WASHINGTON – The systematic killing and deportation of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces in the early 20th century was “genocide,” the United States formally declared on Saturday, as President Joe Biden used that precise word after the White House had avoided it for decades for fear of alienating ally Turkey.
Turkey reacted with furor, with the foreign minister saying his country “will not be given lessons on our history from anyone.” A grateful Armenia said it appreciated Biden’s “principled position” as a step toward “the restoration of truth and historical justice.”
Biden was following through on a campaign promise he made a year ago Saturday — the annual commemoration of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — to recognize that the events that began in 1915 were a deliberate effort to wipe out Armenians.
While previous presidents have offered somber reflections of the dark moment in history, 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 campaigned on a promise to make human rights a central guidepost of his foreign policy. He argued 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 — 1.5 million of whom were killed in the events known as Metz Yeghern.
“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” Biden said in a statement. “We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a letter to Biden that recognition of the genocide “is important not only in terms of respecting the memory of 1.5 million innocent victims, but also in preventing the repetition of such crimes.”
Turkish officials struck back immediately.