On Saturday, April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, U.S. President Joe Biden made a historic declaration that the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were a genocide. In response, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged Biden to reverse his statement as it is disturbing their bilateral relationship. The 1915 massacre resulted in the death of at least 664,000 to possibly 1.2 million Armenian Christians. This event is often considered the first genocide of the twentieth century as Armenians were killed individually, massacred, or died of ill-treatment and starvation. According to Armenian-Genocide, there are at least thirty countries that recognize the Armenian genocide including France, Germany, Venezuela, and now the U.S. Global resistance to recognizing the massacres of 1915 may be a result of Turkey’s military power. For the U.S. at least, Turkey’s influence as the second-biggest military power in NATO and its strategic location was too important to risk tensions with their ally, according to the BBC. Biden’s decision to risk tensions with Turkey likely stemmed from his campaign promise to formally acknowledge the atrocity as a genocide once elected. The Biden administration’s move to centre human rights in its international policy agenda is a crucial step in the right direction. The U.S has often remained complicit in human rights violations for the sake of maintaining economic relations and military alliances.
Erdogan’s response to Biden’s human rights-centred policy agenda is unsurprising. Since the statement, Erdogan has stated that this “wrong step” would harm ties, telling the U.S. to “look in the mirror,” and that the country still wished to establish “good neighbourly” ties with Armenia. While Erdogan is not wrong in telling the U.S. to “look in the mirror” in regard to its indigenous people, his comments continue to distract from the reality of what happened to Armenians in 1915. He continued to remain staunch with his stance, doubling down that “The U.S. president has made baseless, unjust and untrue remarks about the sad events that took place in our geography over a century ago.” He then criticized the U.S. for having been unable to successfully mediate the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, alleging that the U.S. stood by as massacres unfolded. As mentioned, it is just as crucial to demand that the U.S. address its own complicity in human rights violations, however, tensions between Turkey and Armenia will persist if its state actors continue to resist acknowledging the genocide. Erdogan has often claimed that the killings were not systematically orchestrated and that the death toll was exaggerated. His comments demonstrate a blatant disregard for the barbarity that occurred a little over a century ago. Erdogan’s combative responses to international recognition of the genocide are bound to increase new and existing tensions among nations. There will be no ability for Armenia and Turkey to move forward unless tangible effort is demonstrated by Turkey to provide redress for the violence committed against the Armenian people.
Part of Turkey’s resistance to recognizing the 1915 events stems from the country’s belief that there is no “scholarly or legal basis” to declaring the massacres a genocide, according to its foreign ministry. To address this, Erdogan has called for Turkish and Armenian historians to form a commission to investigate the events. Personally, I see this as a redundant way to waste time and divert people’s attention. Many historians have already conducted studies on the event and declared it a genocide. One scholar, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish attorney that created the term “genocide,” refers to both the Holocaust and the massacres of Armenians when describing his investigations. Turkish officials and some scholars, however, do argue that the killings were not systematic, barring it from being a genocide. The main concern with Erdogan’s investigation is that there will be no consensus due to the risk of personal bias and agendas. I do recognize that this is a contested matter and a sensitive subject, so perhaps unbiased countries can offer their own historians to assist in the research and act as mediators. Ultimately, there is no guarantee that Erdogan and the Turkish government will acknowledge the massacres as genocide regardless of the findings.
In an ideal world, Turkey would commit to its moral obligation and confess to the crimes committed against Armenians during the Ottoman Empire. Turkey should also listen to the wishes of the Armenian people. Vera Yacoubian, director of the Armenian National Committee of the Middle East Office, says that Turkey has a “great historical legacy” it needs to return to Armenia, including “church endowments, monasteries, schools, [and] hospitals” after confiscating money, title deeds, jewellery, and savings that Armenian citizens have in European and Turkish banks. There are many ways to compensate for the atrocities committed through recognition and reparations. Turkey needs to begin with the most direct form of action, confessing and apologizing for the genocides, before seeking avenues to provide restitution. Turkey should work in collaboration with Armenian organizations to generate potential means of providing this, ideally including the suggestions made by Yacoubian. While there is no certainty these outcomes will come to be, at least under Erdogan, perhaps Biden’s declaration is a step in the right direction. If more countries join in recognizing the atrocity as genocide, then international pressures may escalate enough to warrant more direct action from Turkey. Hopefully, Armenians will be able to receive the recognition and reparations they need to heal from their painful history.
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