Every year in April, Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which is still denied by Turkey and remains unrecognized by the US government. There are marches in Los Angeles and demonstrations in New York City, as descendants of survivors demand official recognition of the 1915 events.
Many have asked why, after almost a century, Armenians still demand recognition. Why does it matter what we call this crime, and why is it so important that the US government calls it a genocide?
The answer is about accountability and the consequences that follow in its absence. Though the Armenian Genocide was among the first of the twentieth century, it wasn’t the last. From the Holocaust to genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Syria, one genocide inspired the next for an entire century.
Armenian descendants of survivors are familiar with the trend. The killing of 1.5 million Armenians has been denied for years—first by the Turkish government and soon after, by Turkey’s friends in the international community, including the United States. Their denial rewrites a dark page in human history.
It all started in 1915, when the Young Turks regime launched a plan to expel the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire. They initiated a brutal ethnic cleansing project that nearly eliminated the Armenian race.
After the massacres ended in 1923, the newly-formed Republic of Turkey claimed innocence, orchestrating a campaign of denial and asserting that accusations of genocide were a conspiracy intended to bruise Turkish nationalism, or “Turkishness.” Turkey dodged accountability through denial, an evasion so impressive it inspired Hitler’s own confidence soon after.
Even today, the Turkish government denies its crime, and Turkish government leaders pressure their allies, including the United States, to never call the massacres a “genocide.” The US complies, because Turkey is too strategic a political friend to offend with recognition. Presidents have instead called the genocide a “tragedy” or “mass atrocity,” carefully avoiding the “g” word, which carries legal weight.
Euphemisms like these betray truth and make a mockery of tragedy. This final act of genocide was what Elie Wiesel called “a double killing.”
The 1948 Genocide Convention made genocide a crime under international law, defined as an act with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. When politicians dodge the word, they reject the only definition that fits the crime. Their message is clear: recognizing this history is too inconvenient.
So every year on the genocide’s anniversary, the White House trades denial as a token of friendship with Turkey, releasing sanitized statements void of the only word that matters.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), who has long advocated official recognition of the genocide, addressed Congress in 2018 with a question: “How many Americans know that the Congress and the President have refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, intimidated into silence by Turkey? Turkey has invested heavily in the cause of denial, and to our shame the US government has been intimidated into silence.”
When any government gets away with a crime like genocide, they’re made to believe they can get away with more.
It’s only after presidents leave office that they and their staff apologize for having foregone recognition. Years after President Obama went back on his campaign promise to recognize the genocide, former members of his administration apologized for what they today call a “mistake.” “I’m sorry that we disappointed so many Armenian Americans,” said Samantha Power, former ambassador to the United Nations.
Leaders in government have also spread dangerous, subjective-truth narratives. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton once said of the genocide that it was “A matter of historical debate and conclusions.” Ron Paul once complained that a genocide recognition bill in Congress meant “Getting ourselves involved in an event from 100 years ago.” The United States has never taken this tone with any other genocide, and most politicians would reject such attitudes if they were instead directed toward the Holocaust or any like atrocity.
Politicians trade truth for diplomatic gain, not realizing that ignoring the lessons of history and playing party to genocide cover-ups perpetuates the act itself, giving license to more bad behavior.
That license affords a lot of impunity. Just two years ago, President Erdogan’s security guards assaulted Armenian, Assyrian and Kurdish Americans who were protesting his visit to the White House. They expected they’d get away with it, and they did get away with it.
In recent years, nationalist groups with ties to the Turkish government have started flying Turkish flags and banners above Armenian Genocide marches in Los Angeles. In January, Armenian schools in southern California were vandalized with Turkish flags.
These are the latent burns that continue to injure survivors of genocide and their descendants, long after the crime is committed. Acts of violence continue, for Armenians and others, because the first wound was never cauterized with an indictment.
When any government gets away with a crime like genocide, they’re made to believe they can get away with more. When world powers encourage this behavior through deliberate silence, they too are complicit.
That’s why we must stand against threats and bullying, recognizing the facts of history without compromise. The truth is not a line item in diplomatic negotiations, and we must defend it, no matter how inconvenient. We are either a force that stops violence through recognition or one that beckons it with a blind eye, every time we call a genocide by any other name.