Joe Biden has become the first US president declare formal recognition of the Armenian genocide, more than a century after the mass killings by Ottoman troops and opening a rift between the new US administration and Ankara.
“The American people honour all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.
“Beginning on 24 April 1915 with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination.”
Biden called the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Friday, to inform him that the US would make the designation on the 106th anniversary of the genocide. The conversation was reported to be tense and the issue was not mentioned in official accounts of the exchange.
Biden’s statement was immediately denounced by Ankara.
“Words cannot change or rewrite history,” the foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said on Twitter. “We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”
A statement from the foreign ministry said: “It is clear that the said statement does not have a scholarly and legal basis, nor is it supported by any evidence. This statement … will open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship. We call on the US president to correct this grave mistake”
A senior US administration official said Biden would have made the declaration no matter what the state of bilateral relations with Turkey.
“This is something that’s been a deeply held conviction of President Biden for a very long time going back to when he was in the Senate and it was a position that he made very clear during the campaign,” the official said.
The official also made a connection to the upsurge of issues of identity around the Black Lives Matter movement and attacks on Asian Americans.
“I would say we’re also at a moment, including here in the United States, where people are grappling with their histories, and the impact of of those those histories and so I think even just historically it is the right moment to do this.”
Turkey’s status as a Nato member and longtime regional ally has prevented US presidents from making a formal designation. But relations between Washington and Ankara have soured dramatically in recent years.
The declaration marked the culmination of decades of lobbying by Armenian American organisations.
“This is a critically important moment in the defence of human rights,” said Bryan Ardouny, head of the Armenian Assembly of America. “It’s been a long journey. President Biden is standing firm against a century of denial, and is charting a course in for human rights everywhere.”
The killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians was carried out as the Ottoman empire was collapsing and the modern state of Turkey was being born. Many victims died in death marches into the Syrian desert. The slaughter is widely viewed as a crime on a monumental scale – and a grim precursor to the Nazi Holocaust.
Ronald Reagan referred the Armenian genocide in passing in a statement on the Holocaust in 1981, but it was not followed by a formal recognition. Barack Obama promised Armenian Americans he would take that step but reneged once in office, unwilling to upset an ally. In 2019, both chambers of Congress declared their own recognition, despite Donald Trump’s efforts to stop them.
Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish political scientist, said the Biden declaration would be a seminal moment in relations between Ankara and Washington, but said economic considerations may force Erdoğan to downplay the impact of an issue he previously considered an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the modern state.
“It’s not the first time that a US president comes to office pledging to recommend the Armenian genocide,” said Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research program at the Washington Institute.
“What happened in the past was as soon as these presidents took office, departments of government would brief them. That’s not happening now and this is linked to changing US views inside Washington. Now Turkey is one of the most disliked countries, especially at the Pentagon.”
He said the Turkish decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defence system was the main reason for the change in attitude. Policy disputes over the Kurds and Islamic State have also played a role.
Administration officials noted that Biden had sought to soften the impact on relations with Ankara, emphasising that the genocide was carried out before modern Turkey was born and that the focus was not on blame but remembrance.
“The statement makes very clear that the point of this was was not to place blame,” the senior official said. “It talks about the Ottoman-era atrocities. And I think this this really was done in a very principled way to focus on the legacy of these atrocities and is very much forward looking as well, in the hope that we are able to prevent such atrocities from happening again in the future.”
Samantha Power, a former US envoy to the United Nations and now Biden’s nominee to run the US Agency for International Development, tried and failed at the last hurdle to persuade Obama to recognise the genocide.
She said on Twitter it was “sad to think of all those who worked so hard for recognition but didn’t see it happen. First and foremost, the community of survivors – nearly all of whom have passed away. Genocide denial caused them and their families immense pain.”