Saturday, April 24 marked Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, a day on which Armenians around the world remember the atrocities committed against them by the Ottoman Empire – now present-day Turkey – in 1915-16 during the Meds Yeghern, the Armenian term for the genocide. This year’s remembrance gained additional awareness from the public after President Biden released a statement specifically referring to the event as a genocide. The move followed through on Biden’s campaign promise to focus on human rights, even at the risk of alienating Turkey – a NATO ally and major power in the Middle East.
The Armenian Genocide, sometimes called “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” refers to a period of violence, deportation and death marches by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian population from spring 1915 until fall 1916. The genocide targeted roughly 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman territory and resulted in “(a)t least 664,000 and possibly as many as 1.2 million” deaths, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
According to the USHMM, the genocide was sparked by fear that invading Allied armies would incite the Christian Armenians to take up arms against the Ottomans, resulting in forced deportations beginning in provinces nearer to their enemies that quickly expanded to target Armenians in the entire empire. Turkey has long denied that these atrocities were genocide and suppressed information about them, resulting in their place in history being obscured and often forgotten. Despite these efforts, the Armenian Genocide and what news of it that did escape to the wider world inspired attempts to create protections for groups and helped coin the term “genocide.”
Presidents of the United States have almost always avoided referring to the atrocities as genocide in the past due to Turkey’s position as a major NATO ally in the Middle East. This delicate partnership and the offense Turkey takes when other countries insinuate the events as a genocide meant that, until now, the Armenian Genocide had never been officially referred to as a genocide in U.S. policy. The only exception to this unspoken rule was one occasion when President Ronald Reagan used the term in the 1980s. However, this instance did not affect the overall U.S. policy on the matter, according to the Associated Press.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement soon after Biden’s, condemning his decision to recognize the genocide.
“We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the U.S. regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups,” said the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
In contrast, according to the Associated Press, the Armenian government praised the statement and said it hopes to serves as an example to the rest of the world to honor the memory of those horrible events.
Regardless of the international political backlash, the statement will have, Biden has already been praised by members of the Armenian-American community, activists, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other Democratic members of Congress for upholding history and recognizing violations of human rights from the past. The statement has set the tone for this administration’s stance on human rights, though how this commitment will play out remains to be seen.