Obama avoids calling Armenia deaths genocide

US president ducks using “genocide” for third straight year as he honours 1.5m Armenians killed under Ottoman Empire.

Armenians mark the anniversary of the 1915 killings they call a genocide in Yerevan on April 24 [AFP]

Barack Obama, the US president, has for the third straight year failed to brand the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide despite repeatedly vowing while campaigning to get elected that he would do so.

Obama honoured Armenian victims – mostly Christians numbering 1.5 million – on the anniversary of their massacre in the World War I but only confined himself to using the Armenian name for the slaughter, Meds Yeghern, in paying tribute “to the memories of those who perished”.

The president said the 1915 killings represent “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century” as Armenians marked 96 years since the mass killings, marching through Yerevan, the capital, to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial dedicated to the victims.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama said he would ensure “a principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide”. But since 2009, the president has declined to use “genocide” in the face of furious resistance from Turkey, a key NATO ally.

He insisted his view of what took place has not changed since the campaign, adding: “A full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all our interests.”

‘Flawed and one-sided’

Ankara’s ambassador in Washington promptly rejected Obama’s criticism.

“We deeply regret that POTUS [Obama’s] statement on 1915 events reflect an inaccurate, flawed and one-sided political characterisation of history,” Namik Tan tweeted, calling the comments “unacceptable” and “unwarranted”.

“The US should encourage normalisation and dialogue and not hamper it with one-sided and politically motivated statements.”

In a statement, the Turkish foreign ministry slammed Obama’s remarks, saying he “distorted the historical facts”.

“Therefore, we find it very problematic and deeply regret it… One-sided statements that interpret controversial historical events by a selective sense of justice prevent understanding of the truth,” the ministry said.

Serzh Sarkisian, the Armenian president, said in an address to mark the anniversary that his country was open to normalising relations with Turkey.

Protesters in the capital Yerevan called for Turkey to recognise what they call genocide [Reuters]

But he lashed out at his neighbour and foe for what he said was denial of genocide.

“The true scope and depth of the tragedy is known only to us, and every Armenian in any corner of the world feels devastating repercussions on his or her destiny in every sense,” Sarkisian said.

“Armenia has been proving through its resolute steps that despite black pages of history, it strives for peace with the neighbours, including Turkey.”

Most historians see the killings as the first genocide of the 20th century, and accept the figure of 1.5 million Armenian deaths.

But Turkish leaders have long rejected the term, contending the figures are inflated and saying there were many deaths on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I.

Turkey maintains some 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians got killed and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian forces.

Countries that have formally recognised the genocide against the Armenians include Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay.

Britain, the US and Israel are among those that use different terminology to describe the events.

Last year, ahead of the 95th anniversary of the massacre, Turkey recalled its ambassador from the US and condemned a Washington panel’s move to declare the killings a genocide.

Armenian party protests

The move came after the US House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee passed a non-binding measure in a 23-22 vote, calling on the Obama administration to ensure US policy formally referred to the mass killings as genocide.

Obama’s comments followed a rally of 10,000 Armenians in Yerevan on Saturday demanding that Turkey recognise the genocide.

The protest, organised by the influential Armenian Revolutionary Federation political party, attracted hordes of youths who marched with candles up to a hillock in Yerevan, consecrated to the memory of the victims.

The protesters held up banners saying: “Armenia wants Turkey to own up.”

“Turkey stole from us our historic land, our monuments and our future,” a party lawmaker, Vaghan Hovhannessian, said.

Turkey and Armenia signed landmark protocols in 2009, under Swiss mediation, which were a first step towards ending decades of hostility.

The persecutions are commemorated every year on April 24. On that day in 1915, more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Constantinople, or present-day Istanbul.

That was followed by a wave of massacres and deportations which continued until 1917.

Source: News Agencies