On April 24, the 106th anniversary of the beginning of a massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, President Joe Biden became the first US president to officially recognize the mass killing of Armenians during World War I as a genocide. His public statement said, in part: “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 occurring again….The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.”
SIS professor Hrach Gregorian is the director of the SIS International Peace and Conflict Resolution program and has previously discussed the 2019 US House vote on labeling the massacre a genocide. He shared with us five reasons why US recognition of the Armenian genocide is important.
- Consensus among historians, including prominent Turkish scholars, is that approximately 1.5 million Armenians died in 1915 as a result of what today would be characterized as “ethnic cleansing” by the Ottoman Turks. The killing was systematic and started with the liquidation of intellectuals and political leaders followed by pogroms targeting Armenians as a whole and leading to forced expulsions that led to the death—through murder and starvation—of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, many among them women and children. US recognition of this event as genocide, the first of the twentieth century, has immense symbolic significance for Armenians scattered around the world and for other victimized peoples because it signals that acts of inhumanity will not go unacknowledged, even if it takes over 100 years.
- Genocide denotes an act far more heinous than even the frightful term “mass killing.” It conjures memories of Nazi death camps, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda. The Jewish Pole, Raphael Lemkin, who in 1944 coined the word genocide, said it was the killing of the Armenians and the near extermination of European Jewry that lead him to conceive of such a concept. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which entered into force in 1951, stipulates that genocide is a crime under international law and those committing it “shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.”
- US recognition of the acts of 1915 as genocide sends a strong signal to the world that America is willing to offend even an important ally when it comes to defending human rights. Some thirty nations have already taken this step, including France, Germany, and Canada. The Vatican did so in 2015. For the leader of the free world to do so, however, is magnitudes higher in importance. It signals that the US will not sacrifice principle for political expediency. It empowers more states who might otherwise be reluctant to do so—for fear of angering Turkey—to follow suit and adds yet more credibility to US policies that sanction regimes such as China and Myanmar for gross violations of the rights of ethnic minorities within their borders.
- In Armenia and throughout the Armenian diaspora, recognition provides a modicum of closure to over one hundred years of suffering by a traumatized people. The killing of their ancestors, an open wound that has festered to this day, is regularly salted by the denials of successive regimes in Ankara that what occurred was more than the result of wartime exigencies and the charge that Armenian claims are meant to tarnish official versions of the founding of the modern Turkish state. It also offers a psychological boost in the aftermath of recent events in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians lost territory to Azerbaijan, which received substantial military support from Turkey. Triumphalist rhetoric by the Turks and Azeris in the aftermath of the conflict is raising concerns among those with long memories about continuing existential threats to Armenians.
- Ironically, after many years of US equivocation, the Biden Administration’s recognition of the genocide might lift a heavy burden off the shoulders of Armenians and Turks. Even if the regime in Ankara—bowing to pressure from nationalists and worried about the possibility of reparation claims—refuses to accept this verdict, civil society elements on both sides can expand communication and dialogue on ways to achieve justice, which could then lead to closure.