President Biden on Saturday used the word “genocide” to describe the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, a formal shift in tone that administrations past have avoided in fear of angering Turkey.
A presidential proclamation to mark Armenian Remembrance Day included the fraught phrase for the first time after decades of the U.S. sidestepping official recognition of the century-old campaign of atrocities.
“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.
Biden on Friday informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his plans to use the word genocide to describe the mass killings of ethnic Armenians by Turks from 1915 to 1923, White House aides said.
The president wanted to give Erdogan, a key U.S. ally in the volatile region, advance notice before making the formal recognition, officials said.
Official accounts of the talks between the two leaders from the two governments made no mention of Biden’s genocide recognition plans.
Turkey vigorously disputes the genocide claim and asserts that killings took place on both sides of the conflict. It also denounces what it calls terrorist killings of Turkish officials carried out by Armenian militants in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Lies do not just twist history, they also take innocent lives.” Turkey’s foreign ministry tweeted Saturday.
Biden’s move effectively fulfills a campaign pledge to recognize the Armenian massacres as genocide, arguing that “silence is complicity.”
The White House said that Biden told Erdogan he wants to improve ties and find “effective management of disagreements.” The two leaders also agreed to a bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels in June.
The call was the first between the two presidents since Biden took office more than three months ago, a delay that had sparked concerns in Turkey.
Erdogan enjoyed a warm relationship with former President Trump, who put little emphasis on improving the country’s dismal human rights record.
In Armenia, thousands of people streamed to a hilltop complex in the capital of Yerevan where the victims of the killings are memorialized.
Many laid bouquets around an eternal flame, creating a colorful wall of flowers piled seven feet high.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Avet Adonts said Biden’s use of the term genocide is an “important step.”
“It (serves) as an example for the rest of the civilized world,” Adonts said.