Breaking from his predecessors, President Joe Biden today has formally declared that the 1915–1923 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire was a “genocide.”

Biden’s statement fulfilled a promise he made while campaigning for president. Previous U.S. presidents have stopped short of using the word, wary of damaging ties with Turkey, a key regional ally.

To help understand the significance of this move, Professor Ann Karagozian, director of The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA, provides her analysis of why this has been such an important issue for Armenians in the United States, home to the largest population of Armenians across the diaspora, and across the world.

What are your thoughts about President Biden’s announcement?

As the director of The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA, I welcome the statement by President Biden recognizing the Armenian Genocide, the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which took place between 1915 and 1923. An acknowledgment by a U.S. president is long overdue and is clearly consistent with the recognition of the genocide by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in 2019. As an institute designed to promote world-class scholarship and outreach on Armenian-related issues, we are gratified that the position of the U.S. government is finally in line with the academic consensus on this chapter in history.

Why is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide important?

Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, even after 100 years, is important in large part because it sends a clear message to the world about America’s enduring values: an acknowledgment of the organized attempt by a country to destroy its indigenous population, an acknowledgment of the wounds that are left festering even several generations after they took place and the message that human rights and historical truth trump geopolitical considerations.

Recognizing Genocide for what it was — a systematic attempt to annihilate a whole group of people — matters, even more than a century later, because denial is said to be the final stage of genocide. Scholars have argued that denial contributes to genocide by absolving the perpetrators of their crimes and by increasing the risk of future genocides. Thus for a major world power like the United States to acknowledge this crime, even after a century of denial by its perpetrators and their successor governments, is a step in the right direction, a step toward the prevention of future genocides.

What does this announcement mean for Turkey and the international community?

First, this announcement affirms that mature democracies such as the U.S. will not be bullied into denying the truth, despite a century of Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide, its repressive policies toward its indigenous populations and its threats to the many nations who have already publicly recognized the genocide.

It is not clear if President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide will lessen the ongoing prejudice and human rights violations against minorities, journalists, academics and others in present-day Turkey. But what is clear is that the United States has now taken a stand for the truth and recognized the historic crime of genocide, signaling to any nation or group contemplating ethnic cleansing that their actions will not be forgotten, even 100 years later. There will be an eventual reckoning, if not for the perpetrators during their lifetimes, for their descendants, if they do not acknowledge these crimes.

Moreover, this recognition sends a message to the Turkish people, a substantial percentage of whom know the truth about the genocide from their grandparents and other family members, and/or from their own research, but are afraid to speak about it openly because it is illegal to do so in the Republic of Turkey. 

How significant is the timing of this statement by President Biden?

While long overdue, the timing of this announcement is particularly significant for the global Armenian community. The recent war in fall 2020 against the Armenians of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, by Azerbaijan and Turkey, and the atrocities and human rights violations that took place during this war, have been likened by many observers to campaigns of ethnic cleansing. There is evidence of the targeting of civilian settlements, the burning of forests, the use of banned weapons such as white phosphorus, beheadings and much worse. All of these brought back collective trauma and memories of the genocide against the Indigenous Armenians, and these memories exist in nearly every family. Like the genocide before it, the recent war and its aftermath, including the current unlawful detainment of prisoners of war and civilian captives, has garnered insufficient press coverage, international action and condemnation. Thus, U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide gives some hope that these more recent atrocities will also not go unacknowledged.

What does this announcement mean for the Armenian American community?

For decades the Armenian American community has advocated for recognition of the Armenian Genocide and for the U.S. government to officially use the term “genocide,” which precisely describes what happened to their ancestors. This is the reason, after all, why our families came to this country. I think many Armenian Americans, like myself, are enormously relieved and gratified to see that decades of hard work have borne fruit and that the United States is on the right side of history. Our community hopes that recognition of this crime will prevent the repetition of such atrocities in the future.