WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 over concerns of alienating Turkey.
With the acknowledgment, Biden followed through on a campaign promise he made a year ago Saturday, 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 campaigned on a promise to make human rights a central guidepost of his foreign policy. He 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 Friday, 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 the condition of anonymity.
The U.S. and Turkish governments, in separate statements following Friday’s call, made no mention of the American plan to recognize the Armenian genocide. 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.
Biden pledged as a candidate to recognize the massacre of Armenians as genocide, arguing that “silence is complicity.” Biden wanted to speak with Erdogan before making the formal recognition, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Biden’s deliberations and plans.
Friday’s call between the two leaders was their first since Biden took office more than three months ago. The delay had become a worrying sign in Ankara; Erdogan had good rapport with former President Donald Trump and had been hoping for a reset despite past friction with Biden.
Erdogan on Friday reiterated his long-running claims that the U.S. is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against PKK enclaves 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.
Erdogan also raised concerns about the presence in the U.S. of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup attempt, according to the Turkish government statement. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, denies involvement in the coup.
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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 Islamic State 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 Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which presidents typically mark with a proclamation.
Salpi Ghazarian, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies, said the recognition of genocide would resonate beyond Armenia as Biden insists that respect for human rights will be a central principle in his foreign policy.
“Within the United States and outside the United States, the American commitment to basic human values has been questioned now for decades,” she said. “It is very important for people in the world to continue to have the hope and the faith that America’s aspirational values are still relevant, and that we can in fact do several things at once. We can in fact carry on trade and other relations with countries while also calling out the fact that a government cannot get away with murdering its own citizens.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had warned the Biden administration earlier this week that recognition would “harm” U.S.-Turkey ties.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment Friday on Biden’s deliberations on the issue.