WASHINGTON—President Joe Biden has formally recognized that the systematic killings and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces in the early 20th century were “genocide”—using a term for the atrocities that his White House predecessors have avoided for decades.
With the acknowledgment, Biden followed through on a campaign promise he made a year ago April 24—the annual commemoration of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day—to recognize that the events of 1915 to 1923 were a deliberate effort to wipe out Armenians.
Biden used a presidential proclamation to make the pronouncement. While previous presidents have offered somber reflections of the dark moment in history via remembrance day proclamations, they have studiously avoided using the term genocide out of concern that it would complicate relations with Turkey—a NATO ally and important power in the Middle East.
But Biden argued when making the campaign pledge last year that failing to call the atrocities against the Armenian people a genocide would pave the way for future mass atrocities. An estimated 2 million Armenians were deported and 1.5 million were killed in the events known as Metz Yeghern.
During a telephone call on April 23, Biden informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his plan to issue the statement, said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private conversation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. and Turkish governments, in separate statements following Biden and Erdogan’s call, made no mention of the American plan to recognize the Armenian genocide. But the White House said Biden told Erdogan he wants to improve the two countries’ relationship and find “effective management of disagreements.” The two also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels in June.
In Armenia on April 24, people streamed to the hilltop complex in Yerevan, the capital, that memorializes the victims. Many laid flowers around the eternal flame, creating a wall of blooms two meters (seven feet) high.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Avet Adonts, speaking at the memorial before Biden issued his proclamation, said a U.S. president using the term genocide would “serve as an example for the rest of the civilized world.”
Erdogan reiterated his long-running claims that the United States is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. The PKK has led an insurgency against Turkey for more than three decades. In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against PKK enclaves in Turkey and in northern Iraq and against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. The State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist organization but has argued with Turkey over the group’s ties to the Syrian Kurds.
According to the Turkish government statement after the call, Erdogan also raised concerns about the presence in the United States of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, denies involvement in the coup.
Biden, during the campaign, drew ire from Turkish officials after an interview with The New York Times in which he spoke about supporting Turkey’s opposition against “autocrat” Erdogan. In 2019, Biden accused Trump of betraying U.S. allies, following Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish group. In 2014, when he was vice president, Biden apologized to Erdogan after suggesting in a speech that Turkey helped facilitate the rise of the ISIS terrorist group by allowing foreign fighters to cross Turkey’s border with Syria.
Lawmakers and Armenian American activists have been lobbying Biden to make the genocide announcement on or before remembrance day.