April 24th is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, during which countries from around the world commemorate the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Similar to years prior, we saw heads of state like President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau voice their support to join Armenian communities in honoring the memory of the victims. Unfortunately, however, the United States has had a complicated history when it comes to acknowledging the Armenian Genocide.
It was not until 2021 that President Biden took a different step from his predecessors by calling the atrocity a genocide. This year, he reaffirmed this stance. Biden’s willingness to break the century-long silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide is indicative of a shift in political attitudes, driven by an administration looking to repair its nation’s fractured image.
Before President Biden, the United States showed a repeated unwillingness to recognize the genocide. Both President George W Bush and President Barack Obama, despite their respective campaign promises, refused to acknowledge the genocide and deemed it a “highly sensitive issue,” that would bear too great a political cost for US and Turkish relations. But, as scholars point out, this century-long unwillingness to accept this atrocity points to a greater issue than US-Turkish relations.
The United States has had quite a difficult relationship with its own past, and most presidents have avoided opening up Pandora’s box of criticism. There is a concern that by recognizing the Armenian Genocide, the US is setting a precedent that will force them to accept not only the existence of past tragedies but the responsibility to prevent future ones. In a world so often dominated by a realist political landscape, the United States wants to avoid forcing its own hand whenever possible, a philosophy that was illustrated during the Rwandan Genocide.
During the 100-day-long genocide, as many as 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered, and the Clinton administration simply stood by and watched. However, just 4 years later, the United States came to the protection of ethnic-Albanians during the Kosovo War. This type of selective enforcement of humanitarian intervention represents an all-too-disturbing willingness to brush human suffering to the side when deemed necessary.
In this historic move from President Biden, we may be seeing a shift in the political winds. Biden’s willingness to acknowledge the Armenian genocide echoes his campaign promise to restore the United States’ international reputation and work towards a new approach that creates “a world where human rights are respected.” Taken in the context of this administration’s willingness to call out China and Russia for their human rights abuses, as well as its work with the international community, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of human rights and the United States’ role in creating that future.