106 years ago, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed and hundreds of thousands more were forced out of their homes. It was the end of World War I, and the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) believed that the Christian Armenians might align with Russia, their primary adversary. To prevent any such treachery, the Ottoman Turks began arresting Armenian leaders and intellectuals. Armenians were further slaughtered by soldiers, police, and starved to death on a forced exodus through the Syrian desert.
While Turkey has admitted that the killings were atrocious, the country has adamantly refused to label them as genocide. Genocide, a word first used by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, is recognized as a crime by the United Nations. The UN defines genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”
Apart from a brief reference to the Armenian Genocide in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, no U.S. president has labeled the events as such. In fact, only 29 countries worldwide have acknowledged that the killing campaigns amounted to genocide. Much of this hesitancy is due to fear of retribution from Turkey, an important ally for the United States. But after decades of complicity from past American leaders, President Biden has become the first president to acknowledge that the killings were, in fact, genocide.
The President is not the first in American politics to designate the events as genocide, however. In 2019, both the House and the Senate passed resolutions that acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. The widely-supported resolutions may have been inspired by the coinciding attacks on the Kurdish people by Turkish forces, events that Nancy Pelosi called a “stark reminder of the danger in our own time.” Turkey strongly denounced the resolutions, calling the move a “shameful decision of those exploiting history in politics.”
In March, a group of bipartisan Senators called on the President to make the same declaration as Congress. Biden had also pledged in his campaign to support recognition of the Armenian Genocide, so the President’s announcement was widely anticipated. Finally, on April 24, 2021, Armenian Remembrance Day, President Biden condemned the killings as genocide. “We do this not to cast blame,” he said, “but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
While the President might not have “cast blame,” the announcement was still received poorly by Turkey. Leaders of Turkish political parties called the declaration an “improper, unfair stance,” and argued that no international court has designated the killings as genocide. The country’s foreign ministry warned that Biden’s statement “deeply injured the Turkish people.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also labeled the move “political opportunism,” which he believes “is the biggest betrayal of peace and justice.”
Although Turkey expressed anger and betrayal, it is likely that Biden’s declaration will not have any serious political consequences. Relations between the two countries are already strained, and both leaders recognize the importance of cooperation. President Biden and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey plan to meet in June at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit.
While the fallout may not be severe, Biden’s declaration was still risky. Supporters of the announcement believe that it shows that the U.S. is “willing to take geostrategic hits for our values.”
Indeed, the announcement was celebrated among the Armenian-American community as a victory and “relief.” One member of the community, New York composer Mary Jouyoumdjian, declared that it gave her “a great deal of faith in the President’s commitment to human rights over political complexities.” Human rights activist Simon Maghakyan called Biden’s statement a step towards “healing the Armenian community’s intergenerational trauma.”
Biden’s announcement not only shows his administration’s values and willingness to stand up for human rights, but has also captured attention globally. Ara Aivazian, the Foreign Minister of Armenia, predicted that “the recognition by the United States will be a kind of moral beacon to many countries” that may follow America’s lead. However, many are calling the declaration primarily symbolic, saying that there is more to be done. With one political roadblock out of the way, the Biden administration must continue to support human rights in tangible ways.