That could change this Saturday, when President Biden is expected to recognize it as a “genocide” in an annual remembrance day declaration.
Here’s what that could mean.
Why does Turkey oppose the term ‘genocide’?
The 1948 United Nation’s Convention on Genocide defines it as the crime of acting “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
Historians estimate that around 1.5 Armenian Christians were killed during massacres and deportation campaigns carried out by the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915. Many use the word genocide to describe it.
But Turkey, the modern-day successor of the Ottoman Empire, rejects this allegation. Successive Turkish leaders have maintained that while some atrocities did occur, the deaths and persecution were nothing to the degree that Armenia and its supporters claim.
Instead, Turkey says that some 300,000 Armenians died during World War I as a result of the civil war and internal upheavals that consumed the Ottoman Empire as it splintered. In addition to Armenian Christians, Turkey says that many Muslim Turks died during this period.
Armenians today are considered among the world’s most dispersed peoples, according to the BBC. The mass killings more than a century ago are a defining moment for Armenia and its diaspora.
But for Turkey, the term genocide threatens the story it tells about the founding of its own modern nation state. Writers who use the term have been prosecuted under Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness.”
Why has the United States refrained from using the word?
Former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, among others, did not use the word to avoid angering Turkey. Ankara is a longtime U.S. ally and a NATO member. More recently, it was part of the fight against the Islamic State.
Ankara has repeatedly warned Washington that changing its stance would threaten U.S.-Turkish relations and shared interests, such as an agreement that allows the United States access to a military base in the south of the country.
Turkey frequently complains when other countries use the term genocide. Some 20 countries, among them Russia, France and Canada, do, while other key U.S. allies, including Israel and the United Kingdom, do not.
Obama, however, had pledged to formally recognize the Armenian genocide when he first ran in 2008. By the end of his eight years in office, he had not done so.
“Every year there was a reason not to,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, said in 2018. “Turkey was vital to some issue that we were dealing with, or there was some dialogue between Turkey and the Armenian government about the past.”
“Frankly, here’s the lesson, I think, going forward: Get it done the first year, you know, because if you don’t, it gets harder every year in a way,” he said.
What would be the impact of the change?
Biden, who as Obama’s vice president was presumably privy to these discussions, has not confirmed whether he will or not. Press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the president will “have more to say about Remembrance Day on Saturday.”
Biden similarly promised to do so while campaigning.
“If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority for my administration,” Biden said in a statement marking Armenia’s Remembrance Day last year.
Now, as president, Biden’s indication that he might follow through comes after four tense years of relations between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He might have also calculated that taking a stand on a historical event could be a relatively easy way to begin retooling his approach to foreign policy and human rights.