The Call came during a Unanimous Debate Honoring UN Genocide Convention
CANBERRA, Australia—The Armenian National Committee of Australia reported that seven Australian Members of Parliament spoke in favor of a motion that honored the 70th Anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The motion also honored the author of the Convention, Dr. Raphael Lemkin, stating he “coined the word ‘genocide’, informed by his study of the systematic extermination of the Armenians during World War I and the Jews during World War II.”
The motion was introduced in the Australian Parliament’s Federation Chamber on Monday by Liberal member of parliament Tim Wilson – who is of Armenian ancestry—and it was seconded by Labor party member Chris Hayes. Parliament members aligned with the government to join Wilson in speaking for the motion included Julian Leeser, Jason Falinski and Michael Sukkar. Hayes was joined by fellow non-Government members of parliament, including Michael Danby and Tony Zappia.
All seven lawmakers spoke in favor of the motion honoring the 70th Anniversary of the UN Genocide Convention, with most speakers using this debate as an opportunity to call on Australia – as one of the first nations to ratify the Convention – to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
“This debate was a worthy tribute to the UN Genocide Convention, which was adopted 70 years ago,” said ANC-AU Executive Director, Haig Kayserian. “It honored the Australians who played part in its process, led by President of the General Assembly Doc Evatt, and it also honored Dr. Raphael Lemkin.”
“We thank all speakers in this debate who unanimously endorsed the motion, which signalled a clear rejection of the ‘genocide’ word games by Australia’s House of Representatives,” said Kayserian. “This motion clearly articulates that the word ‘genocide’ and what happened to the Armenians are undeniably linked since the creation of the word itself.”
Tim Wilson, who is of Armenian ancestry, began the process by stating his privilege to move the motion to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the UN Genocide Convention as a man of Armenian heritage, a representative of a large Jewish-Australian electorate and as an Australian with knowledge of the exemplary relief effort made to help Armenian Genocide survivors from down-under.
“…As the only member of this house of Armenian descent, I remain fundamentally disappointed that our national parliament doesn’t fully acknowledge the horror and tragedy of the genocide against the Armenians. I would hope that we would acknowledge the genocide against all people where they occur,” said Wilson.
“Healing is enlivened when you cauterise a wound, because you clean it and you recognise that the damage that has been done is a pathway to healing. Acknowledging and honouring those who lost their lives and making sure that those who committed the crime are held to account and no longer feel that they can get away with it without proper critique, criticism and condemnation from the international community are critical to stopping future genocides,” he added.
Wilson went on to pay tribute to Raphael Lemkin by saying: “It was Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland, who coined the term ‘genocide’, noting that he ‘… became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, and after the Armenians, there was a very rough deal at the Versailles Conference because the criminals who were guilty of the genocide were not punished’. Seeking to rectify this injustice, he embarked upon the process of drafting a convention that would ensure that such a crime would never be repeated.”
“Our collective responsibility, as members of a community of nations and as a state beholden to the genocide convention that we honour today, is to prevent, to call out and to punish the perpetrators of genocide where it occurs in the world,” Wilson said. “But it becomes difficult to do so when we’re unable to acknowledge the original sin that led to the defining of the term.”
“It’s silence that condemns those who lost their lives through an action by those who know to do better. It’s silence that leaves people in pain. It’s silence that ensures that that there is no proper redress for crimes committed in the past. The motion today is about calling out that silence in this parliament, across everybody, to make sure that these crimes never happen again,” added Wilson.
Chris Hayes chose not to reference the genocide of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, but importantly used the opportunity to speak about the genocide facing the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar.
“The current situation in Myanmar is not just mere violence or abuse; there are atrocities,” said Hayes. “It is a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions were, which is resulting in the displacement of over 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s security forces have perpetrated the gravest crimes on civilians. The situation has been described by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ and ‘crimes against humanity’.”
Julian Leeser delivered a heartfelt speech and added to Wilson’s call for Australia to recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
“Let me say in this House that I think the world has been too slow to recognize and call out the Armenian genocide a century ago for what it was,” Leeser said. “It’s time every nation in the world, including our own, recognized the Armenian genocide for what it was. It’s time the Erdogan regime in Turkey owned up to their own history as well.”
Leeser, who is Jewish-Australian, highlighted the link between the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.
“… The cause of the Armenian people on this point is absolutely just,” he said. “The death of 1.5 million Armenians has been dismissively referred to as ‘victims of war’, ‘civilian casualties’ or ‘collateral damage’. Those very euphemisms were the same used by Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust,” said Lesser.
Leeser added: “Who could forget Hitler’s infamous line, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ That’s why it’s important to call these genocides out for what they are.”
The Member for Berowra was followed in linking the Armenian Genocide and Jewish Holocaust by Michael Danby, who is also a proud Jewish-Australian and long-time advocate for peoples who have suffered genocide.
“It’s so important to go back to the beginning and, as we recall what happened in the Second World War, to remember this genocide that happened in the First World War,” said Danby. “If we don’t remember these kinds of things, it leads to situations that we’ve seen to a lesser extent all around the world since—in Darfur, Myanmar, Syria, North Korea and now in East Kazakhstan and Xinjiang in China.”
Danby paid tribute to Herbert Vere (Doc) Evatt; one of the instrumental Australians in the adoption of the UN Genocide Convention.
“For Labor members of parliament, it’s great that our then President of the UN General Assembly, Herbert Vere Evatt, who was foreign minister of Australia through the passage of the genocide convention, urged all signatories to ratify the convention at as early a date as possible,” he said. “Australia was one of the first. Evatt’s words were, ‘The vote marked the protection of the most fundamental right of all, the very right of human groups to exist as groups’.”
Danby added his voice to calls for the Armenian Genocide to be recognized, saying: “The Armenian genocide remains unrecognised. Again, it was one of the great moments to see a son of Armenian heritage, Mr Joe Hockey, the former member for North Sydney, raise this, and I think it’s great work by the member for Goldstein and by the Armenian National Committee to raise this issue. Well done. This is an issue that the parliament will continue to address, until we officially pass recognition of what happened to the Armenians.”
Jason Falinski’s speech highlighted his personal dealings with descendants of the Armenian Genocide, who represent the majority of the Armenian-Australian community.
“In my electorate of Mackellar, I’m proud to host one of the largest Armenian communities in the country, which includes Galstaun College, an Armenian school, which I have had the pleasure and privilege of visiting many times,” Falinski said. “Many of its students, who I recently spoke to, are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide. Many are from Syria, which has also gone through a civil war.”
Falinski went on to shine a light on the importance of Armenian Genocide recognition in the context of the current security threats facing the Armenians in the Republic of Artsakh.
“The experience of the Armenians was one of the first, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last. As others have mentioned, we still see the world remain silent while genocides are perpetrated,” he said.
“Armenians to this day struggle against the efforts of a genocidal regime to eradicate their presence in their historic homeland. The Armenian Republic of Artsakh has been from the late 1980s, and is still today, in a state of conflict. In Baku, many are subjected to racism, discrimination and marginalisation because of their heritage. This must stop.”
“If history has taught us anything, it is that we must be prepared to speak out against these atrocities to prevent escalation and to prevent future genocides. That is why I stand to recognise the 70th anniversary of this convention. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was not conditional. If we are committed to ensuring these acts are never repeated, we must begin by acknowledging them,” concluded Falinski.
Tony Zappia followed Falinski, recalling his support for events commemorating the important role of South Australians in helping survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
“As a representative from South Australia I’m proud to recall our state’s involvement in relief efforts for the Armenian people,” Zappia said. “South Australia was one of the most significant contributors to the Armenian Relief Fund of Australia for survivors, led by Adelaide pastor Reverend James Cresswell, who was unanimously appointed national secretary of the fund.”
“Reverend Cresswell agreed to undertake a tour of the devastated regions, and reported on the work of the Australasian orphanage established in Lebanon to aid child survivors of the death marches. Several years ago I attended a display at the Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide highlighting Reverend Cresswell’s work in what was by then described as the Armenian genocide.”
Zappia before focusing on the importance of recognising all genocides.
He said: “Those who deny the atrocities committed against the Armenians between 1915 and 1923 continue to perpetrate an injustice by contributing to a cover-up. Those who are indifferent to those events are accepting of them or condoning of them and therefore give licence to others to do the same. Conversely, recognition of atrocities will bring a sense of closure and solace to survivors and family descendants. It will also send a message to the world that such acts of horrific cruelty to others are not acceptable and, if perpetrated, those responsible will ultimately be held to account.”
Michael Sukkar closed out proceedings with a powerful statement, calling out the failure to recognise the Armenian Genocide and suggesting this leads to complicity in the denial of a crime.
“It is irrefutable that genocide occurred and was perpetrated on the Armenian people,” the former Assistant Minister said. “It shouldn’t be exceptional that we talk about that and it shouldn’t be exceptional that we recognise that as a country. Indeed, on the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it’s absolutely certain that Australia will soon recognise this genocide.”
Sukkar also remarked: “I’m very proud that we’re one of the first to have become a signatory to this convention, but we’ve got to remind ourselves why we signed it. Why on earth did we sign up to that convention 70 years ago? It’s because we cannot, as a parliament and as Australians, be complicit to an act of genocide. By allowing the denial of genocide, sadly, you become complicit to some extent.”
Sukkar went on to detail how the Genocidal deeds of Turkey and its “sister state” Azerbaijan continue against the Armenians today.
He said: “The genocide in some respects is still taking place. It takes the form of eradicating the last remnants of a people, their history and their memory… In 1915 across the Ottoman empire, the Armenian community maintained some 2,500 churches, 400 monasteries and 2,000 schools. As of 2015, only 34 churches and 18 schools remained in Turkey… This effectively indicates the total eradication of the Armenian civilisation in its historic homelands.”
Sukkar added: “But it doesn’t end there. Turkey’s sister state, Azerbaijan, has taken up this very grim task of removing the last traces of the Armenian people from the region. From 1989 to 1994, the Armenian population of Azerbaijan’s capital fell from 180,000 to under 100 people—from 10 per cent to about 0.1 per cent. In the early 2000s, the Azerbaijan government destroyed several thousand Armenian cross stones considered by UNESCO to be intangible pieces of cultural heritage. So let’s not kid ourselves. This is continuing and it is still being perpetrated on the Armenian people.”
Sukkar concluded with a strong challenge to the Australian Parliament.
“No amount of economic consequences and no amount of diplomacy should ever stop us from doing the decent thing as Australians and calling out the genocide for what it is,” he said. “If the consequences with governments and countries like Turkey or Azerbaijan mean that economic consequences flow, I say so be it—and I know the Australian people will back this parliament all the way when taking that approach.”
ANC-AU Executive Director, Haig Kayserian said that the unanimous nature of the debate and strong emphasis on Armenian Genocide recognition by the majority of the speakers clearly indicated the will of Australia’s House of Representatives for a second time, following the 25th June 2018 debate recognizing Australia’s first major international humanitarian relief effort to aid survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
“It cannot be denied that we are living in a period of unique momentum in our battle for Australia’s Parliament to recognize the Armenian Genocide,” Kayserian said.
“The view of our political leaders has well and truly shifted, when multiple members from both the government and opposition utilize two parliamentary debates, within six months of one another, to call for a correction in Australia’s foreign policy regarding the Armenian Genocide,” explained Kayserian.
The Armenian National Committee of Australia delegation, including members of its Canberra Branch, was joined in the gallery to witness the debate by leaders from the Pontian-Greek and Jewish communities.