Breaking with decades of political tradition set by predecessors from both parties, President Joe Biden has kept his word.
He announced on Saturday that the United States officially views the systemic killing of more than one million ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire a century ago as a genocide—a promise that previous presidents have made on the campaign trail only to get cold feet in office at the prospect of alienating Turkey.
“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 again occurring,” Biden said in a statement released on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. “We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history.”
“We remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
Biden is the first American president in decades to announce that view while in office, after predecessors including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush walked back promises for fear of angering a NATO ally. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has furiously opposed declarations recognizing the Armenian genocide, which could have major ramifications for U.S.-Turkey relations.
“Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a statement earlier this week. “If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs.”
Biden’s announcement is the second such declaration by his administration, which announced in March that it had determined China’s forced relocation, sterilization and torture of more than a million Uyghur Muslims amounted to genocide.
“We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history,” Biden said in his Saturday statement, which he said was released “not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
The Armenian genocide began in 1915 during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, when Christian Armenians—blamed for Ottoman losses to Russian forces in the Caucuses—were rounded up by Ottoman forces and expelled from the empire. As many as 1.5 million Armenians perished in the death marches into the Syrian desert that followed, or in the concentration camps in which they were later held. Hundreds of thousands more were permanently displaced across the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who first coined the word “genocide,” was partially influenced to do so by the Ottoman persecution of ethnic Armenians.