The US government every year on April 24 marks a remembrance of the events of 1915 at the White House – but this year could bring a surprise.
As is known, the proposal which recognises the events of 1915 as a “genocide” was first passed by the US House of Representatives and then by the Senate, with a unanimous vote in 2019 during the 116th term of the Congress.
While the resolution is not a “statutory” provision, it was a great victory for the powerful Armenian diaspora in the US and the anti-Turkish groups supporting it.
The decisions passed by Congress last year are not binding on Turkey, I do think they do need to be taken seriously. This month, a bipartisan group of 37 Senators joined Senator Bob Menendez, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to urge President Joe Biden to join Congress in fully and formally recognising the so-called Armenian Genocide.
Last April, during his campaign, President Biden had announced that he would recognise the so-called Armenian Genocide if he were elected. Vice President Kamala Harris stance on this matter mirrors Biden’s, and she is from California, where there is a large Armenian diaspora. In a tweet on 24th April 2018, she had stated that she recognised the so-called genocide and supported proposals in the Senate.
The US president saying “genocide” will not cost Turkey anything or end up with sanctions. However, such a statement will give greater impetus to the Armenian diaspora’s efforts to have their claims recognised. In the United States of America, 49 out of 50 states recognise the Armenian claim, with Mississippi as the outlier.
The voicing of the events of 1915 by the highest office in the US dates back as far as 1920. Woodrow Wilson, US President at the time, had requested that Congress place Armenia under a mandate government.
In his speech, Wilson said that “the people of the US had been deeply impacted by the agonizing circumstances caused by lack of security, hunger, and poverty in Armenia.”
At the time, the word “genocide” wasn’t in use yet. Since then, it took almost a half-century for the Armenian claims to make it to the political agenda in the US. In the 1970s, due to its increased economic strength and volatile relations between Turkey and the US, the Armenian diaspora picked up the pace to have its claims recognised.
Within this framework, a reception was held for American Armenians at the White House during Jimmy Carter’s term on May 16, 1978. In the speech made by Carter at this reception, he said that there had been “an organized effort to extinguish the whole Armenian population in the period leading up to 1916.”
In a statement made on Holocaust Memorial Day, on April 22, 1981, former President Ronald Reagan commemorated the victims of the Jewish Holocaust. In his statement, Reagan said, “The lessons learned from the Holocaust, just like the Armenian holocaust prior to it and the Cambodian holocaust after it, must never be forgotten.”
With this statement, Reagan became the first US President to recognise it as a so-called genocide. After Reagan, George Bush also made a statement in 1990 to mark the 75th anniversary of the events of 1915. Bush Senior described it as “terrible massacres in the hands of the governors of the Ottoman Empire between 1915-1923.”
But the tradition of making a statement every year on the 24th of April began with Bill Clinton. Even though Clinton, like Obama, had promised during the election period to recognise Armenian claims, he did not keep his promise during his eight years in office.
Clinton and his successor, George W Bush, described the events as “the forcible banishment and massacre of 1.5 million Armenians” in the statements they made every year on the 24th of April.
On the other hand, 44th President Barack Obama used the expression “Meds Yeghern,” which means “great disaster” in Armenian, in the statements he made on the 24th of April; but he did not use the term “genocide,” which he had promised to do, before becoming president.
The 45th President, Donald Trump, was also criticised by the Armenian diaspora for not using the word “genocide” directly in the statements he made on April 24th during his term.
Eyes have now turned towards President Biden. Nowadays, there are no official government institutions in Washington DC advising the government to the effect of, “Turkey is an important ally; let’s not hurt the relationship with the historical debate,” as there were in previous periods.
Prominent Turkish-American Community Leader Ergun Kirlikovali told me that If US President Biden officially recognises the so-called Armenian genocide, the Armenian Diaspora would use it against Turkish Americans at the US courts for cases related to compensation. Turkish-Americans could previously rely on the fact that the US has not recognised the so-called genocide, but that precedent would no longer exist.
I had a chance to speak with David Saltzman, an attorney in private practice who represented the Turkish Central Bank and TC Ziraat Bankasi in cases alleging claims for genocide.
What he told me is that “As a matter of law, states can only accuse other states of the crime of genocide by seeking the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Thus, a presidential statement by itself means little as long as it does not command any action by the US government. Of course, the rhetorical impact of such, cannot be underestimated.”
The Armenian diaspora is hopeful of President Biden, and its expectations are high.
Don’t be shocked if there is a surprise from the White House this year, as the 24th of April draws near.
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