Biden officially recognizes the massacre of Armenians in World War I as a genocide

President Joe Biden, seen here at the White House on April 15, officially recognizes the massacre of Armenians in World War I as a genocide. By Kevin Liptak, CNN

(CNN) -- President Joe Biden on Saturday became the first US president to officially recognize the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, risking a potential fracture with Turkey but signaling a commitment to global human rights.

In a statement marking the 106th anniversary of the massacre's start, Biden wrote, "Each year on this day, 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."

"Today, as we mourn what was lost, let us also turn our eyes to the future -- toward the world that we wish to build for our children. A world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security," Biden said. "Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world."

The move fulfills Biden's campaign pledge to finally use the word genocide to describe the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians in what is now Turkey more than a century ago. Biden's predecessors in the White House had stopped short of using the word, wary of damaging ties with a key regional ally.

Earlier this week, US officials had been sending signals to allies outside the administration -- who have been pushing for an official declaration -- that the President would recognize the genocide. Addressing the potential move in an interview with a Turkish broadcaster this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs."

Cavusoglu on Saturday said Ankara completely rejects Biden's use of the term. "We are not going to take lessons about our history from anyone. Political opportunism is the biggest betrayal of peace and justice. We completely reject this statement that is only based on populism," he said in a tweet.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Saturday offered condolences to "Ottoman Armenians, who lost their lives under the difficult circumstances of World War I." That message to Patriarch of Turkish Armenians Sahak Mashalian echoed Erdoğan's previous statements on April 24 and came before Biden's declaration.

Turkish Presidency communications director Fahrettin Altun later Saturday said that "the Biden administration's decision to misportray history out with an eye on domestic political calculations is a true misfortune for Turkey-U.S. relations."

Turkey later summoned David M. Satterfield, the US ambassador to the country, following the announcement, according to Turkish state media Anadolu.

"Turkey's strong reaction was conveyed to David Satterfield, who was accepted by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, according to diplomatic sources," Anadolu reported. "Satterfield was told that Turkey finds the statement unacceptable, totally rejects and strongly condemns it."

The government of Turkey often registers complaints when foreign governments describe the event, which began in 1915, using the word "genocide." They maintain that it was wartime and there were losses on both sides, and they put the number of dead Armenians at 300,000.

Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both avoided using the word genocide to avoid angering Ankara.

But Biden has determined that relations with Turkey and Erdoğan -- which have deteriorated over the past several years anyway -- should not prevent the use of a term that would validate the plight of Armenians more than a century ago and signal a commitment to human rights today.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan welcomed Biden's statement as such, tweeting that "the US has once again demonstrated its unwavering commitment to protecting human rights and universal values."

The declaration will not bring with it any new legal consequences for Turkey, only diplomatic fallout.

As vice president, Biden dealt frequently with Erdoğan and made four trips to Turkey, including in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt. But since then he's offered a less-than-rosy view of the Turkish leader.

"I've spent a lot of time with him. He is an autocrat," he told the New York Times editorial board in 2020. "He's the President of Turkey and a lot more. What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership."

Biden spoke by telephone with Erdoğan on Friday, his first conversation with the Turkish leader since taking office. The long period without communication had been interpreted as a sign Biden is placing less importance on the US relationship with Turkey going forward.

The two men agreed to meet in person on the sidelines of a mid-June NATO summit in Brussels. The White House said Biden conveyed "his interest in a constructive bilateral relationship with expanded areas of cooperation and effective management of disagreements," but the readout did not mention the Armenian genocide issue.

The campaign of atrocities Biden is acknowledging began the nights of April 23 and 24, 1915, when authorities in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, rounded up about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. Many of them ended up deported or assassinated. April 24, known as Red Sunday, is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance Day by Armenians around the world.

The number of Armenians killed has been a major point of contention. Estimates range from 300,000 to 2 million deaths between 1914 and 1923, with not all of the victims in the Ottoman Empire. But most estimates -- including one of 800,000 between 1915 and 1918, made by Ottoman authorities themselves -- fall between 600,000 and 1.5 million.

Whether due to killings or forced deportation, the number of Armenians living in Turkey fell from 2 million in 1914 to under 400,000 by 1922.

While the death toll is in dispute, photographs from the era document some mass killings. Some show Ottoman soldiers posing with severed heads, others with them standing amid skulls in the dirt. The victims are reported to have died in mass burnings and by drowning, torture, gas, poison, disease and starvation. Children were reported to have been loaded into boats, taken out to sea and thrown overboard. Rape, too, was frequently reported.

As a candidate, Biden said that if he were elected, "I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority for my administration."

Similar pledges have gone unfulfilled before. When Obama was running for president, he declared in a lengthy statement that he shared "with Armenian Americans -- so many of whom are descended from genocide survivor -- a principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide."

But like presidents before him, the realities of diplomacy intervened once he took office. In all eight years of his presidency, Obama avoided using "genocide" when commemorating the April event. With Turkey then positioned as a key partner in the fight against ISIS terrorists, the issue appeared even less palatable.

Some officials who served in Obama's administration, including his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, later voiced regret at not having taken the step. Power is Biden's nominee to lead the US Agency for International Development.

In 2019, the House and Senate passed a resolution recognizing the mass killings of Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as genocide. Prior to its passage, the Trump administration had asked Republican senators to block the unanimous consent request several times on the grounds that it could undercut negotiations with Turkey.

Trump attempted to cultivate a friendship with Erdoğan, even as relations between Washington and Ankara soured over Turkey's purchase of a Russian-made air defense system and alleged human rights abuses by Turkish-backed forces in Syria.

A group of more than 100 Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden this month calling on him to formally recognize the Armenian genocide. The group was led by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat. A large Armenian American community resides in and around Schiff's district in Los Angeles.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Saturday that "our hearts are full of joy that President Biden has taken the historic step of joining Congress with formal recognition on Armenian Genocide Day."

"To commemorate this solemn day of remembrance, let us pledge to always stand strong against hatred and violence wherever we see it and recommit to building a future of hope, peace and freedom for all the world's children."

This story has been updated with additional details Saturday.

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