To paraphrase a certain Marxist, a spectre is haunting Australia. The spectre of Genocide Recognition. South Australia was the first Australian state to officially recognise the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. New South Wales, where a prominent and often vandalised monument to the Genocide exists, was the next to follow suit.
On 11 May 2023, the Premier of Tasmania Jeremy Rockliff stood before the Tasmanian House of Assembly and moved the following motion, one of the most extensive and comprehensive dealing with the Genocide, ever:
“That the House:—
(1) Joins the members of the Tasmanian Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Communities in honouring the memory of the approximately 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children and over 1 million Assyrians and Greeks who fell victims to the first genocide of the 20th century.
(2) Condemns the Genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks and all other acts of genocide committed during the 20th century, as the ultimate act of racial, religious and cultural intolerance.
(3) Recognises and honours the extraordinary humanitarian efforts of the then newly formed Commonwealth of Australia, including Tasmania, for the orphans and other survivors of the genocide, which set a proud tradition of international humanitarian efforts by our State.
(4) Further recognises the importance of remembering and learning from such dark chapters in human history, to ensure that such crimes against humanity are not allowed to be repeated.
(5) Further condemns and opposes all attempts to use the passage of time to deny or distort the historical truth of the Genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks and other acts of genocide committed in the 20th century.
(6) Acknowledges the 34 UN member states (including US, Canada, France, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland) that have recognised the Genocide.”
The Tasmanian House of Assembly unanimously passed the motion, meaning that the State of Tasmania is now the third Australian state to officially recognise the Genocide. The sensitive statements made to the House by politicians of all persuasions recognising the hurt and pain caused by the crime were inordinately moving.
There is something intensely poignant about this overt political act, that distinguishes it from the recognition process in the other two Australian states. This is because Tasmania is the state in which during what historians term the “Black War,” terrible massacres of Aboriginal Tasmanians took place as colonists established cordons designed to remove Aboriginal Tasmanians from their homes and confine them to the Tasman Peninsula. The author of the term and the legal concept of genocide, Raphael Lemkin, considered Tasmania the site of one of the world’s clear cases of genocide and writer, historian and art critic Robert Hughes has described the loss of Aboriginal Tasmanians as “the only true genocide in English colonial history”.
As a result, in a land that has seen so much bloodshed, and with historians still disputing the exact nature of the fate of the Aboriginal Tasmanians, it takes a good deal of moral fibre, compassion and decency to appreciate the Genocide of peoples that took place a century ago, half a world away. While it is true that Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks have settled in Australia in large numbers, their communities within Tasmania are hardly numerous or electorally significant. Evidently, the Tasmanian House’s recognition of the Genocide has nothing to do with eliciting the ethnic vote and everything to do with acknowledging a historical wrong.
It could be argued that as Australian states have no powers in relation to foreign affairs, Tasmania’s recent recognition is of no practical effect. Nothing could be further from the truth. Recent scholarship has uncovered conclusive evidence of the manner in which the Genocide of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire served as inspiration and a blueprint for the Nazis in the removal of unwanted minorities from their own country. The longer crimes of this nature go unrecognised, the more similar crimes do they enable. Consequently, as realpolitik ensured that the perpetrators of the Genocide not only remained unpunished but were instead rewarded by the successor regimes that also engaged in similar practices, with the World Powers either actively aiding, in the case of the Soviet Union or making pious noises without intervening, in the case of the West, we can draw a direct line of causation from the Genocide during Ottoman times, to the Genocidal policies of Kemal Ataturk, the 1933 genocide of Assyrians at Simele in Iraq, the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom of Constantinople, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the 1988 Sumgait massacre of the Armenians by Azerbaijanis and the depredations of ISIS against Assyrians, Yezidis and Christians in general in Iraq and Syria in 2014. The more entities willing to condemn historical genocides, the harder it is for regimes to morally justify committing the same crimes again.
It is also requires no great conceptual leap to consider that the condemnation of historical genocides such as that against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, often referred to as “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” is a stepping stone to reconciliation with our First Peoples within Australia. Genocides may be locale specific, but their causes ultimately have similar roots: fear, intolerance, hatred, racism, discrimination, tyranny, and a dehumanizing public discourse that denies or aims to deny whole groups of people their dignity and their rights. When we condemn a specific genocide, we are then able by inference to condemn all of them, facilitating discussion and courses of action that can heal local wounds. The Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities can thus be rightfully proud of their role as leaders in spearheading such reconciliation.
The principled positions of South Australia, New South Wales and now Tasmania mean that half of all Australian states formally recognise the enormity of the crime against humanity that was the Genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. This creates momentum for the formal recognition of the Genocide by the Federal Government. The key ingredients for such recognition are already in place. In 2011, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for Federal recognition of the Genocide and acknowledged the outpouring of Australian support for victims of the Armenian Genocide as the country’s first international humanitarian relief effort, going as far as referring to it as “one of the greatest crimes in modern history.” In May 2022, just prior to becoming Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese called upon the Ottoman Empire’s successor state to “come to terms with its history”. At the same time, Federal Leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt said: “The Greens have consistently called on the Australian government to recognise the… Genocide. We must not remain on the wrong side of history along with Turkey and other nations that refuse to acknowledge this horrific tragedy,” a sentiment echoed by Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam in November 2022.
The above notwithstanding and despite whatever pious noises leaders of Federal governments make while in opposition, no Federal Government to date has formally recognised the Genocide. Credible sources attribute this to a desire to maintain friendly relations with Turkey, who is a significant regional power that acts aggressively every time the issue is brought up. Yet as the recognition of the Genocide by France, Sweden, Austria and more recently the United States indicates, the recognition of historical wrongs is no impediment to the maintenance of friendly relations. Australia’s case is unique however, given the importance of the Gallipoli landings to its national narrative and the need to maintain access to the site for ceremonies, something that Turkey has in the past threatened to obstruct. Yet as Associate Professor Hans Lukas Kieser has pointed out, “can the Allies’ failed invasion of Gallipoli be honestly commemorated without remembering the… genocide?”
Our murdered ancestors will rest easier knowing that their plight was so heinous that it moved an entire assembly of politicians at the utter end of the world to acknowledge it. They did so, in the conviction that barbarities of this nature must never be committed by anyone ever again. And for this, we are profoundly grateful, resolved to continue our quest for the truth to be acknowledged at a Federal level.