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Sensemaker audio

A genocide, recognised

A genocide, recognised

Why America’s recognition of a genocide from a century ago is causing a diplomatic commotion


Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why the recognition of a genocide from a century ago is causing a diplomatic commotion.


“President Biden has been the first US president to formally describe the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide.”

News report

On Saturday, Joe Biden departed from the presidential script. He recognised the Armenian genocide, 106 years to the day after it began in its capital, Yerevan. People in Yerevan were happy with the announcement.

[Chanting outside US embassy]

But the Turkish government was not. Turkey’s president said he was “highly saddened” by the decision. The Turkish Ministry said it had opened a wound that was hard to fix and immediately summoned the US ambassador to… have a word. Because Biden had made a big move. Decades of US presidents have actively avoided describing the massacre of Armenians as a genocide. They were scared it would damage relations with Turkey.

Turkey was founded from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which was the huge state that deported and killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians living in a region called Eastern Anatolia – now eastern Turkey. Turkey doesn’t like what happened to the Armenians to be called a genocide, because it’s a really dark undercurrent to its foundation myth.

So why did Joe Biden do it?

“The water was indistinguishable from blood. The Turks shot people and they fell into the river during the deportation.”

“We were starving to death, begging for bread which they wouldn’t give to us. We were walking barefoot, naked, hungry and thirsty.”

Recollections of Armenian massacre survivors

Those are the translated words of some of the last survivors of the Armenian massacres, speaking back in 2015. The horrific events they are describing are actually the very origin of the word genocide. The Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin came up with the word during World War Two, but it wasn’t the Nazis which first got him thinking about the term. Years earlier he’d heard about Talaat Pasha, a former postman who became the effective leader of the Ottoman Empire – and was considered the architect of the deportation and massacre of Armenians.

Even though the inventor of the word “genocide” recognised the killings of Armenians as a genocide, nations around the world have found it more difficult to take that step.

Until this weekend, just 31 countries had recognised the Armenian genocide. Countries have been scared of damaging ties with Turkey, which is big on reputation. So much so that it imprisons citizens who publicly disparage the Turkish nation. And Turkey gets really angry when countries call the massacre of Armenians a “genocide”. It withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican when Pope Francis used the term. It’s cancelled trade agreements over it.

The UK, by the way, is one of those countries which hasn’t recognised the genocide, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own great-grandfather speaking out against it.

“Boris’s grandfather Wilfred Johnson seemed a typical English farmer, but he was in fact half Turkish. His father was Ali Kemal, a politician and journalist.”

Clip from the British TV show Who Do You Think You Are?

Ali Kemal spoke out against the Ottoman regime, only to be kidnapped from a barbershop, hanged from a tree and stoned to death.

But an even bigger holdout than the UK has always been the United States.

No president had called the massacre a genocide since Ronald Reagan 40 years ago. In his election campaign George W. Bush broke a pledge to Armenian Americans saying he would do so but changed his mind when he became president. Barack Obama also promised to say it, but only got as far as calling the killings Medz Yeghern, an Armenian phrase which translates as the Great Crime.

That’s what makes it all the more remarkable that Joe Biden got there in just a few words on Saturday.

“… 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.”

Joe Biden written statement acknowledging the genocide, read by a newsreader

So why did Joe Biden take the step that other presidents felt they couldn’t?

“We can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to take on and defeat Erdogan.”

Joe Biden interview with New York Times editors

You’re listening to Joe Biden speaking to New York Times editors back in 2019, and this conversation really set the tone for what’s going on now. Elsewhere in the video Joe Biden calls the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan an autocrat. Joe Biden’s secretary of state has described Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner”. And the White House criticised Turkey when it withdrew from a convention on women’s rights and domestic abuse. So in this context, Biden’s decision to recognise the Armenian genocide doesn’t seem much of an outlier.

As to why he’s happy to be so tough with Turkey, one reason is that he’s just catching the drift of the US-Turkey relationship. It’s gotten a lot worse in the last few years, especially after Turkey bought a Russian missile-defence system, which the US imposed sanctions on in the dying days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Joe Biden also can afford to be tough. For as long as Turkey has really high inflation and unemployment, and for as long as it’s alienating the West in general, Turkey probably needs the US – for its economic and security ties – more than the US needs Turkey.

And lastly, the chance to recognise the Armenian genocide is a bit of an open goal for a president keen to show he cares about human rights. Because Joe Biden made a promise when he came into power: to put America well and truly back on the world stage.

“We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Joe Biden February 2021 speech on America’s place in the world

And recognising a genocide from more than a century ago is a chance to do so in quite a clean way. The declaration is really important for Armenians, who’ve waited decades for this moment. But it is also only symbolic, and doesn’t bring any legal consequences for Turkey.

Joe Biden may yet have much bigger diplomatic battles to come.

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.

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