President Joe Biden on Saturday officially recognized the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during the early 1900s by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, becoming the first US president to do so.
“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,” Biden said in a statement published Saturday by The White House in recognition of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
“Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination,” he added.
As The Associated Press reported, previous US presidents had long avoided calling the atrocity a “genocide” to avoid angering Turkey. Biden last year, then a candidate for president, said he would recognize the genocide.
It’s estimated that 2 million Armenians were deported during the period, while 1.5 were killed, the AP reported. According to the report, Biden informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his intent to issue the statement on Friday.
“We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past,” Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeted following Biden’s statement. “Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice. We entirely reject this statement based solely on populism.”
Domestically, Biden’s declaration received praise.
“I am glad to see President Biden responded to my request to take formal action to recognize the Armenian Genocide, a tragedy I have been determined to see acknowledged for years alongside so many others in Congress and the entire Armenian-American community,” said GOP Rep. David G. Valado of California in a statement.
President Joe Biden is poised to formally recognize the Armenian genocide on Saturday, The New York Times reported per officials familiar with deliberations on the matter, in a historic move that could further roil US-Turkey relations.
Biden would be the first sitting US president to officially recognize the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide. That said, former President Ronald Reagan made a reference to the “genocide of the Armenians” in a 1981 statement on the Holocaust. The step Biden is reportedly set to take would be more official and occur in concert with Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which happens every year on April 24.
Turkey has urged Biden against recognizing the World War I killings as genocide at a time when the dynamic between Washington and Ankara is already historically contentious. Speaking on the matter during an interview with the Turkish broadcaster Haberturk on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “Statements that have no legal binding will have no benefit, but they will harm ties.”
“If the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs,” Cavusoglu added.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
As a candidate, Biden promised to recognize the mass killings as genocide. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers led by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California sent the president a letter urging him to deliver on this pledge. When asked about the letter at Wednesday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president would have “more to say about Remembrance Day on Saturday.”
Every president since Jimmy Carter has made public statements memorializing the atrocities committed against the Armenians during the first world war but has stopped short of referring to the killings as genocide. In a statement on the annual remembrance day last year, for example, then-President Donald Trump characterized the killings as “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.”
Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish origin who lost much of his family during the Holocaust and coined the term “genocide,” studied the atrocities against the Armenians closely. In other words, the word “genocide” is fundamentally linked to what happened to the Armenians during World War I.
Despite the evidence and agreement among scholars, US presidents have consistently avoided calling the killings genocide over fear of angering Turkey – a country long regarded in Washington as a vital NATO ally (the US also has nuclear weapons stored in Turkey).
Not long after his inauguration, Biden pledged that his foreign policy would be centered on human rights. Critics have said Biden is falling short on this promise on an array of issues, ranging from refugees to relations with Gulf states. But recognizing the Armenian genocide would signify that when it comes to US-Turkey relations, Biden is prioritizing human rights over keeping Ankara happy.
Tensions between the US and Turkey were already rising before Biden entered the White House, and this trend was expected to accelerate upon his arrival.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian approach to leadership, on top of moves such as targeting the US-backed Kurds in Syria and purchasing the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, has strained ties between the two countries. Though Trump referred to Erdogan as a “friend,” his administration in December hit Turkey with sanctions over the S-400 deal.
Along the campaign trail, Biden referred to Erdogan as an “autocrat,” prompting condemnation from the Turkish government. More recently, Erdogan in March lashed out at Biden for referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer,” stating it was “truly unacceptable” and “not something that can be stomached.”
Nearly 100 days into his presidency, Biden has still not spoken to Erdogan.
Anti-hate advocates are calling on Facebook to ban posts denying the Armenian genocide, which led to the deaths of over 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, saying the social media giant’s policy on hate speech fails to address recent crimes against humanity.
“They have an obligation to responsibly address all genocide,” said Arda Haratunian, board member for the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the largest non-profit dedicated to the international Armenian community. “How could you not apply the same rules across crimes against humanity?”
Now, voices from across the Armenian diaspora and anti-hate groups are calling for the company to change its policy. In November, the Armenian Bar Association penned a letter to Facebook and Twitter (which banned posts denying the Holocaust in the days after Facebook did), proposing that they expand their ban to posts denying the Armenian genocide, too.
“It made us hopeful, because it was a sign that Facebook is taking steps towards fixing its speech problem,” said Lana Akopyan, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and technology, and member of the Armenian Bar Association’s social media task force. The Armenian Bar Association has yet to receive a response from either company, Akopyan told Business Insider.
The calls to expand hate speech policies come as social media platforms face a wider reckoning on how they regulate speech. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have criticized section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal provision that shields internet companies from lawsuits over content posted on their sites by users and gives companies the ability to regulate that content.
Facebook’s current hate speech policy prohibits posts that directly attack a protected group, including someone of a racial minority, certain sexual orientation or gender, or religion. But the platform lacks a cohesive response to other “harmful false beliefs,” like certain conspiracy theories, said Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate at NYU who researches online political communication. Rather than a systematic approach to harmful misinformation, Edelson likened Facebook’s strategy to a game of “whack-a-mole.”
“You are allowed to say, currently, the Armenian genocide is a hoax and never happened,” said Edelson. “But you are not allowed to say you should die because you are an Armenian.”
From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 Armenians and expelled another half a million. However, Turkey still falsely claims that the genocide never happened.
“Holocaust denial is typically done by fringe groups, irrational entities. The denial of the Armenian genocide is being generated by governments… which makes it a far greater threat,” said Dr. Rouben Adalian, Director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, D.C.
It also makes enforcement a thorny issue for Facebook, since it may involve moderating the speech of political leaders.
“Facebook doesn’t want to wrangle with this issue, not because it’s technically difficult, because it isn’t, but because it is difficult at a policy level,” said Edelson. “There’s a government agent here, that you are going to have to make unhappy. In the case of the Armenian genocide, it’s the Turkish government.”
Facebook did not respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment. Twitter said hateful conduct has no place on its platform and its “Hateful Conduct Policy prohibits a wide range of behavior, including making references to violent events or types of violence where protected categories were the primary victims, or attempts to deny or diminish such events.” The company also has “a robust glorification of violence policy in place and take action against content that glorifies or praises historical acts of violence and genocide,”a spokesperson said.
Yet online the falsehoods proliferate, advocates told Business Insider. On Facebook, the page “Armenian Genocide Lie” has thousands of followers, and screenshots of tweets shared with Business Insider show strings of identical posts that appear to be posted by bots, calling the Armenian genocide “fake.”
And stateside, Armenians point to a string of hate crimes, including the arson of an Armenian church in September and the vandalism of an Armenian school in July, as evidence that anti-Armenian sentiment is a growing issue.
The calls for change come amid international conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and is populated by many ethnic Armenians. War broke out in September. In November, Armenia surrendered and Russia brokered a peace deal. Tensions continue to flare in the area and videos of alleged war crimes have surfaced online.
“Facebook has a responsibility, first and foremost, to its users, to protect them against harmful misinformation. The idea that the Armenian genocide did not happen pretty clearly falls into that category,” said Edelson.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which successfully lobbied for social media companies to ban Holocaust denial, is also supporting the calls for change.
“ADL believes that tech companies must take a firm stance against content regarding genocide and the denial or diminishment of other atrocities motivated by hate,” said an ADL spokesperson in a statement to Business Insider. “Tech companies should, without doubt, consider denial of the Armenian genocide to be violative hate speech.”
Dr. Gregory Stanton, founding president of human rights nonprofit Genocide Watch, says that denial is a pernicious stage of genocide, since it seeks to erase the past and can predict future violence.
“Denial occurs in every single genocide,” said Stanton. “I think it’s irresponsible…. with Facebook’s incredible reach, it absolutely should be taken down.”
As for Akopyan, her fight to change Facebook’s policy is personal. Her family survived the Baku Pogroms in Azerbaijan, a campaign in 1990 in which Azeris killed ethnic Armenians and drove them from the city. Akopyan’s family left all their belongings behind and fled in the night, Akopyan said. The International Rescue Committee sponsored her family, and she relocated to Brooklyn, New York, at 10-years-old.
“I grew up in that tension as a child, where Azerbaijani mobs tried to kill me and my family, and I escaped,” she said in an interview. “How many times [do] our people have to lose everything and be driven away from their homes to start over?”
“And it continues to happen,” she added. “I can’t help but think it’s because there’s constant denial of it ever happening to begin with.”