From a very young age, I could recite by heart two lists of countries: those that had recognised the Armenian genocide, and those that had not. The United Kingdom and the United States were on the latter list.
I imagine this rather niche childhood ritual might have been on the minds of many Armenians, particularly in the western diaspora, when Joe Biden delivered on his election campaign promise to formally recognise the killing of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 as genocide.
As Armenians, we could finally switch a major world power from one mental list over to the other.
That makes 32. Thirty-two countries that condemn a brutal campaign of dehumanisation, massacre and deportation executed from 24 April 1915 by the Ottoman regime. Thirty-two countries that acknowledge the historic wrong that emboldened Hitler to invade Poland in 1939, and led to mass desert graves in the same killing fields used by Islamic State a century later. Thirty-two countries that do not deny the reason six ancestors on my family tree are remembered not with names but as “lost without a trace”.
Until Biden’s declaration on Armenian Remembrance Day – 24 April, when each year my family and I march through London to Downing Street to protest against the UK government’s position – there was cause for cynicism.
Barack Obama, who promised as a presidential candidate in 2008 to use the word “genocide”, never did in office, preferring the euphemism “Meds Yeghern” (“great catastrophe” in Armenian). Donald Trump also avoided the word, referring instead to “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century” and distancing himself from the Senate’s unanimous vote to recognise the genocide in December 2019. Indeed, no US president has used the term “genocide” since Ronald Reagan in a 1981 speech – though this did not herald a change in policy.
Western indifference to the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, when half of the ethnically Armenian separatist region’s population was displaced, brought a fresh sense of betrayal. The realpolitik that has compelled so many nations to avoid using the word “genocide” in case it angers Turkey appeared to be reflected in a certain deference to the oil-rich autocracy of Azerbaijan, where the disputed land is located. The sluggish diplomatic response from the US during the conflict, marked by an abortive Washington-brokered ceasefire, left a vacuum for the Kremlin to fill.
Hours before Biden’s announcement on 24 April, it was still difficult as an Armenian to trust it would happen. An official briefed the Associated Press just two days beforehand that the President may still change his mind. I couldn’t bear to read any news reports – sent by friends and family in anticipation – suggesting his intentions. More than a century of waiting for justice should have detracted from the excitement of the occasion, but when it finally happened, it did feel like a historic moment. As the Armenian proverb goes, “hunger is the tastiest sauce”.
With Turkey increasingly isolated, the hope for Armenians is that other governments will now follow. The UK is still high up on my deniers list, after all. While all the devolved nations (and Derby City Council, lest we forget) do officially recognise the Armenian genocide, the UK government does not.
If Biden isn’t inspiration enough, perhaps Boris Johnson could look to his own ancestors. His Turkish great-grandfather, an Ottoman official called Ali Kemal, spoke out against the killing of Armenians by the regime and was lynched by the authorities for his treachery – left with a mock Armenian-sounding name, “Artun”, written across his chest.
Foreign Office memos over the years, released under Freedom of Information, have confirmed that the UK avoids Armenian genocide recognition for geopolitical expedience. After agreeing a Brexit deal with the European Union, the first free trade agreement the UK signed was with Turkey. As long as both nations remain somewhat stranded on the fringes of Europe, their relationship is likely to strengthen. For us British Armenians, there’s always next April.