By Harut Sassounian
After the United States avoided the issue for 40 years, ever since President Ronald Reagan mentioned the Armenian Genocide in a Presidential Proclamation, President Joe Biden used the term Armenian Genocide on Saturday, despite the gag rule imposed on the U.S. government by the denialist rulers of the Republic of Turkey. For good measure, President Biden used the word genocide not once, but twice, in his “Statement on Armenian Remembrance Day.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. But, since Armenian-Americans were deceived so many times by previous presidents who had not kept their campaign promises, they were cautiously optimistic about Biden’s commitment.
Even though the United States had repeatedly recognized the Armenian Genocide beginning in 1951 when the U.S. government submitted an official document to the World Court; the U.S. House of Representatives adopted three resolutions in 1975, 1984 and 2019; the U.S. Senate unanimously adopted a resolution in 2019; and President Reagan issued a Presidential Proclamation on April 22, 1981, President Biden’s acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide in 2021 is a major step forward with several positive consequences:
- Because the mass murder of 1.5 million people is an emotional issue, descendants of Armenian Genocide victims felt a deep sense of satisfaction that the genocide suffered by their ancestors is formally and correctly acknowledged by the President of the United States.
- This most recent and authoritative acknowledgement by the U.S. President will enable courts to go forward with lawsuits making claims by Armenians on genocide era-demands from the government of Turkey. In the past, such lawsuits were dismissed by federal judges who claimed (wrongly) that since the U.S. government had not acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, individual states like California could not pass laws allowing these lawsuits to proceed. Nevertheless, if the courts decide that President Biden’s statement on the Armenian Genocide is not sufficient to allow the filing of such lawsuits, then Armenian-Americans would be obliged to push for the adoption of a proposed law, not a commemorative resolution, which needs to be adopted by both Houses of Congress and signed by the President into law. That should be the final word on fulfilling the legal requirements for filing lawsuits against Turkey.
- As a global superpower, pronouncements by the U.S. President have a major effect on other countries – particularly Great Britain, Australia and Israel. Therefore, it is expected that several countries would follow suit in recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
- President Biden’s acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide comes at a particularly sensitive time for Armenians worldwide following the disastrous defeat in last fall’s Artsakh War at the hands of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Islamic jihadist mercenaries. President Biden’s April 24 statement will boost the spirits of Armenians and could create an atmosphere of goodwill by world powers toward the just resolution of Artsakh’s status and the protection of its population.
- The struggle for genocide recognition is also a political battle between the country that perpetrated the mass crime and the descendants of the victims. The government of Turkey, as in past years, did everything in its power to prevent the U.S. from acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Turkey paid millions of dollars to American lobbying organizations to deny the Genocide, pressured and threatened the United States with dire consequences should it acknowledge the Genocide. Nevertheless, Turkey suffered a devastating political blow. Turkey’s arrogant president, thinking that no country can go against his wishes, was sternly put in his place by the President of the United States. I am sure President Erdogan endured a sleepless night after President Biden called him on April 23, advising him of his decision to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. Hopefully, the humiliated Erdogan understood that the world does not rotate around Turkey.
Let us now see what the Turkish government may do in retaliation. Will it temporarily recall its Ambassador from Washington, threaten to cut off commercial ties or block the U.S. government from using the Incirlik airbase in Turkey? I hope Erdogan will take all of these steps and many more. With such actions, Turkey will exacerbate U.S.-Turkish relations, provide worldwide publicity to the Armenian Genocide and drive its failing economy into bankruptcy. This could lead to internal turmoil and the eventual removal of Erdogan from the presidency during the next election, if not sooner. Interestingly, in a lengthy televised speech to the Turkish nation late at night on April 26, besides his usual lies about the Armenian Genocide, Erdogan dared not announce any actions against the US in retaliation to Biden’s April 24 statement. Thus, Erdogan displayed his utter humiliation and impotence.
As usual, not having been able to bully the U.S. into abandoning its plans to recognize the Genocide, Turkish leaders are now resorting to their usual tricks by stating that the US recognition does not mean anything. If it meant nothing, why did Turkey spend millions of dollars on lobbyists for several decades and pressure the U.S. government, threatening dire consequences?
Rather than continuing the lies and denials for over a century, it would be much better for Turkey to simply acknowledge the crimes of its predecessors, ask for forgiveness and make amends for the horrendous damages caused to the Armenian people. Turkey would do well to follow the example of Germany after the Holocaust. Germany apologized for Hitler’s mass crimes, erected memorials for the Holocaust victims and paid billions of dollars in reparations. That’s what civilized nations do when their leaders commit a grave crime.
In the meantime, Armenians around the world should pursue their demands through legal channels by filing multiple lawsuits against Turkey in various country courts and the European Court of Human Rights, seeking restitution for the damages caused by the Genocide. The government of Armenia, on the other hand, should take Turkey to the International Court of Justice (World Court), where only governments have the standing to file lawsuits.
Finally, this is the appropriate moment to remember and acknowledge a great friend of Armenians, former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Marshall Evans, whose diplomatic career was cut short in 2006 after he told the truth about the Armenian Genocide during a visit to California. It would be only proper for the Biden administration to appoint Evans as the next US Ambassador to Armenia. This is the least the US government could do, after the President issues an official apology to him.
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, California. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
During today’s White House Press Briefing, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany referenced the “Armenian Genocide memorial” in Colorado that was vandalized in May during racial justice protests as an example of what happens when people who “lack a basic understanding or historical knowledge” tear down statues and monuments.
On its surface, the Press Secretary’s remarks appear to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. However, the Press Secretary does not make policy so it will be interesting to see what happens next.
On April 24, 2020, President Trump again issued an Armenian Remembrance Day statement that dodged the G word, as he has done since taking office. President Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. President to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.
One can expect that the White House Press Secretary will walk-back her remarks later today or tomorrow and that Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan or the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. will call President Trump and demand a clarification of policy, as has been done in the past. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Will President Trump use this opportunity to acknowledge and not deny the Armenian Genocide, or will he once again bend the knee to Erdogan?