June 14, 2024

Diplomacy, Denial, and the Armenian Genocide: The Century-Long Struggle for Acknowledging Crimes Against Humanity

U.S. recognition, particularly of the Armenian genocide, acknowledges generational suffering on part of those who endured it during that time, as well as the descendants of those who had to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.

Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A political motif exists today in acknowledging crimes against humanity that a given ethnic population has endured because of the way its victims in question have been marginalized. Numerous attempts have been made for recognition of genocides and crimes against humanity, as well as reconciliation, but inadequacy in vindicating specific ethnic victim groups for their suffering prevails and remains contested. 

The recognition of the Armenian genocide is one such contested mass extermination in human rights history due to the Turkish government’s stark denial. Their predecessors, the Young Turks, had committed these crimes to preserve the declining Ottoman Empire and “Turkify” its newly-emerging modern state. More than 1.5 million Armenians were deported, starved, and massacred in what the New York Times referred to at the time as a “policy of extermination directed against the Christians of Asia Minor” between 1915 and 1923. Despite reports of the massacres reaching the U.S. and the West as a whole during the late 1910s and early 1920s, the American government refused to recognize the genocide for more than a century. President Biden’s declaration on Armenian Remembrance Day in 2021 was the first official U.S. acknowledgement of the massacres as an “Ottoman-era Armenian genocide” that resulted in the deportation, massacre, and death marches of “one and a half million Armenians…in a campaign of extermination.” 

If the Armenian genocide is correctly categorized as such according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, why did it take more than one hundred years for the U.S. to recognize it? Acknowledgement of a genocide on part of the U.S. signifies, according to the United States Institute of Peace, a steadfast commitment to accentuate human rights within U.S. foreign policy. Justice for human rights violations then becomes a priority, and the perpetrators of these human rights violations can be held accountable for their crimes. U.S. recognition, particularly of the Armenian genocide, acknowledges generational suffering on part of those who endured it during that time, as well as the descendants of those who had to flee and seek refuge elsewhere. The Armenian diaspora advocated for the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the U.S., but their attempts were unsuccessful. Biden’s declaration, Harvard Law graduate Anoush Baghdassarian announces, will now reopen dismissed cases in U.S. courts relating to “harms suffered in connection to the Armenian Genocide” because lack of this recognition on part of the executive branch did not permit the cases to reach the merits, the stage in which a decision is made based on the legal facts and evidence presented during a trial. Litigants can attempt to file claims relating to the Armenian Genocide with a greater likelihood of the cases reaching merits and a settlement.


U.S. President Biden Officially Recognizes Armenian Genocide, May 2021. Image Credit: Eric Haynes.

Some victims of genocides and crimes against humanity are either ignored or forgotten altogether because of political alliances certain states may harbor with the ones responsible for the massacres. The dissenting judge in Sarei v. Rio Tinto, PLC, asserts that diplomatic connections are imperative to maintain and instructs political branches not to take “action against terrible evils to preserve essential alliances…[because]they are an integral part of the management of foreign affairs.” This could explain the lack of acknowledgement on part of the U.S. regarding the Armenian Genocide. Relations between the U.S. and Turkey were crucial to maintain due to the presence of American military bases in the Balkans and Caucasus. Recognizing the tragedy as a genocide would mean a fellow colleague’s history would be characterized in an offensive manner, which could potentially lead to a severing of ties between the two nation-states – something the dissenting judge had advised against. 

The U.S. Department of State established diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Republic of Turkey in 1927, preceded by an alliance with the Ottoman Empire as early as 1831. These relations strengthened during the latter half of the 20th century after Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952, fueling the American desire to advance diplomacy with the Turkish state and keep the state anchored to the Euro-Atlantic community. Security partnership and defense accentuated the significance of these relations because of Turkey’s contribution to international security alongside U.S. forces in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the seas bordering Somalia. The American and Turkish governments were aware of the implications of their relations, amicably maintaining them and even choosing to fulfill any requests the opposite party had. Ankara, in fact, beseeched the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the White House to “successfully oppos[e]a series of Congressional resolutions that would have recognized the Armenian Genocide.” 

Washington, D.C., acted accordingly, leading to an unusually adamant denial of any genocidal acts committed by the Turkish government. Any portrayal of a fellow colleague’s “bad” history was not a worthy risk to take. In the 1930s, the Department of State successfully prevented Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from releasing “Musa Dagh,” a film that would have documented the resistance of an Armenian community, as depicted in Franz Werfel’s novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” in 1915. The steadfastness in blocking Congressional resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide increased evermore throughout the 1970s and 1980s; this steadfastness was solicited on part of the State Department itself, which personally reassured Turkish officials that the resolutions would not be passed. President William J. Clinton himself intervened in 2000, citing extremely negative consequences for the U.S. and imploring that the Resolution not be brought to the floor. It was not.

Biden’s statement on April 24, 2021 was the first time the President of the United States referred to the human rights violations as “genocide” – a decision not well accepted by Turkish President Erdoğan, who outrightly denounced Biden’s remarks. Tensions between the American and Turkish governments began to increase with  Erdoğan’s inauguration in 2014 due to his extremist “consolidation of power and corresponding suppression of journalists, academics, civil society organizations, and minorities” that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, repudiated American principle and Turkey’s membership in NATO. As of 2018, Turkey was no longer considered a partner of the U.S. due to lack of “share[d]overarching threats or interests that b[ou]nd them together.” U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide in 2021 only estranged U.S.-Turkish relations even further. Was it worth maintaining a diplomatic relationship with Turkey that ultimately dwindled after decades spent reinforcing security and defense in favor of both parties? 

Political alliances can influence the degree to which a nation-state will acknowledge the genocide of a given victim group, particularly in the case of global hegemons. In these incidents, it would only be right to evaluate other diplomatic relations that could be preventing the recognition of genocides and crimes against humanity.

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