What’s in a name?: Biden Labels Armenian Killings a ‘Genocide’

Relations between Turkey and the US have turned frosty this week, as US President Joe Biden has labelled the 1915 mass killing of Armenian people a ‘genocide’ on 24th April, Armenian Remembrance Day. Former US presidents have always avoided using this loaded term over concerns of damaging relations with their NATO ally. While Turkey has acknowledged the atrocities committed by their country and the lives lost, they have always vehemently denied claims that it was a ‘genocide’. President Biden’s words are purely symbolic and will result in no sanctions against Turkey, yet the Turkish Foreign Ministry has taken great offense, claiming that this statement would “open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship”. So why does this one word matter so much?


According to Article Two of The UN Convention on Genocide in 1948, genocide is the undertaking of acts intended to ‘destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.’ For a mass killing to be classed as genocide, there must be a degree of premeditation present. It should be noted that when the term ‘genocide’ was first coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943 to describe the Nazi persecution of Jews, he also used it when describing his investigations into the atrocities committed against the Armenian people in Turkey.

In 1908, as the Ottoman Empire – which would later become modern-day Turkey – began to crumble after suffering numerous military defeats, an organisation called the Young Turks seized power. Around this time, Turkish propaganda began to present the Armenians as pro-Russia, and that their treachery had led to a Turkish defeat by Russia. As a result of this, in 1915, the Ottoman Turks began a mass deportation of Armenians, stranding them in the Syrian desert and elsewhere. Here, the Armenian people would be massacred, or die slowly from starvation and disease. The death toll has been widely disputed, with the Turkish government estimating the number to be around 300,000 people, while Armenians estimate it to be around 1.5 million people. The International Association of Genocide Scholars believes the death toll to be ‘more than a million’.

Turkish soldiers overlooking the skulls of victims in an Armenian Village in 1915. Image: Armenian Genocide Museum

Turkish officials state that the killings cannot be ruled a genocide, as there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian people, and that many Muslim Turks also died during this tumultuous time. In 2005, the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote a letter to the Turkish Government, saying: “We want to underscore that it is not just Armenians who are affirming the Armenian Genocide but it is the overwhelming opinion of scholars who study genocide.” Over 20 countries, including Brazil, Canada, France and Russia have formally recognised the killings as a genocide. Pope Francis also referred to the killings as “the first genocide of the 20th Century”, as the 100-year commemoration approached. Turkey accused the Pope of having “discriminated about people’s suffering” and only highlighting Christian suffering. President Biden’s statement – “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”- was similarly received.

Following Biden’s statement, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister said: “We will not take lessons from anyone on our history.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry also objected, stating: “We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement”, adding that it had been “made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups”. In Turkey itself, public debate on this topic has been limited, due to the use of Article 301 on ‘insulting Turkishness’ against prominent writers who tried to highlight the mass killings. In an extreme case, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated over his writing in 2007, with two Turkish ex-police chiefs finally convicted for the crime in 2021.

Perhaps Turkey’s complete refusal to consider the mass killings as genocide can be linked to the current situation of Kurdish erasure in Turkey, and the willingness for history to repeat itself. There is a long history of discrimination against Kurds by the Turkish government, and a number of massacres have occurred against the Kurds since the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923. Most notably, during the Dersim rebellion, wherein 13,160 civilians were killed and 11,818 people sent into exile, and the 1930 Zilan massacre, wherein between 5,000 and 47,000 people were killed. The Turkish constitution of 1923 even prohibited Kurdish people from speaking or learning their own language, and the words ‘Kurdistan’ and ‘Kurd’ were banned. While this ban has been lifted, it is still illegal to teach in the Kurdish language in schools in Turkey, despite Kurdish (Kurmanji) being the second most spoken language in the country. Attacks, especially arson, in the predominantly Kurdish region of Mardin are not uncommon, though seldom spoken of in mainstream media.

Kurdish protesters marching in London, protesting against Turkish invasion of Syria. Image: The Independent

Will President Biden’s use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe the Armenian mass killings have a trickle-down effect – will Turkey’s treatment of Kurds be next to take this label? The term genocide holds incredible significance to the victims of history, as it signifies a systemic erasure of a people’s culture. It acknowledges the racism behind mass killings and highlights groups that have historically been targeted and may continue to be targeted in the future if no intervention occurs. Other notable incidents that may soon garner the label of ‘genocide’ include the Uyghur ‘re-education’ camps, the treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia, and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Further discourse surrounding the American holiday of Thanksgiving will surely be had in the upcoming years, as it is also becoming known as the National Day of Mourning for Native Americans. Although the pilgrims and the Native Americans struck up an alliance on Thanksgiving Day, the pilgrims (later Americans) went on to renege on every treaty they made with the Natives, taking the American population from its original 100% Native American to today’s minuscule 1.6%.

Only time will tell if these other mass killings or slow-burning cultural erasures will ever hold the title ‘genocides’, but President Biden’s statement has been a step in the right direction for the accountability of countries and justice of the victims.

Featured image via the BBC