By Naya Kurdy
The Armenian Genocide, which began on April 24, 1915, was a systematic mass murder of around one million ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire and its ruling party. During their invasion of Russian and Persian territories, Ottoman paramilitaries massacred local Armenians, and these massacres turned into genocide after the Ottomans were defeated at the Battle of Sarikamish, which they blamed on Armenian treachery. Ottoman leaders took isolated incidents of Armenian resistance as evidence of a widespread conspiracy, even though no such conspiracy existed. An estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million Armenian women, children and elderly people were sent on death marches, leading to the Syrian Desert, deprived of food and water and subjected to robbery, rape and massacre. The survivors were dispersed into a series of concentration camps; in early 1916, another wave of massacres was ordered, leaving about 200,000 deportees alive by the end of 1916.
This year, the United States Congress officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. The House of Representatives affirmed the United States record on the Armenian Genocide with House Resolution 296 on October 29, 2019. The Senate unanimously recognized the genocide with Senate Resolution 150 on December 12, 2019. However, President Donald Trump did not support this resolution out of reluctance to anger a country of strategic importance, instead calling it “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th Century.”
President Barack Obama had pledged to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide when he first ran in 2008, but by the end of his eight years in the office, he had not done so. “Every year there was a reason not to,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor in the Obama Administration, said in an interview in 2018. “Turkey was vital for some issue that we were dealing with, or there was some dialogue between Turkey and the Armenian government about the past.”
President Joe Biden made a similar promise during his campaign: “If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority for my administration.”
On the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Biden became the first U.S. president to issue a statement formally describing the 1915 massacre as a 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. “And we remember so that we remain ever vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
The Turkish government, as well as human rights activists, gave a muted response, which leaked days in advance, describing the move as largely symbolic. Later on Saturday, the country’s foreign minister summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest the declaration.
In a phone call, Biden told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan directly that he would be declaring the massacre an act of genocide. A summary of the call provided by the White House said only that the pair had agreed to “an effective management of disagreements.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that Biden’s words honored the memory of those who had died, adding in a tweet, “The US has once again demonstrated its unwavering commitment to protecting human rights and universal values.”
In the United States, some Armenian activists welcomed the declaration as a step forward. “The denial of the genocide has been such a painful chapter,” Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said.”This is a really critical moment in the arc of history, in defense of human rights.”
Before World War II, the Armenian Genocide was widely considered the greatest atrocity in history, and as of 2021, 30 countries have recognized the events as a genocide. Even though Turkey has acknowledged the widespread atrocities that occurred during the Ottman Empire period, against the academic consensus, Turkey still denies that the deportation of Armenians was a genocide.