President Joe Biden has foregone the precedent of his predecessors by becoming the first U.S. president to formally recognize the mass killings of over one million Armenians as genocide. The acknowledgement comes over a century after the Ottoman Turks perpetrated the mass killings, and in spite of possible complications for U.S.-Turkey relations.
Turkish objections have persuaded past U.S. presidents to stop short of using the term genocide when acknowledging the Ottoman-era atrocities, but Biden was urged to fulfil his campaign promise by making the designation ahead of Armenian Remembrance Day, which is observed on April 24. The term – which is a combination of “geno,” the Greek work for race or tribe, and “-cide,” the Latin work for killing – was formulated in 1944 by Polish-Jewish Lawyer Raphael Lemkin, according to The New York Times. It has since become a legal concept and a crime under international law.
CNN adds that Biden informed Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision prior to releasing his statement on April 24. As vice president, Biden frequently dealt with Erdogan, whom he called an “autocrat.” During an interview with the editorial board of The New York Times, Biden called for a new approach to Erdogan that “[makes] it clear that we support opposition leadership.” This potential shift risks antagonizing Turkey, a NATO ally and strategic partner straddling Europe and the Middle East.
The Turkish foreign minister subsequently condemned Biden’s statement as a distortion of historical facts that “will open a deep wound that is difficult to shake our mutual trust and friendship,” reports NBC News. Modern-day Turkey, which emerged from the Ottoman Empire, has consistently refuted genocidal claims, insisting the deaths were the result of wartime fighting, hunger, and disease.
April 24 holds considerable significance as it marks the beginning of the atrocities, which started in 1915 when Armenian leaders were detained, deported, and killed by Turkish leaders who became suspicious of Armenia’s Christian minority. The events, which occurred during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, were the beginning of a year-long persecution, during which hundreds of thousands were killed and countless others were forced out of their homes. Some put the final estimation of Armenians killed at 1.5 million – a figure Biden included in his statement – according to LA Times.
The Washington Post adds that reports of the mass killings of Armenians were among the reasons compelling the U.S. to enter World War I; however, Congress refrained from declaring war on the Ottoman Empire as a matter of U.S. security. Gradually, the United States’ priorities shifted and it lost sight of the need for justice for Armenians as relations with Turkey grew stronger. Recently, however, the patience of U.S. policymakers has been strained by Turkey’s worsening human rights record and increasingly aggressive behavior in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean.
Other contributions to Biden’s decision are likely Turkey’s close ties with Russia and fractious relations with other NATO allies, reports The New York Times. Yet another influence is the Armenian American community’s outrage over Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia in 2020. The campaign for U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, however, has been ongoing since the late 1960s after Armenians around the world mobilized for greater international recognition of their plight, according to The Washington Post.