By Jenny Noyes,
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has renewed calls on her colleagues in federal government to formally recognise the killing of more than a million Armenians during World War One as a genocide – and slammed the Turkish government’s “tactics of denial” as “textbook”.
Speaking on the eve of Anzac Day at an event commemorating the 104th anniversary of the atrocity, Ms Berejiklian said such denial “allows genocidal states to commit these heinous crimes in the belief that they will escape the consequences. That’s why we can never forget.”
Leaders of the Armenian community who spoke at the event had bitter words for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who despite previously calling it genocide, sent a statement to event organisers acknowledging the tragedy which stopped short of using the term.
While 29 nations and two Australian states – NSW and South Australia – recognise the Ottoman Empire’s extermination of about 1.5 million Armenians over the course of a decade from April 1915 as genocide, the federal government has not taken that step, and Armenian leaders blame the Australian government’s diplomatic relationship with Turkey.
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Mr Morrison said despite using the word genocide “in the past as a private citizen”, as Prime Minister “I represent the views of the country”.
He also linked his decision to avoid using the term to Australia’s Anzac Day commemoration service in Gallipoli.
“We’ve been working closely with the Turkish government to ensure that we continue to have a very strong relationship that enables Australians, and New Zealanders for that matter, to make that pilgrimage,” Mr Morrison said.
A statement critical of the Prime Minister’s letter of condolence was read by the event’s MC, Sarine Soghomonian, prior to Ms Berejiklian’s speech.
“While he acknowledges deaths that befell Armenians of the Ottoman Empire,” Ms Soghomonian said of Mr Morrison, “he does not accurately characterise the events as the Armenian Genocide.
“As such, we will refrain from disrespecting the memory of our survivors by reading it out.”
Haig Kayserian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Australia, voiced his anger that the Prime Minister would refer to the killings as “horrors that befell the Armenian people”.
Mr Kayserian said the statement “is the latest in a long line of euphemisms concocted by Australian bureaucrats at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade” and suggests “the systematic attempt to murder an entire race was some sort of accident that befell our ancestors.”
The statement particularly stung because the Prime Minister “is on the record as an avid supporter of Armenian genocide recognition,” he said.
“We were hoping he would say what we know he believes because he’s said it before.”
But Ms Berejiklian, whose grandparents were orphaned in the atrocity, said she is “confident” that Australia will come to formally recognise it as genocide, as the state she leads does.
“I’m grateful that so many of our states around Australia, such as proudly here in NSW, and so many nations around the world, have recognised the Armenian genocide. And of course, I look forward to the day our Australian government does the same.”
Federal Liberal MP for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman, echoed Ms Berejiklian’s comments.
“I know that like me all of you share the frustration that the Australian government’s position, which has been long held by governments of all persuasions, seems so immovable,” he said.
“However, I am confident that there are people on both sides of politics who are committed to ensuring justice for the Armenian people is realised.”
The cross-party support was on show at the event, with federal and state Labor represented by NSW Senator Kristina Keneally and Member of the Legislative Council, Walt Secord, who also spoke of the importance of recognition.
However, a possible change of government appears unlikely to bring about a change in policy on Armenian genocide recognition, as federal Labor leader Bill Shorten’s statement to organisers also stopped short of using the preferred term.