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The bodies of deportees from Van who died of typhus and various other diseases, pictured in a forest near the Mother See of Etchmiadzin, about 25km from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in the summer of 1915. Image Credit: AP

Washington: The massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I is commemorated each year on April 24.

Armenians refer to the mass killings as the Armenian genocide - a term that Turkey rejects and which the United States until now has refrained from using.

That could change Saturday, when President Joe Biden is expected to recognise it as a “genocide” in an annual Remembrance Day declaration.

Here’s what that could mean.

Why does Turkey oppose the term ‘genocide’?

The 1948 United Nations convention on genocide defines it as the crime of acting “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Historians estimate that around 1.5 million Armenian Christians were killed during massacres and deportation campaigns carried out by the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915. Many use the word genocide to describe it.

But Turkey, the modern-day successor of the Ottoman Empire, rejects this allegation. Successive Turkish leaders have maintained that while some atrocities did occur, the deaths and persecution were nothing to the degree that Armenia and its supporters claim.

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Instead, Turkey says that some 300,000 Armenians died during World War I as a result of the civil war and internal upheavals that consumed the Ottoman Empire as it splintered. In addition to Armenian Christians, Turkey says that many Muslim Turks died during this period.

Armenians today are considered among the world’s most dispersed peoples, according to the BBC. The mass killings more than a century ago are a defining moment for Armenia and its diaspora.

But for Turkey, the term genocide threatens the story it tells about the founding of its modern nation state. Writers who use the term have been prosecuted under Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, which criminalises “insulting Turkishness.”

Why has the United States refrained from using the word?

Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, among others, did not use the word to avoid angering Turkey. Ankara is a longtime US ally and a Nato member. More recently, it was part of the fight against Daesh.

Ankara has repeatedly warned Washington that changing its stance would threaten US-Turkish relations and shared interests such as an agreement that allows the United States access to a military base in the south of the country.

Turkey frequently complains when other countries use the term genocide. Some 20 countries do so, among them Russia, France and Canada, while other key US allies including Israel and Britain do not.

In 2019, Congress passed a resolution calling the killings a genocide. The move infuriated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Trump officially rejected it.

Obama, in contrast, had pledged to formally recognise the Armenian genocide when he first ran in 2008. By the end of his eight years in office, he had not done so.

Samantha Powers, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Biden’s nominee to lead the US Agency for International Development, said during a 2018 interview that she and others in the administration were “played a bit” by Erdogan.

“Every year there was a reason not to,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, said in the same interview 2018. “Turkey was vital to some issue that we were dealing with, or there was some dialogue between Turkey and the Armenian government about the past.”

“Frankly, here’s the lesson, I think, going forward: Get it done the first year, you know, because if you don’t, it gets harder every year in a way,” he said.

What would be the impact of the change?

Biden on Saturday plans to follow through on a campaign pledge to formally recognise that atrocities committed against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago in modern-day Turkey were genocide, according to US officials.

Biden similarly promised to do so while campaigning.

“If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognising the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority for my administration,” Biden said in a statement marking Armenia’s Remembrance Day last year.

He might also have calculated that taking a stand on a historical event could be a relatively easy way to begin retooling his approach to foreign policy and human rights.

How have Turkey and Armenia’s supporters responded?

Erdogan briefly weighed in Thursday, saying that Turkey will continue to defend its history of what Turkish media called “the events of 1915.”

Many Armenian American activists have been pushing Biden to fulfil his campaign promise. On Wednesday, over 100 members of Congress sent a letter to Biden urging him to do so.

“We join with the proud Armenian American community and all of those who support truth and justice in asking that you clearly and directly recognize the Armenian Genocide,” they wrote.