1915 Armenian killing by Ottomans was genocide: Joe Biden

Washington, United States: US President Joe Biden remembered the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide on Saturday, a watershed moment for descendants of the hundreds of thousands who died as he defied Turkey's decades-long pressure.

Biden became the first US president to use the term "genocide" in a speech commemorating the anniversary, a day after informing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the decision and attempting to contain the outrage from NATO's ally.

"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," Biden said.

"We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated."

The declaration is a huge success for Armenia and its vast diaspora.

Beginning with Uruguay in 1965, nations such as France, Germany, Canada, and Russia have acknowledged the genocide, but a US declaration has been a priority that has proven elusive under previous presidents until Biden.

In a statement to the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul, Erdogan said that debates "should be conducted by historians" rather than "politicized by third parties."

"Words cannot change or rewrite history," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted moments after Biden's statement. "We will not take lessons from anyone on our history."

An administration official explained Biden's thinking by citing the Democratic president's pledges to prioritize human rights and his outspokenness on structural injustice in the United States.

Throughout the world, "People in their own countries are starting to consider, resolve, and struggle with painful historical reality. It is unquestionably something that we are doing in the United States "said the official.

A century of waiting 

It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1917 by the Ottoman Empire, which accused the Christian minority of collaborating with adversary Russia in World War I.

According to reports at the time by foreign diplomats, Armenian communities were rounded up and deported into Syria's desert on death marches, where many were shot, poisoned, or died of disease.

Turkey, which arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as a secular republic, admits that 300,000 Armenians died but firmly denies that it was genocide, claiming that they died as a result of strife and starvation, in which many Turks have died.

Recognition has been a top priority for Armenians and Armenian-Americans, who have demanded compensation and property restitution for what they refer to as Meds Yeghern, or "the Great Crime," as well as more protection against Turkey-backed neighbor Azerbaijan.

Armenian PM thanks Biden

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan thanked Biden for his "powerful step towards justice and invaluable support to the heirs of the Armenian genocide victims."

Biden, whose call to Erdogan to remind him of the genocide recognition was their first contact since the US president took office three months ago, indicated he hoped to keep the fallout to a minimum.

Officials said Biden and Erdogan planned to meet in June on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.

Aside from declarations, Turkey did not immediately announce any retaliatory measures, in comparison to previous angry measures taken in response to Western efforts to recognize the genocide.

Tensions have risen sharply with Turkey in recent years as a result of its procurement of a large air defense system from Russia, NATO's main foe, and its incursions in Syria against pro-US Kurdish troops.

Biden has held Erdogan at arm's length, in comparison to his predecessor, Donald Trump, whom Erdogan allegedly considered so agreeable that he would call Trump directly on his phone while on the golf course.

Uncertain alliance 

In 2019, the US Congress unanimously voted to recognize the Armenian genocide, but the Trump administration made it clear that the official US line had not changed.

Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as Vice President, skirted the issue by referring to pre-election remarks he made acknowledging the genocide.

Samantha Power, a top Obama aide who unsuccessfully urged the president to recognize the genocide, said that previous US "euphemisms" about the killings had only inspired Erdogan, whom Biden has portrayed as an autocrat.

"President Erdogan's success in blackmailing and bullying the US (and other countries) not to recognize the Armenian genocide likely emboldened him as he grew more repressive," Power wrote on Twitter.

The 2019 congressional resolution had "no discernible effect" on US-Turkey relations, according to Alan Makovsky, a Turkey expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, and paved the way for Biden to go ahead.

"We've seen through experience that concern about Turkey's reaction was always overblown," he said.

"Turkey will raise a rhetorical fuss for a few days and perhaps delay acting on some routine requests from the US military."

Growing recognition

Armenians have long sought international recognition of the events as genocide, defined in a 1948 UN convention as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

In 1965 Uruguay became the first country to do so. The European Parliament recognized the killings as genocide in 1987 and France was the first major European country to apply the term in 2001.

Parliaments in nearly 30 countries have since passed laws, resolutions, or motions recognizing the genocide.

In some cases, however, only one chamber has passed a vote or it has been defined as non-binding, allowing the government to keep some distance.

These include Russia, Germany, Brazil, Sweden, Argentina, Austria, Lebanon, and The Netherlands.

Some countries go even further and punish genocide denials, such as Cyprus, Slovakia, and Switzerland.

However, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2015 that Switzerland's 2007 conviction of a Turkish politician for calling the genocide a "great international lie" was an infringement of the right to free speech.

Turkey fumes at US recognition of Armenia genocide

Turkey accused the United States on Saturday of attempting to rewrite history, emphatically opposing US President Joe Biden's decision to officially recognize the Armenian genocide.

Turks were outraged, from the streets of Istanbul to the halls of influence, at Biden's decision to side with Armenia, France, Germany, Russia, and a slew of other countries in their interpretation of the atrocities of World War I.

"Words cannot change or rewrite history," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted moments after Biden announced his decision.

"We will not take lessons from anyone on our history."

Biden became the first US president to use the word "genocide" in a customary speech commemorating the 1915-1917 massacre, which occurred as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

Attempting to soften the imminent blow to the strategic NATO ally's pride, Biden called Erdogan for the first time since his election on Friday.

The two leaders agreed to meet on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June, and Erdogan, who has spent his 18 years in power fighting the US decision, has carefully tailored his response.

Erdogan accused "third parties" of attempting to politicize the century-old controversy in a letter to the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul.

"Nobody benefits from the debates -- which should be held by historians -- being politicized by third parties and becoming an instrument of interference in our country," Erdogan wrote.

On a more conciliatory note, Erdogan said Turkey was "ready to develop our relations with Armenia based on good neighborhood and mutual respect".

Very poor move

But the message from Cavusoglu's foreign ministry was strident.

"We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the president of the US regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups on 24 April," the foreign ministry said in a separate statement.

"It is clear that the said statement does not have a scholarly and legal basis, nor is it supported by any evidence," it said.

"With regards to the events of 1915, none of the conditions required for the use of the term 'genocide' that is strictly defined in international law are met."

Many historians and scholars agree with the Armenians that 1.5 million of their people were killed in a genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, which was battling tsarist Russia in areas that included modern-day Armenia.

Turkey acknowledges that both Armenians and Turks died in large numbers during World War I, but it vigorously rejects a systematic policy of genocide – a concept that had not been legally identified at the time.

Turkey estimates that about 300,000 Armenians have died.

Ordinary Turks said Biden's acknowledgment of the genocide highlighted the strained nature of Turkey's current relationship with Washington, which had previously benefited from Erdogan's personal friendship with Trump.

"It's a very bad step. Our relationship is already really bad with the US, and this will only worsen it," said Istanbul resident Dilek Mercin.

"During a war, things happen to both parties, so it is meaningless to call it like that," added Selda, a pensioner.

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