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It’s time for Australia to recognise the Armenian genocide

Op-Ed by Trent Zimmerman MP and John Alexander MP

On a ridge above the Armenian capital of Yerevan sits an austere but impressive memorial and museum dedicated to the 1.5 million Armenians killed in the Ottoman empire during one of the greatest tragedies of the modern era. 

Visiting the memorial is akin to the experience of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust.  It is heart-wrenching and sobering.  Both so clearly convey the barbaric impact and magnitude of acts designed to exterminate a people based on their ethnicity and beliefs.

The Weekly Times 12 May 2021

Yet there is a difference. 

Australia and the international community, with few exceptions, recognise the Holocaust for what it was: a genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.  Importantly, this is accepted by current generations of Germans and their governments who have strived for atonement and reconciliation.

Yet similar recognition has not been given to the Armenians, past or present, for the genocide they faced, despite the enduring scars and legacy.  In contrast to Germany, the successor of the Ottoman state, modern Turkey, stridently resists recognition of the Armenian genocide for what it was, let alone any efforts to heal the wounds wrought by those events.

It is time that changed, and Australia must play its part by joining what has been a slow but growing number of nations that have recognised the Armenian genocide.  Last weekend President Biden, in an historic statement on behalf of the United States, joined the list of 31 other nations that have now done so.

In some ways it is surprising that the Australian governments of all political persuasions have resisted recognising the Armenian genocide as the experience of Australians and Armenians was so closely linked at the time.   The Armenian genocide commenced on 24 April 1915, as young Australian troops were preparing for their ill-fated but legendary assault on Gallipoli the following dawn. 

On that day, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals living in Constantinople were arrested to be deportated.  Some were murdered on the spot.  What followed over ensuing years was, as a deliberate policy of the Ottoman government, an attempt to wipe out Armenians living within the borders of the Ottoman state.  Alongside Assyrians and Greeks, Armenians were felled in the name of Turkification and ethnic purity.

Australian soldiers, many by that stage POWs, were to be some of the earliest eyewitnesses to the horrors as they unfolded.  News of the massacres, assaults, rapes and death marches horrified Australians and relief appeals were established in our cities and towns.  Support for those affected became Australia’s first international humanitarian relief effort and the actions of citizens were supported by governments of the day.

There was no doubt then – in Australia or across much of Europe – that the world was witnessing a crime against humanity.

As British-based Australian lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, has comprehensively documented in his significant work on the Armenian genocide, the events that started in 1915 were to become a driving force for the push for international laws against genocide.  The tragedy of the Armenians and the Jewish Holocaust that followed ultimately led to the 1948 Genocide Convention.

These events started 106 years ago.  Yet they remain relevant today.

For the Armenian people and diaspora, that great loss haunts their communities.  So many count grandparents and other relatives among the dead or dislocated.  The Australian-Armenian community may be small by comparative standards, but it has made a substantial contribution to our nation.  In politics alone, they count the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, former Treasurer Joe Hockey and Tim Wilson MP amongst their number (the latter two of part Armenian heritage).  If nothing else, we owe it to our own fellow Australians to provide the solace and justice of recognising the Armenian genocide.

However, the case for recognising the genocide has a much more profound calling: not only based on identifying the truth of past events, but also our efforts to prevent these tragedies befalling others. 

We should never forget the words of Hitler who, on the eve of launching his own murderous assault on the people of Poland, said: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”.  

Next to that sacred memorial in Yerevan lies a grove of fir trees, planted in memory of the victims of the genocide by dignitaries from across the world, including Presidents and Prime Ministers.  Only two trees have been planted by Australian federal politicians.  One by Joe Hockey a decade ago and another by us with our colleague Tim Wilson at the end of 2019, each acting as private individuals.  It’s time to do the right thing and recognise the Armenian genocide so that a future tree grows tall in that forest standing in the name of Australia and all we stand for.

Trent Zimmerman is the Federal Member for North Sydney. 

John Alexander is the Federal Member for Bennelong.