United States President Joe Biden has formally recognised the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I as a “genocide”, a move that was immediately rejected by Turkey.
In a statement on Saturday, Biden became the first US president to formally recognise the killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1915, as an act of “genocide”.
“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 again occurring,” reads the statement, released on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today.”
Biden’s declaration comes amid strained ties between the US and Turkey, which had earlier warned that recognising the killings as a genocide would further harm relations between the NATO allies.
Turkey has acknowledged the deaths of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, but has steadfastly denied that the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.
In a statement, Turkey’s foreign ministry rejected Biden’s statement as being without any “scholarly and legal basis” and said the conditions required to describe the events as a “genocide” are not met under international law.
“The nature of the events of 1915 does not change according to the current political motives of the politicians or domestic political considerations. Such an attitude serves only a vulgar distortion of history,” the ministry said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also tweeted: “We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past.”
“Words cannot change or rewrite history.”
We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice.
We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.#1915Events
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) April 24, 2021
Armenians, who marked Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day with ceremonies and rallies on Saturday, have for years appealed to the US and other countries around the world to recognise the killings as a genocide.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan welcomed Biden’s statement on Saturday, saying “the US has once again demonstrated its unwavering commitment to protecting human rights and universal values”.
The Armenian Assembly, a US-based Armenian advocacy group, also called it “a watershed moment in U.S. history”.
In 2019, the US Congress passed a symbolic resolution recognising the “Armenian genocide”, but then-President Donald Trump rejected the measure.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington, DC, said Biden’s move is “hugely symbolic”.
Fisher said there have been concerns in Washington for many years that taking such a step would alienate Turkey, but Biden was under pressure from a number of people in Congress and had promised to recognise the killings as an act of genocide if elected.
In a letter this week, more than 100 members of the US Congress urged Biden to recognise the killings as genocide.
“Joe Biden thinks that this is a politically savvy move,” Fisher said.
“He understands that it will certainly fit in with his argument that human rights are worth protecting, and he felt that you have to make a statement when something like this happens so that you can prevent genocide again in the future.”
Turkey has raised staunch opposition to the measure.
Earlier on Saturday, Turkish parliamentary speaker Mustafa Sentop said recognising the killings as genocide would be “a political statement with no legal basis”.
Turkish presidential spokesperson Fahrettin Altun also said this week that the designation would be “a slander that has no connection with the facts and is only fuelled by political calculations”.
“It is an emotional, irrational and illegitimate accusation,” Altun said.
US-Turkish relations have been strained in recent years over a number of issues, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems.
Biden informed his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the planned “Armenian genocide” recognition during a phone call on Friday.
In a statement, the White House said Biden also conveyed to Erdogan his interest in building “a constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements”.
The presidents also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June.