Why Biden’s statement recognizing the Armenian genocide is a big deal

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President Joe Biden became the first US president to formally refer to atrocities committed against Armenians as a “genocide” on Saturday, 106 years after the 1915 start of an eight-year-long campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Ottoman Empire that left between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians dead.

Previous presidents have refrained from using the word “genocide” in connection with the mass atrocities committed against the Armenian people in the early 20th century, and Turkey categorically denies that a genocide took place. So Biden’s declaration marks a major break from precedent, and could signal an increase in tensions with Turkey, a longtime US and NATO ally.

“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,” Biden said in a statement Saturday. “And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”

The move is the fulfillment of a campaign promise for Biden, who pledged on April 24 last year to recognize the genocide if elected. It also comes on a symbolic date: April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, a holiday observed in Armenia and by members of the Armenian diaspora.

And it’s emblematic of the Biden administration’s desire to center human rights in its foreign policy agenda, even at the cost of worsening 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 never followed through while in office, and Bush later called on Congress to reject such a designation. In 1981, Ronald Reagan made a passing reference to “the genocide of the Armenians” during a speech commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, accidentally recognized the genocide last year when White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany made reference to an “Armenian Genocide Memorial” in Denver, Colorado — but rejected nonbinding resolutions by the House and Senate to declare it such.

Both the House and Senate measures, though not approved by Trump, 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 maintained by the Armenian National Institute in Washington, DC.

Biden spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday ahead of the official US announcement. It was the first conversation between the two allied leaders since Biden took office more than three months ago, which some regional experts have taken as a sign of cooling relations between the countries. According to a readout of the call released by the White House, the leaders agreed to hold a bilateral meeting “on the margins of the NATO Summit in June.” And according to news reports — but not the readout — Biden told Erdogan of his intentions to recognize the genocide.

Saturday’s statement officially recognizing the genocide nonetheless elicited a harsh response from Turkey.

“We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the US regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on April 24,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that called on Biden to “correct this grave mistake.”

“This statement of the US … will never be accepted in the conscience of the Turkish people, and will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual friendship and trust,” the foreign ministry said.

Prominent Armenians, however, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, welcomed the news on Saturday. Pashinyan tweeted a brief statement, and, in a letter to Biden, said that the president’s words both paid “tribute” to victims of the genocide and also would help to prevent “the recurrence of similar crimes against mankind.”

“I highly appreciate your principled position, which is a powerful step on the way to acknowledging the truth, historical justice, and an invaluable of support for the descendants of the victims of the Armenian Genocide,” he wrote.

American lawmakers also welcomed Biden’s decision. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, celebrated the statement in a tweet Saturday.

“Thankful that @POTUS will align with congressional & scholarly consensus,” Menendez wrote from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Twitter account. “As I said in 2019 when our resolution to recognize & commemorate the genocide passed the Senate, to overlook human suffering is not who we are as a people. It is not what we stand for as a nation.”

Former Sen. Bob Dole, who advocated for recognition of the Armenian genocide throughout his career, also tweeted his appreciation for Biden’s words — alongside documents showing his own attempts at gaining recognition of the genocide in Congress in the 1970s and ’80s.

“This is a proud and historically significant moment for the United States, for Armenia, and for Armenians around the globe,” the 97-year-old former presidential candidate wrote. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Biden is taking a new approach to the US-Turkey relationship

The vehemence of Turkey’s response to the US recognition of the Armenian genocide isn’t particularly surprising, as the topic has long been a point of international contention for Turkey.

Specifically, allegations of genocide are viewed as “insulting Turkishness” by Turkey — an offense that has elicited criminal charges in the past — because they implicate people who helped found the modern state of Turkey after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1922.

Turkey’s aggressive efforts to push back on attempts to recognize atrocities committed against Armenians during World War I as genocide make Biden’s decision all the more exceptional.

Previously, Turkey has responded to countries acknowledging the genocide by recalling diplomats, including ambassadors to Germany and the Vatican. On Tuesday, in anticipation of a statement from Biden on the matter, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that there could be consequences to Biden’s words.

“Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties,” Cavusoglu said. “If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs.”

As Vox’s Amanda Taub explained in 2015, such concerns over strategic interests in the region have long meant that the US and allies like the United Kingdom have avoided designating mass atrocities against Armenians as a genocide.

Turkey is a key US ally — especially now, as the US relies on Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS in Syria. US officials have compromised on how they refer to the killings. When Obama makes a speech to commemorate the anniversary of the genocide on Friday, White House officials say he will use the term “Meds Yeghern” instead of “genocide.”

Likewise, the United Kingdom has not recognized the genocide, apparently out of concern that doing so would jeopardize its relationship with Turkey. A leaked Foreign Office briefing from 1999 stated that Turkey was “neuralgic and defensive about the charge of genocide.” Therefore, the “only feasible option” was for the United Kingdom to continue to refuse to recognize the killings as genocide, because of “the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey.”

However, the Biden administration has already taken a harder line on the US relationship with Turkey than previous administrations. As a candidate, Biden labeled Erdogan an “autocrat” in an interview with the New York Times, and last month his administration condemned “significant human rights issues” in modern-day Turkey, including the jailing and alleged torture of journalists, activists, and political dissidents.

While it’s unclear exactly what the fallout from Saturday’s announcement will look like, other factors have already chilled the US-Turkey relationship. In December of last year, for example, shortly before Biden took office, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey for purchasing Russian military hardware. In 2019, the US also removed Turkey from its joint F-35 stealth fighter program over the same purchase.

On Saturday, former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who is also Biden’s nominee to run the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the 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 pushing back on Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.

“Turkey is a powerful country in a critical region,” Power wrote on Twitter. “It is part of NATO. Our relationship matters. But President Erdogan’s success in blackmailing & bullying the US (and other countries) not to recognize the Armenian Genocide likely emboldened him as he grew more repressive.”

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