President Joe Biden has officially recognized the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks that took place over a century ago as a genocide. The recognition signals Biden’s commitment to promoting human rights in his administration’s foreign policy.
Saturday, April 24th was Armenian Remembrance Day, marking the 106th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. “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 on Saturday. He went on to emphasize the importance of remembrance in preventing history from repeating itself. “[W]e remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms,” he said.
On April 24th 1915, the Armenian genocide began with the arrests of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and dignitaries in Constantinople. The violence against the Armenian people began during the First World War, as the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern-day Turkey, was disintegrating. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) – the Ottoman government at the time and a part of the nationalist Young Turks movement – had long feared Armenian separatist sentiments. In the war, the Ottomans sided with Germany, and they suspected the Armenian population of collaborating with Russia. Citing treachery and national security concerns, officials ordered the mass deportations and killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. Some were massacred by Ottoman forces; others died of starvation in forced exoduses into the Syrian desert.
The United States is the 30th nation to officially recognize the Armenian genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute. Turkey has acknowledged that atrocities were committed against the Armenian people, but it maintains that the death toll has been greatly exaggerated and insists that the violence did not constitute genocide. Turkey considers accusations of genocide to be unfounded attacks aimed at undermining its national reputation by equating its actions with the horrors of the Holocaust and the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly and fervently rejected the term. President Biden’s predecessors have all avoided an official recognition in order to avoid angering Turkey and harming U.S.-Turkey relations, which are already strained.
Turkey is a member of NATO and the Group of 20, and it plays an important role in the ongoing military conflicts in Ukraine and Afghanistan. Turkey’s support for Afghanistan will likely become increasingly important when Biden follows through on his promise to pull American troops out of the region by September 11th of this year. Turkey also currently houses millions of refugees from the conflict in Syria. Turkey’s continued cooperation in these respects might be jeopardized by fraying ties with the United States.
The relationship between Turkey and the United States has been deteriorating for years. Tensions were especially aggravated by Turkey’s 2019 invasion of northeastern Syria (the U.S. backs the Kurdish-led-militia in the Syrian conflict). And last December, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey over a missile deal made with Russia in 2017. The deal signalled to many that Turkey was turning its back on NATO. U.S. and European officials have expressed concern over Russia’s increasing level of influence in Turkey. Turkey opposed U.S. sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its interference in the 2016 American elections. Analysts worry that deteriorating relations with the U.S. could compel Turkey to shift its allegiance away from the West and toward America’s adversaries, particularly Russia and Iran.
Responding to the news that Biden planned to make a declaration of genocide, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, warned that such a declaration would “harm ties” with Turkey. “Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties,” he said. Following Biden’s statement on Saturday, the Turkish foreign ministry denounced the move in a press release, stating that the recognition of genocide “[would] not yield any results other than polarizing the nations and hindering peace and stability in our region.” The statement describes Biden’s recognition as historically and legally unfounded and declares that it would “never be accepted by the conscience of the Turkish people.”
Like the Turkish government, some Armenian human rights activists have dismissed Biden’s recognition of the genocide as mostly symbolic. Others, however, have applauded the move. The recognition is especially meaningful for the many members of the Armenian diaspora living in the United States. After over a century of denial, recognition of the genocide affirms history and honours those who survived the violence, as well as those who did not.
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