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At a Distance: UCLA community reflects on Biden’s recognition of Armenian Genocide

On April 24, President Joe Biden was the first U.S. president to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. Some students and faculty said they felt relieved at the announcement, and said they hoped it would pave the way for recognition of other injustices. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Rania Soetirto

May 5, 2021 3:20 p.m.

This post was updated May 5 at 9:04 p.m.

Bruins come from all around the world, from Colombia to Bangladesh. Because of the pandemic, many international Bruins are currently residing in their home countries. In “At a Distance,” Daily Bruin writers will look at events around the world Bruins care about and give a student’s perspective on the topics.

On April 24, Hasmik Baghdasaryan woke up to a message from a group chat that President Joe Biden had released a statement recognizing the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Baghdasaryan, who is also the program representative of the Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA, said she was shocked to hear the news. The recognition of the Armenian Genocide has always been the campaign promise of many U.S. presidents, but it was never kept until now, she said.

Biden is the first U.S. president to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide in his address on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Observed annually April 24, it commemorates victims of the systemic mass murder and the deportation of up to 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.

For decades, previous U.S. presidents had refrained from calling the killings a genocide out of fear that it may affect diplomatic relationships with Turkey, according to The Washington Post.

S. Peter Cowe, the Narekatsi professor of Armenian studies, said Turkey had leverage against the U.S. – Turkey was a big consumer of U.S. military goods, an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and has a strong military presence – which previously hindered U.S. presidents from openly acknowledging the genocide. Turkey was also involved in the U.S.’ Middle East operations, Cowe added.

Arman Antonyan, a fourth-year history student and president of the Armenian Students’ Association, said he felt relieved that Biden finally had the courage to recognize the killings as a genocide rather than a massacre.

The Armenian community in the U.S. has demonstrated on April 24 for many years and is vocal about the genocide, said Devin Grigorian, a first-year English language student and member of the ASA. He added it is somewhat frustrating that the recognition took this long, but nonetheless, he is thankful.

“I knew this marked a new stage for our community and our cause going forward,” Grigorian said. “We’re finally gaining more momentum, but we know that there’s still a long way to go … until Turkey and the rest of the world recognize the genocide.”

Including the United States, only 30 countries recognize the Armenian Genocide today.

Although Anna Chakhoyan felt happy, the third-year psychobiology student said the recognition felt bittersweet, as it happened during a time when relations between Turkey and the U.S. are souring.

According to the New York Times, Turkey’s government has acknowledged the atrocities that occurred during the time period, but they also argued that many Turks were killed and that the Armenian casualties were exaggerated.

Raffi Kassabian, a communications lecturer, said there is a penal code in Turkey that prohibits people from talking about the Armenian Genocide.

“If you were to visit Turkey as an academic or as a journalist, if you even talked about the Armenian Genocide, there’s a penal code that you (could) be punished under,” said Kassabian, who is also the vice chair of the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region.

In response to Biden’s recognition of the genocide, the foreign ministry of Turkey has summoned the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, Turkey, to condemn the statement.

Cowe said the official Turkish narrative of the genocide was established during the governmental period of Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father, and has been maintained by the Turkish government to present day.

This particular narrative is also enforced in school textbooks as part of governmental censorship, he added.

Antonyan said Turkey is unwilling to recognize the Armenian Genocide, because it contradicts the nationalist narrative surrounding the country’s history.

“Psychologically, you don’t want to believe that your country was founded on genocide,” Antonyan said. “(The genocide) is damaging to a key part of Turkish national identity.”

Kassabian said Turkey does not recognize the genocide because it would also lead to demands for reparations and restitutions for the Armenian people.

“(The recognition) sets the world stage for the victims of the Armenian Genocide to pursue justice, full reparations, restitution and other forms of justice that are available in a court of law,” Kassabian said.

The people in Armenia were generally celebratory and welcoming of Biden’s acknowledgement, said Sebouh Aslanian, holder of the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History. The recognition is important to both Armenians in Armenia and the diaspora, as it gives a semblance of psychological and spiritual healing to those who have been silenced and left without recognition, added Aslanian, who is also a history professor and director of the Armenian Studies Center.

Meanwhile, Chakhoyan said a cousin told her that the reaction in Armenia has been lukewarm, because the nation is still recovering from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and is preoccupied with an upcoming election in June.

[Related: UCLA community responds to ongoing conflict between Armenia, Azerbaijan]

Aslanian also said it is still too early to see the results of Biden’s recognition, but he is hopeful that the acknowledgement will have the financial, moral and legal impact to bring responsible parties to the court of justice.

“We can only hope, as human beings and as members of communities that have been wounded or hurt or faced with injustice, that it will pave way to a future that is more optimistic – a future that is based more on justice and recognition for the pains that peoples have suffered,” Aslanian added.

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