Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2013. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)
(CNSNews.com) – As the April 24 annual commemoration of Ottoman Turkey’s mass atrocities against Armenians a century ago approaches, more than one-third of U.S. senators are urging President Biden to make good on a campaign promise to declare that the events constituted “genocide.” That is sure to significantly worsen the already chilly relationship with Ankara.
Should Biden do so, he would become the first sitting president since President Ronald Reagan to use the term “genocide” in connection with the atrocities. Historians record that around 1.5 million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Empire fractured in 1915 and the years following.
In a statement on April 24 last year, Biden declared, “If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority for my administration.”
“It is particularly important to speak these words and commemorate this history at a moment when we are reminded daily of the power of truth, and of our shared responsibility to stand against hate – because silence is complicity,” he said. “Failing to remember or acknowledge the fact of a genocide only paves the way for future mass atrocities.”
In a letter to Biden, 36 senators, from progressive Democrats to conservative Republicans, recalled those words, and called on the president to keep his word.
“Administrations of both parties have been silent on the truth of the Armenian Genocide,” they wrote. “We urge you to break this pattern of complicity by officially recognizing that the Armenian Genocide was a genocide.”
Noting Biden’s specific promise to “support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide,” the signatories pointed out that both the Senate and House previously passed such resolutions.
“Congress has already made its position clear,” they said. “It is time for executive branch to do so as well.”
The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Bob Menendez (N.J.), joined by 27 other Democrats, two independents, and seven Republicans (Full list below).
The issue is among the most sensitive in Turkish politics, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government reacts harshly whenever governments, legislatures – and even Pope Francis in 2015 and 2016 – recognize that the mass killings amounted to genocide.
Although Turkey officially concedes that up to 500,000 Armenians died over the period in question, it attributes the deaths to war, civil strife, disease, and starvation, and says at least an equivalent number of Muslims died too. It firmly denies the genocide claims.
President Reagan used the word “genocide” in connection with the Armenians, in a 1981 Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation.
None of his successors have done so, instead using language like “one of the saddest chapters of this century” (President Clinton), “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century” (President George W. Bush), and Meds Yeghern, an Armenian term meaning “great evil” or “great calamity” (Presidents Obama and Trump).
Unlike the others, Obama while campaigning for the White House promised unequivocally to recognize the killings as “genocide,” declaring his “firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”
Once in office, however, he did not to do so.
Before serving as vice president under Obama, Biden was in the Senate for 36 years. Over that period, he co-sponsored Armenian genocide resolutions at least seven times between 1984 and 2008. None advanced; The bipartisan resolution passed in December 2019 was the first.
Then-Sen. Kamala Harris, now vice president, was among the 20 co-sponsors of the Senate measure, which passed by unanimous consent. A House resolution passed by 405 votes to 11 two months earlier.
Asked this week about the possibility of the administration recognizing the Armenian genocide, State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said only, “we don’t have any change in our current policy to announce.”
The letter to Biden was signed by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jack Reed (R.I.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Jacky Rosen (Nev.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Tina Smith (Minn.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.).
Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine) also signed the letter, along with Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas), Mitt Romney (Utah), Rob Portman (Ohio), Susan Collins (Maine), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Ted Cruz (Texas).