A letter sent by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop obtained last month under a Freedom of Information request – along with a file of heavily redacted documents – is proof that the Australian government “continues to be gagged” by Turkey on the issue of the Armenian Genocide, according to the Armenian National Committee of Australia (ANCA).
“The third-ranking member of the federal government calling for recognition of the genocides thoroughly shook Ankara.
In the letter in question, written on May 15 last year, Julie Bishop wrote to her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, to soothe Ankara’s unease over statements made just days earlier by Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Mr Hockey (who is of Armenian heritage) was unable to attend the annual Armenian Genocide commemoration in Sydney on April 24, but made his position clear in a message to the event’s organisers, saying the word ‘genocide’ was the only possible way to define the actions of Turkey 100 years ago.
“Back in 1915, the word genocide did not exist, as the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was only adopted in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust,” wrote Mr Hockey, before adding, “…there is simply no other word for what happened to the Armenian people of Ottoman Turkey.”
The statement – distributed to the world’s media – caused consternation in Ankara, and motivated the then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to seek assurances from his Australian counterpart that Mr Hockey’s views were his own, rather than a new position adopted by the Australian government.
Ankara has previously condemned parliamentary motions passed by South Australia and New South Wales recognising the genocides carried out between 1915 and 1922, which included the decimation of Pontian Greek and Assyrian communities.
In August 2013 Turkey threatened to ban NSW MPs from attending this year’s Anzac centenary commemorations at Gallipoli, after the state parliament passed a motion recognising the genocide.
Forced to qualify her cabinet colleague’s statement, Julie Bishop’s May 15 response sought to calm Turkish concerns, saying:
“Recognising the important interests at stake for both countries, I assure you that there has been no decision to change the long-standing position of successive Australian governments on this issue.”
Ms Bishop said that while the government was “sympathetic to the Armenian people and other communities that suffered such terrible losses during the tragic events at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Australian government does not, however, recognise these events as ‘genocide’.”
The minister added: “We do not seek to intervene in this sensitive historical debate. We believe the issue is best resolved through dialogue between the communities and governments concerned.”
While the FOI request asked for background documents to the letter, large sections of the files released by DFAT – containing briefings and other correspondence – were redacted, citing disclosure of information would cause damage to “the international relations of the Commonwealth”.
Meanwhile the ANCA has suggested that Minister Bishop’s phrase “recognising the important interests at stake for both countries” is shorthand; an implicit agreement by the government not to ‘rock the boat’ with Turkey in Anzac centenary year.
“It is obvious that Australia has succumbed to Turkey’s ongoing threats to ban MPs from attending the Centenary commemorations at Anzac Cove, and even close Anzac Cove in its entirety in the lead up to the centenary, should Australia recognise the events of 1915 as genocide,” ANCA executive director Vache Kahramanian told Neos Kosmos.
“Sadly, the Australian government continues to be gagged by a so-called ‘ally’ when it comes to discussing the Armenian Genocide.”
Mr Kahramanian said he was bewildered by the redactions in the documentation which outlined the government’s consideration of the matter.
“It’s clear that Australian government officials continue to succumb to ongoing threats by Turkey and as a result, allow a foreign government to dictate Australia’s position on this issue,” said the ANC director.
“In this centenary year, where Australia will commemorate the horrors of WWI, it should also have the moral courage to unequivocally recognise and condemn the Armenian Genocide and pay homage to the thousands of Australians who were at the forefront of providing international aid during and after the genocides of 1915-1923.”
Panayiotis Diamadis, director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, told Neos Kosmos that the letter from Julie Bishop confirmed an “obsequious approach” by DFAT to the issue of Armenian Genocide official recognition.
“The third-ranking member of the federal government calling for recognition of the genocides thoroughly shook Ankara. They were, and remain, terrified of further recognitions by parliaments in Australia.
“Australian parliamentary recognition of the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Anatolia and eastern Thrace is inevitable, because it constitutes recognition of the genocides in Australian history.”