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Armenian genocide forgotten in ANZAC commemorations

Armenian genocide forgotten in ANZAC commemorations

'Camp out on the school oval under the stars like the ANZACS did 100 years ago,' says the flyer sent home from my son's school last week.

On 24 April 2015, 100 years after the ill-fated Gallipoli landing, our school children are invited to bake damper around the camp fire, make craft poppies and even learn how to play two-up.

But another centenary of war is taking place on 24 April. Effectively hidden behind the allied landing on the beach, and indelibly linked to the ANZAC story by geography and timing, the Armenian Genocide is largely forgotten in Australia, overshadowed by tragedies that are felt more as 'our own'. 

While Australian soldiers were landing on Turkey's shoreline, the longstanding community of Armenians in Anatolia was being persecuted, arrested and murdered in the early stages of what would become one of the 20th century's most systematic and far-reaching genocides. During April 1915, Armenian community leaders and the intellectual elite were being rounded up, beaten and hanged, leaving the remainder of the community unable to defend itself against the waves of systematic violence that were about to be unleashed. 

The Armenian Genocide does not feature strongly in our nation's history, yet Australia was well aware of the atrocities at the time, and among the eyewitnesses were some of our own ANZAC soldiers. Australian prisoners of war were held captive in Armenian churches and homes; servicemen not only saw the mass graves and deportations but even occasionally assisted Armenian civilians, as in the case of Arthur James Mills,  who wrote of having carried a four year-old girl to safety on his camel. The Armenian Genocide is, despite its invisibility in the contemporary Australian consciousness, closely linked to the story of Gallipoli.

So why won't Australia talk about it? [fold]

The International Genocide Scholars Association recognises denial as the final stage of genocide, and it is this stage that successive Turkish governments have pursued ferociously. Today, Turkey continues to deny that these crimes happened at all, and prosecutes citizens who call the genocide by that name. It reduces the numbers of deaths so that 'only' some hundreds of thousands died rather than over a million; and in a classic strategy of genocide denial, blames the victims by claiming that the deportations of thousands of civilians through deserts, naked and starving, were 'justified' on the basis of military exigencies. 

Worse still, the Turkish denial industry has coerced the governments of its allies into giving credence to such denialism, even into participating in this final, painful phase of genocide.

Genocide scholar Professor Colin Tatz, has written that 'The entire apparatus of the (Turkish) state is attuned to denial'. This means that any perceived slight by another nation, even inconspicuously referring to the genocide, is met with threats of suspending diplomatic relations. In fact, in 2013 when the New South Wales Parliament had the temerity to pass a motion reiterating its 1997 recognition of the Armenian Genocide, along with a new acknowledgement of the Assyrian and Greek genocides by the Ottoman Empire, MPs were threatened with being prohibited from attending ANZAC Day events in 2015.

According to the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the relationship between Australia and Turkey is 'close and productive'. It is unquestionably the allied landing at Gallipoli, this shared moment in our respective histories and the way its memory has united us, that is central to our relationship. Our diplomatic relations with Turkey are almost entirely predicated on it. It is within this context that we must view Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's correspondence to the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance in June 2014.

Likely concerned by threats about Australia's participation in Turkey's 2015 commemorations, Bishop aimed to assuage any Turkish anxieties about Australia's position. While asserting that the Australian Government's position was not to become involved in this 'sensitive debate', she proceeded to do just that by stating that the Government does not 'recognise these events as "genocide"'.

In a history where forced deportation is euphemistically called 'relocation', where murder is reduced to 'death' and crimes described only as 'tragedies', choice of words is extremely important. By calling this a 'debate', Bishop chose to ignore the consensus among historians and genocide scholars, and implicitly accepted that there are two sides to this history, each equally valid. In doing so, she fell into the denialist trap of 'manufactured controversy' which relies on pointing to those few scholars who doubt the claim of genocide. But, as with Holocaust denial, this 'other side' need not be legitimised by granting it a place in the discussion.

In fact, the vast majority of scholars have determined that the evidence clearly supports a claim of genocide, in terms of both intent and implementation. There is quite simply, 100 years after the fact, no 'other side'. As Geoffrey Robertson QC has written in his recent publication An Inconvenient Genocide, 'There can be no doubt...that the crime committed against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was what today would be legally classed as genocide.' A host of nations, including Germany, The Netherlands, Canada and France have formally taken this position, despite threats and reprisals from Turkey. Switzerland not only acknowledges the Genocide but has outlawed its denial.

Mustn't Australia do the same, regardless of the consequences? 

In terms of diplomatic relations with Turkey, the Australian Government is stuck between a rock and Mt Ararat, the snow-capped volcano that is imbued with cultural and national meaning for the Armenian community, but which lies physically in Turkey. The Australian Government cannot risk offending the nation that jointly commemorates our most significant national day, or it may jeopardise Australia's ability to mourn our soldiers where they fell. Given the ANZAC legend is so key to Australian identity, this is a risk too great for Australia's foreign policy. From an ethical standpoint, however, the position of the Australian Government not to acknowledge what is absolutely irrefutable according to academic and legal opinion means that it is not only condoning Turkey's denial, but may even be contributing to the final stage of the Genocide itself. 

On ANZAC Day 2015, silence will be observed and sunrises witnessed at dawn services. But as the day ends, as my son and his classmates return home after a night of camping in honour of our soldiers, who will remember the brutal and systematic genocide of the Armenians? Australia has a moral imperative to acknowledge the connection between our ANZAC story and the Armenian Genocide and to stop acting as a partner in denial.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user MichaEli.

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