WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden formally recognized that the systematic killings and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces in the early 20th century were “genocide” — using a term for the atrocities that his White House predecessors have avoided for decades over concerns of alienating Turkey.
With the acknowledgment, Biden followed through on a campaign promise he made a year ago Saturday — the annual commemoration of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — to recognize that the events of 1915 to 1923 were a deliberate effort to wipe out Armenians.
Biden used a presidential proclamation to make the pronouncement. It began: “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. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Biden became the first US president to use the word genocide, a day after informing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the decision and seeking to limit the furor from the NATO ally.
The statement is a massive victory for Armenia and its extensive diaspora. Starting with Uruguay in 1965, nations including France, Germany, Canada and Russia have recognized the genocide but a US statement has been a paramount goal that proved elusive under other presidents until Biden.
Erdogan, in a statement to the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul, said that debates “should be held by historians” and not “politicized by third parties.”
Previous US presidents have offered somber reflections of the dark moment in history via remembrance day proclamations. But Biden campaigned on a promise to make human rights a central guidepost of his foreign policy. He argued when making the campaign pledge last year that failing to call the atrocities against the Armenian people a genocide would pave the way for future mass atrocities. An estimated 2 million Armenians were deported and 1.5 million were killed in the events known as Metz Yeghern.
The White House said Biden told Erdogan Friday he wants to improve the two countries’ relationship and find “effective management of disagreements.” The two also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels in June.
In Armenia on Saturday, people streamed to the hilltop complex in Yerevan, the capital, that memorializes the victims. Many laid flowers around the eternal flame, creating a wall of blooms two meters (seven feet) high.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Avet Adonts, speaking at the memorial before Biden issued his proclamation, said a US president using the term genocide would “serve as an example for the rest of the civilized world.”
Biden’s call with Erdogan was his first since taking office more than three months ago. The delay had become a worrying sign in Ankara; Erdogan had a good rapport with former President Donald Trump and had been hoping for a reset despite past friction with Biden.
Erdogan reiterated his long-running claims that the US is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. The PKK has led an insurgency against Turkey for more than three decades. In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against PKK enclaves in Turkey and in northern Iraq and against US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. The State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist organization but has argued with Turkey over the group’s ties to the Syrian Kurds.
According to the Turkish government statement after the call, Erdogan also raised concerns about the presence in the United States of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, denies involvement in the coup.
Biden, during the campaign, drew ire from Turkish officials after an interview with The New York Times in which he spoke about supporting Turkey’s opposition against “autocrat” Erdogan. In 2019, Biden accused Trump of betraying US allies, following Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish group. In 2014, when he was vice president, Biden apologized to Erdogan after suggesting in a speech that Turkey helped facilitate the rise of the Islamic State group by allowing foreign fighters to cross Turkey’s border with Syria.
Lawmakers and Armenian American activists have been lobbying Biden to make the genocide announcement on or before remembrance day.
Salpi Ghazarian, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies, said the recognition of genocide would resonate beyond Armenia and underscore Biden’s seriousness about respect for human rights as a central principle in his foreign policy.
“Within the United States and outside the United States, the American commitment to basic human values has been questioned now for decades,” she said. “It is very important for people in the world to continue to have the hope and the faith that America’s aspirational values are still relevant, and that we can in fact do several things at once. We can in fact carry on trade and other relations with countries while also calling out the fact that a government cannot get away with murdering its own citizens.”
In response to the US recognition, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an announcement saying “Israel recognizes the terrible suffering and the tragedy of the Armenian people.”
The ministry added that Israel and all world countries have a “responsibility to make sure such events never recur.”
Israel’s Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid praised the move, saying that it is “an important moral statement by President Biden.”
“I will continue to fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide, it is our moral responsibility as the Jewish state,” Lapid added.
TOI staff and AFP contributed to this report.