It’s been more than a century since some 1.5 million Armenians were killed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, and Armenian Americans have for decades called on the U.S. government to formally recognize the slaughter with the term “genocide.”
Now that finally might be happening.
Saturday marks the 106th anniversary of the beginning of the violence, commemorated as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. President Joe Biden is said to be preparing to formally acknowledge the killings using the “g-word.”
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of more than 100 House members signed a letter urging Biden to formally recognize the atrocities as genocide. The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Adam Schiff, whose district in Los Angeles County is home to a large Armenian American community.
“By speaking the truth about this horrific period of history, refusing to be silent, and calling it a genocide, we can ensure that the United States is never again complicit,” Schiff told KTLA. “There’s no reason for the United States to carry Turkish water on genocide denial — there never was, and there certainly isn’t now.”
The moment comes at a particularly poignant time, after a year of protest and heightened attention to police violence against people of color in America, said Salpi Ghazarian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.
“As Americans we have spent a year coming to terms with the fact that communities around us have lived with inflicted pain, in ways that we’ve never understood. The least we can do is acknowledge that pain and express a willingness to learn about it,” Ghazarian said. “This, for Armenians, is a similar first step. This trauma that we’ve all inherited is being recognized for what it is — intentional government policy to eliminate a whole people.”
As a candidate, Biden pledged to acknowledge the genocide formally, as did many of his predecessors while on the campaign trail. But, due to pressure from Turkey, previous presidents avoided using the word once in office during annual April 24 commemorations.
Turkey still denies the atrocities that took place were genocide, and its foreign minister has warned that Biden’s use of the term will harm ties between the two countries.
“As a community, we have seen successive administrations on both sides of the political aisle break their promises to ensure honest remembrance of the genocide and succumb to Turkey’s malign efforts to obstruct justice,” said Alex Galitsky, spokesperson for the Armenian National Committee of America. “With recognition, the Biden Administration has the opportunity to not only do right by the Armenian community — but to elevate the U.S. response to atrocity and genocide prevention.”
The House and Senate both passed resolutions in 2019 recognizing the genocide.
“For decades, those of us who supported recognition of the genocide faced a ferocious opposition, premised on the harm that such a vote would cause to our relations with Turkey and to our national security,” Schiff said.
“But when the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions on a bipartisan basis in 2019 to recognize the Armenian Genocide, Turkey protested, but the relationship between Turkey and the United States did not change — or if it has changed, it has done so for reasons having nothing to do with the Armenian Genocide and everything to do with Turkey’s drift towards autocracy,” the congressman said.
But beyond politics and international relations, the recognition is also deeply personal for many thousands of Armenian Americans.
Ghazarian says, “This is completely gratifying not just for my great grandmother, who was denied her life; or my grandmother, who lived a life of trauma; or my mother, who spent all of her years trying to get beyond victimhood; or me, wondering if all that’s been taught about right and morality is really valid; and especially for my daughter, because it gives her hope that in fact right does make might.”
Local leaders are putting pressure on the federal government to finally take the step of formal recognition.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declared April as Armenian History Month and April 24 as a day of remembrance for the Armenian genocide.
“Los Angeles County is strengthened by the tremendous contributions of Armenians,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said. “I value the voice of our Armenian residents and will continue to shine a light on their history, accomplishments, and priorities.”
Los Angeles, home to the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia, saw a number of demonstrations from the community last fall, after Azerbaijan launched a military attack in the autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, also called Artsakh — a mountainous region bordering Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Armenian American communities across Southern California and the nation called for the U.S. to engage in diplomatic intervention to stop the fighting.
Ten-year-old Aram Shirinyan, of Glendale, said intervention from Washington in Artsakh would hold more weight than acknowledging the genocide.
“I think it would mean even more to me if they actually helped during the war because it’s one thing to notice that something is bad, it’s another thing to actually try to help the cause,” Shirinyan said.
The fifth grader is the not the only one drawing a connection between the genocide of the 20th century and the war that took place in late 2020. Turkey supplied neighboring Azerbaijan with weapons and military manpower, which many Armenians say brought up painful memories of 1915.
“As we saw during the Turkish-backed Azerbaijani invasion of Artsakh last year, Armenians continue to face many of the same threats they did 106 years ago — and as a community we must remain active in ensuring those ongoing threats to Armenia’s security do not succeed,” Galitsky said.
The war last fall was the biggest escalation in a decades-old conflict over the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is home to about 150,000 people — about 95% of whom are ethnic Armenians, according to a 2015 census.
“Azerbaijan’s attack on the Armenian people last fall, with Turkey’s full support, was, in my view, an unspeakable tragedy,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez last week. “The absence of top level United States diplomacy throughout the war was inexcusable.”
Local elected officials gathered at L.A. City Hall in October to demand U.S. action to halt Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s attacks against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the time, Schiff had strong words for Turkey.
“We have a strong bipartisan message for Turkey and Erdogan: You’re a member of NATO. Start acting like one,” Schiff said.
More than 200 Armenian prisoners of war remain in Azerbaijani custody.