U.S. President Barack Obama again declined to describe the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide as he commemorated “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century” late on Saturday. (UPDATED)
As was the case in his previous April 24 statements, Obama used instead the Armenian phrase Meds Yeghern, or Great Calamity, to mark the 96th anniversary of the start of the mass killings and deportations.
“In 1915, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire,” he said in his latest statement on what is officially marked as Armenian Remembrance Day in the United States.
“Our hearts and prayers are with Armenians everywhere as we recall the horrors of the Meds Yeghern, honor the memories of those who suffered, and pledge our friendship and deep respect for the people of Armenia,” read the statement.
Obama at the same time again indicated that he stands by his pronouncements on the politically sensitive subject made during the 2008 U.S. presidential race. “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed,” he said.
In a January 2008 statement to the Armenian-American community, Obama, then a presidential candidate, called the Armenian genocide “a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.” “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president,” he said at the time.
Obama backpedaled on that pledge after taking office, anxious not to antagonize Turkey, a key U.S. ally that vehemently denies a premeditated government effort to exterminate the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. In April 2009, he implicitly cited the need not to undermine a U.S.-backed rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey.
“A full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all our interests,” the U.S. president said on Saturday. “Contested history destabilizes the present and stains the memory of those whose lives were taken, while reckoning with the past lays a sturdy foundation for a peaceful and prosperous shared future.”
“History teaches us that our nations are stronger and our cause is more just when we appropriately recognize painful pasts and work to rebuild bridges of understanding toward a better tomorrow,” he added in a message apparently addressed to Turkey.
Obama made no direct mention of the Turkish-Armenian normalization process that collapsed last year following Ankara’s refusal to unconditionally normalize ties with Yerevan. He only praised “the courageous steps taken by individuals in Armenia and Turkey to foster a dialogue that acknowledges their common history. ”
Obama also paid tribute to the Armenian community in the U.S., which overwhelmingly backed his presidential campaign and is now increasingly disappointed with his stance on the genocide issue. “Americans of Armenian descent have strengthened our society and our communities with their rich culture and traditions,” he said.
Leading Armenian-American groups were quick to denounce Obama for again backtracking on his campaign pledge. The Armenian National Committee of Armenia (ANCA) was particularly scathing.
"For a President who ran for office on the platform of ‘change’ and ‘honesty’, his record on this score – including, notably, his deeply offensive reference today to ‘contested history,’ has been shameful,” the ANCA chairman, Ken Hachikian, said in a statement.
“He has, in addition to betraying his own words and compromising America’s moral standing, gravely disappointed Armenians here in the United States, in Armenia, and around the world who had looked to him as an example of courage, conviction, and conscience,” charged Hachikian.
"Words do matter, and today's statement on the eve of Easter and the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide was a missed opportunity to help heal the open wounds of the past," Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America said in a separate statement.
"Genocide and its denial are pernicious, and the U.S. needs to squarely address the consequence of genocide denial through unequivocal affirmation of this historical truth," Ardouny said.
The Assembly also pointed out that in a December 2010 ruling, a U.S. federal court made reference to Obama's previous use of the word Meds Yeghern and indicated that “'Meds Yeghern is the [Armenian] term for Armenian Genocide.'”