Kerkyasharian: Political leaders rightly snubbed for failing to recognise genocide

By The Sydney Morning Herald | Friday, 26 April 2019


In some perverse way the current controversy over the use of the word genocide to describe the attempted obliteration of the Armenian nation, its culture and any trace of its existence in its ancestral lands has highlighted one of the diseases that infuses our political system.

On Wednesday night in Sydney, at an event commemorating the atrocity, the Armenian community snubbed Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, refusing to read aloud their messages of condolence because both leaders elected not to utter the word "genocide" to characterise the events perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the Anzac Day dawn service with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the Anzac Day dawn service with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.CREDIT:NICK MOIR

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, whose own family were victims of that genocide, did use the word when she addressed the event, and she called on the federal government to recognise it.

Yet countries that pride themselves as champions of democracy, upholders of human rights and purveyors of political righteousness continue to unashamedly subordinate those principles to economic and political gain.

Amid the commemoration of Anzac and within weeks of a federal election we are presented with the ultimate example of how our political leaders can skirt what they say they believe in. It has happened elsewhere. In the United States, from Jimmy Carter to Barak Obama, presidential aspirants pledged in writing that they would recognise the Armenian Genocide, only to renege once elected.
Crowds of Armenian Americans march on Wednesday in Los Angeles during the annual commemoration of the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. Turkey contends the deaths were due to civil war and unrest.

I am the son of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. I have a vivid recollection of Kim Beazley using the G-word word as opposition leader when he spoke at the Armenian Genocide Commemoration at Willoughby Town Hall in the 1990s. The keynote speaker, Professor Richard Hovannisian of UCLA,  told Beazley from the stage that he expected him to say the same when elected prime minister.

The word genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin describing the Holocaust. In an interview with CBS in 1949, he said he was informed by the experience of what happened to the Armenians in 1915.

But today we have the dichotomy of Australian states – NSW and South Australia – recognising the Armenian Genocide while the federal government refuses to do so. Likewise in the US, virtually all the states except Mississippi have recognised the genocide.

The NSW Legislative Assembly unanimously recognised it under Labor premier Bob Carr, and a monument was placed in the Parliament. The upper house endorsed it under the premiership of Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell. Yet when Carr joined the federal government and became foreign minister he was constrained if not banned from using the G-word.

Protesters hold a national flag of Turkey in front of the Brandenburg gate in Berlin, Germany, in 2016 as they demonstrate against a resolution of the German Parliament recognising the Armenian genocide.

Leading democracies, Germany, Italy, France and Greece, have recognised the Armenian Genocide despite threats by Turkey.

The Armenian Community of Australia has every right to refuse to convey messages from our federal leaders which so blatantly reflect hypocrisy and political cowardice. It is an insult to the memory of their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.  The same applies to Australians of Assyrian and Greek/Pontian background who together with other Christians were subjected to genocide by the Ottoman Empire.

The refusal to use the word by the Australian Prime Minister and the aspirant, on the eve of Anzac Day, is particularly insulting to the memory of the thousands of Australians who volunteered and sacrificed their blood on the shores of Gallipoli for the right of people to live in peace and free of persecution. Had they been successful, the lives of millions of innocent people would have been spared. Many Anzacs recorded accounts of the atrocities they witnessed.

This is also a slap in the face to the memory of the thousands of Australian who, in the aftermath of the war, donated their hard-earned money to help the survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

The building bought by Australian donations in Lebanon to house the orphans is now the Seat of the Armenian Head of Church there. A constant reminder of the generosity of the Australian people so shamefully traded for political expediency. To quote Shakespeare: “Where I could not be honest, I never yet was valiant.”

Stepan Kerkyasharian is a former head of SBS Radio, former president of the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, and former chairman of the Community Relations Commission of NSW.