100 years on, Australia’s still out of step on the Armenian genocide

Soldiers standing over skulls from the Ottoman Armenian village of Sheyxalan in the Mush valley, eastern Anatolia, circa 1916. Courtesy Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, Armenia, CC BY-NC-ND

There’s no escaping the media blitz on tomorrow’s centenary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli. That’s understandable. Less easy to grasp is the way Australia has largely chosen to shut its eyes to the centenary of another event in the same country: the Turkish genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, between 750,000 and 900,000 Greeks, and between 275,000 and 400,000 Christian Assyrians, which began on April 24, 1915.

Last June, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote a letter to the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance, reassuring them that:

The Australian Government acknowledges the devastating effects which the tragic events at the end of the Ottoman Empire have had on later generations and on their identity, heritage and culture. We do not, however, recognise these events as ‘genocide’.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s 2014 letter. Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance

Australia, she wrote, has a long-standing approach “not to become involved in this sensitive debate”.

The foreign minister is wrong on two counts: the Armenian genocide doesn’t warrant quotation marks, and what happened is no more of a debate than the realities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

But Bishop is right on two points. First, Australia has misconceived the Turkish reaction as merely “sensitive”, when in fact their ferocious denial is a vital lie, one that goes to the very essence of the modern Turkish Republic.

Earlier this week, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued a statement that began:

During the last years of the Ottoman Empire, a very large number of Ottoman citizens from different ethnic and religious backgrounds endured great suffering, leaving deep scars in their memories. They had all lived together for centuries in peace and harmony.

As descendants of nations with different ethnic and religious origins who endured these sufferings amid the conditions of the First World War, we understand what the Armenians feel. We remember with respect the innocent Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives and offer our deep condolences to their descendants.

However, many Armenians were angered by the Turkish prime minister’s statement, as it went on to warn against “reducing everything to one word” (namely, genocide).

Protesters in Martyrs Square, Beirut, Lebanon, earlier this month – one of many global events to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Nabil Mounzer/EPA

Secondly, Australia has chosen not to join in the moral reaction of other democracies that officially recognise the genocide. Many of our friends and allies — Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the Vatican — have adopted a moral stance rather than a foreign policy ploy in recognising those events as the Armenian genocide.

Turkey was reportedly so worried about whether US President Barack Obama would follow Pope Francis in using the word “genocide” ahead of today’s (April 24) 100th anniversary of the start of the mass killings of Armenians that it sent Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to lobby his US counterpart, John Kerry.

It has since been widely reported that Obama will avoid using the term in his address, despite declaring in 2008 that:

the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable … as President I will recognise the Armenian Genocide.

Australian commemorations

Tonight at the Sydney Town Hall, Geoffrey Robertson QC will address the centenary commemoration on “An Inconvenient Genocide”, the title of his recent book.

Even at the time, the world acknowledged what was happening to the Armenians. British Secretary of the Admiralty Winston Churchill called it an “administrative holocaust”, while a Joint Allied Declaration in May 1915 stated:

In view of these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilisation, the Allied governments announce publicly … that they will hold personally responsible … all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.

The Turkish Military Tribunal of 1919–1920 initially tried 112 people, including the “Big Seven” leaders of the Ittihad ve Terakki Party, as well as members of wartime cabinets, provincial governors and high-ranking military and political officers. The principal charges were “massacres and unlawful, personal profiteering” therefrom. (The word “genocide” was not coined until 1944.)

While lamenting the destruction or disappearance of much of the trial transcript material, Robertson argues that the surviving records “do serve as a reminder of the time when Turks were prepared to confront their criminal past”.

International recognition today

By early 2015, 22 nation states had officially recognised the genocide, as had 43 of 50 American state governments and two of Australia’s six state parliaments: New South Wales and South Australia. Recognition has also come from the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the World Council of Churches and the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Three countries – Cyprus, Switzerand and Slovakia – have even criminalised denial of the Armenian genocide. Is it conceivable that these nations and reputable bodies have got it wrong, or been hoodwinked by a conspiracy by those who wish Turkey ill?

The “debate” question is a manufactured debate. As with the tobacco industry and, more latterly, the global warming deniers, the tactic is to inject the assertion that not all scientists agree, and suddenly there is a “debate”. Alternatively, there is the Bishop-like insistence that “we” simply do not “recognise these events”, without stooping to explain why.

For decades, the Turkish government has lobbied the American Congress not to pass a resolution recognising the genocide. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass and each year the required number comes closer. Individual presidents — like Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter — and senior figures like Hillary Clinton have used the “g” word, and it seems likely that congressional recognition is not far away.

In 2007, then US Senator Barack Obama says “there was a genocide that did take place against the Armenian people”.

True, the countries that have recognised the genocide do not have our special Australian–Turkish relationship. Our mutual alliance is borne out of Australia’s somewhat bizarre notion that we were not a nation until the disaster of Gallipoli: somehow all that happened between 1788 and 1915 counted for very little, and nationhood began at Anzac Cove.

This “brothers-in-war” theme in Australian life may have its place, but it cannot be sustained by Australian complicity in the juggernaut of aggressive Turkish denialism.

In the 1980s, the state of Maine mandated school textbooks on the Holocaust. The title of one text was “Facing History and Ourselves”, a powerful argument that relationships can only “move on” once the disputants have faced their histories.

Australians have a strong proclivity not to remember, or to refuse to remember, the dark side of history, as with the eras of physical killings of Aborigines and, later, the forcible removal of their children.

But political change may yet come. Gladys Berejeklian is now Treasurer of New South Wales. Joe Hockey is national Treasurer. Both are of Armenian descent and both have worked assiduously for a reasoned recognition of historical realities.

Hockey has so far been rebuffed in his steadfast efforts. However, it is just possible that in his lifetime he will get a hearing in federal cabinet.

Eventually, we have to hope that the incontrovertible evidence will penetrate our foreign policy strategists, and that an Australian government will see that it won’t fall at an election because sections of the Turkish Australian community — none of whom has anything whatsoever to do with the events of 1915 to 1923 — are upset about a past wrong being given its due acknowledgement.