truth of the Armenian Genocide. We urge you to break this pattern of complicity by officially recognizing that the Armenian Genocide was a genocide,” read the letter.
A second letter followed in the week before Remembrance Day from the House of Representatives. Led by congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose southern CA district is home to many Armenian-Americans, over 100 members echoed the Senate’s letter.
“Mr. President, as you said last year in your April 24 statement, “Silence is complicity.” The shameful silence of the United States Government on the historic fact of the Armenian Genocide has gone on for too long, and it must end,” said the lawmakers in their letter.
In recent years, congressional views of Turkey have soured significantly. Erdogan’s threats aimed at US troops in Syria, his attacks on US Kurdish allies in the country, and his purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia have done serious damage to Congress’ perception of his country.
“There’s no reason for the United States to carry Turkish water on genocide denial – there never was, and there certainly isn’t now,” Schiff told a local network in Los Angeles on Thursday.
Fulfilling a void left by prior presidents
The last time a US president referred to the killings as “genocide” was Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan ultimately backtracked his remarks, continuing in the pattern set by his predecessors and continued by his successors.
President Barack Obama, who Biden served as vice president for, was widely expected to recognize the Armenian Genocide. However, he ended his administration without doing so.
This failure is something that several of his aides still regret.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former speechwriter and a deputy national security advisor, called their failure to announce recognition “a mistake”. He blamed it on a need to keep Turkey onboard with administration policies in the Middle East.
Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and Biden’s nominee to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID), apologized personally. She added that their administration was “played a little bit” by Erdogan to continue US non-recognition.
However, Biden may actually be following the advice of his former colleagues by acting now. In an interview in 2018, Rhodes offered a lesson to future presidents and their staff on recognition; do it in the first year.
“Frankly, here’s the lesson, I think, going forward: Get it done the first year, you know, because if you don’t it gets harder every year in a way,” Rhodes said.
The Turkish backlash takes shape
Turkey acknowledges that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago, but it refuses to acknowledge it as a “genocide”.
Erdogan has previously criticized decisions to acknowledge it as such as “Turkophobic” and his Islamist-nationalist base is unlikely to take kindly to any US move to do the same.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu already said that recognition by the US would only hurt ties. That said, Thomas de Waal, an expert on Armenia, warns that the US should watch for backlash against Armenians in Turkey itself.
“I hope the US government is preparing a strong response if in response to Biden, the AKP/MHP [Turkey’s ruling coalition] takes retribution against the 100,000 or so Armenians in Istanbul or Armenian cultural monuments,” de Waal tweeted on Friday.
During last year’s war between Armenia and Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, another state that denies the Armenian Genocide, Turkish Armenians feared for their safety as nationalists triumphantly paraded through their neighborhoods.
In the United States, a response is already taking place.
On April 15, leaders of the pro-government Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC) penned a letter to Biden that effectively blamed the killings in 1915 on Armenians themselves who they say conspired to carve an ethnic state out of Turkish territory.
For Remembrance Day, Erdogan’s communications office also announced plans to open an exhibition of its own that is dedicated to Turkish diplomats “martyred” by Armenian militants in the US. It also hints that the exhibition will be used to cast doubt on the genocide itself.
“In the exhibition to be held on April 24, the date on which the Armenian lobby and some countries attempt to fuel the so-called “Armenian genocide” slander intentionally for the sake of their political calculations, Turkey’s efforts to clarify and reveal the facts about the events of 1915 are also detailed,” read the office’s announcement.
Together these acts appear as signs of how Ankara will respond to a Biden recognition if he issues it on Remembrance Day.
De Waal however expresses hope that US recognition will provide some solace to the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
He said Biden’s recognition “will tell those Armenians who lost grandparents that their loss is no longer denied.”
“April 24, a day of mourning and remembrance will belong to them.”