WASHINGTON (RFE/RL)—The White House has declined to clarify whether U.S. President Barack Obama will use the word “genocide” in his upcoming annual statement on the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
Obama is facing growing pressure from the Armenian community in the United States to finally honor his 2008 campaign pledges to recognize the genocide on its 100th anniversary that will be marked on April 24.
Armenian-American leaders have urged him in recent days to follow the example of Pope Francis who described the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century” during a landmark Vatican Mass on Sunday. They have also seized upon a similar resolution that was passed by the European Parliament earlier this week.
“The president and senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire,” the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told a news briefing in Washington late on Thursday.
“We have further stated that we mourn those deaths and that a full, frank and just acknowledgement of facts is in the interests of everybody, including Turkey, Armenia and the United States. That is our position,” he said.
Asked whether Obama will utter the word genocide on April 24, Earnest said, “This has been our policy, position and approach to this issue for a number of years now. It is customary for the president to issue a statement on this terrible historical event later in the month of April and I wouldn’t anticipate any updates on our policy until then.”
Obama vowed to ensure an explicit U.S. recognition of the genocide when he ran for president in 2008. “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 becoming president, anxious not to anger Turkey. In his statements on the subject made until now he has used instead the Armenian phrase Meds Yeghern, or Great Calamity, to honor the Armenians massacred by the Ottoman Turks.
Alexander Arzumanian, a pro-West Armenian opposition member of parliament, claimed on Friday that Obama might publicly recognize the genocide this time around. “The U.S. administration is split [on the issue,]” he said. “A part of it insists that the word genocide be used, while another disagrees, citing national interests.”
“The situation is really different right now,” Arzumanian told reporters in Yerevan.
In a further sign of a possible U.S. policy change, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will fly to Washington on Saturday to meet Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama’s chief national security adviser, Susan Rice. According to Hurriyet Daily News, the genocide issue will be the main focus of the talks.
“One of the principles that has guided the administration’s work in this area and in atrocity prevention more broadly has been that nations grow strong by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of their past and that doing so is essential for building a foundation for a more just and more tolerant future,” Earnest said on Thursday.