Monday, May 11, 2009


On 30 April 2009, the South Australian lower house did a remarkable thing; it recognised the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia during the Ottoman Empire. The full text of the motion that was passed is as follows:
“That, whereas the genocide by the Ottoman state between 1915-1923 of Armenians, Hellenes, Syrian and other minorities in Asia Minor is one of the greatest crimes against humanity, the people of South Australia and this House –
(a) join the members of the Armenian-Australian, Pontian Greek-Australian and Syrian-Australian communities in honouring the memory of the innocent men, women and children who fell victim to the first modern genocide;
(b) condemns the genocide of the Armenians, Pontian Greeks, Syrian Orthodox and other Christian minorities, and all other acts of genocide as the ultimate act of racial, religious and cultural intolerance;
(c) recognises the importance of remembering and learning from such dark chapters in human history to ensure that such crimes against humanity are not allowed to be repeated;
(d) condemns and prevents all attempts to use the passage of time to deny or distort the historical truth of the genocide of the Armenians and other acts of genocide committed during this century;
(e) acknowledges the significant humanitarian contribution made by the people of South Australia to the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the Pontian Genocide; and
(f) calls on the commonwealth parliament officially to condemn the genocide."
Noting in passing that the Assyrian community has been misdescribed as ‘Syrian,’ a grave error that will hopefully be rectified, this recognition of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia forms a historic landmark in the history of the Armenian-Australian, Assyria-Australian and Greek-Australian people. This is not a political or ethnic victory, for we are thankfully not enmeshed within the warp and the weft of the greater geo-strategic and political games played by the representatives of our mother countries. This is not a victory of diplomats, who for the most part shy away from agitating publicly on what we term to be “national issues.” Most importantly, this act of recognition is balsam applied to the unhealed wound in the souls of genocide victims and their descendants. The Australian historical narrative often tends to ignore the socio-political events that its migrant populations have experienced. Yet these events, often traumatic, inform these Australian’s world-view. The opinions and emotions forged during such times have been transplanted to this country and often, passed down the generations. Horrific international experiences such as the Holocaust or the Genocide are thus pertinent to this country because they have affected, directly or indirectly, a portion of the Australian community.

South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson was thus entirely correct when he stated in his speech: “We should support the motion to recognise the Armenian, Pontian Greek, Syrian Orthodox, (sic) Nestorian and Assyrian communities who flourish in Australia today. The Republic of Turkey, having dispersed these people to the point of the globe farthest from Anatolia, can hardly complain that, in the freedom of the Antipodes, they perpetuate the memory of their ancestors and their culture. These Australians—and I remind Senator Ferguson that they are Australians with the full right of citizenship to talk about topics that Senator Ferguson considers too ancient and too controversial—came to Australia from countries, including Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where they had settled after the genocide.”
The Leader of the South Australian Opposition, Martin Hamilton Smith also spoke upon the relevance of the empirical and personal connection: “As a man married to a Greek, with a son who is half Greek, who is Orthodox, this has very much touched me and my family. Let there be no doubt in the mind of any South Australian about my view and the view of the state Liberals of these terrible and tragic events.”
Further, through the international treaties it has signed, Australia has cast itself as a democratic, humanitarian country, that abjures all forms of totalitarian terror, it is a humanitarian victory for all Australians who still believe in the democratic process and principled politicians. As John Rau, Member for Enfield stated: “The fact that this motion is before the parliament, the fact that we are debating this matter and we are talking about this matter is at least some modest way that we as legislators in what is, after all, only a provincial parliament—I should not really say that here, should I, but that is what we are—can make some contribution to raising public awareness, both of the terrible circumstances of this particular conflict, but also of the fact that these conflicts can and do and will occur again unless people are aware of these issues and take intelligent, statesmanlike solutions to these problems to hand.” The Member for Fisher, R B Such, went further, courageously acknowledging his own battles as a child, in coming to terms with tolerance, before stating: “We cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. We need to ensure that we are ever vigilant and that we promote tolerance and empathy, particularly amongst our children, so that we rid the world and ourselves of the evil that can be reflected in the sort of genocide and intolerance that is highlighted in this motion today.”
The debate in the SA parliament on the Genocide thus underlies just how principled its politicians are. Some of the debate centred on a few comments published in the Diatribe a few weeks ago, about Senator Ferguson’s denial of the historical authenticity of the Pontian Genocide. In particular, the Diatribe had opined: “Playing ethnic politics is a dirty game that threatens to shatter social harmony quite a good deal more easily than referring to or interpreting historical events. The fact of the matter is that Australia's communities of diverse backgrounds have proven that they can co-exist peacefully in fruitful collaboration and ties of friendship because of our joint commitment to multicultural Australia. No cynical, irresponsible or misguided attempt to score points or votes off the back of any arbitrarily chosen ethnic group should ever be permitted to bear the bitter fruit of discord.”
It appears that this was the guiding principle of all the politicians who spoke on the motions, from both major parties, though I regret the misguided attempt in Parliament to use this quote to accuse others of ‘using’ ethnics as pawns in a broader political game. This notwithstanding, it was gratifying in the extreme to witness these politicians quote extensively from the research of Dr Panayiotis Diamandis, Thea Halo’s famous book “Not without My Name,” William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain,” and even from primary sources such as the archives of the Greek government: “The government of Ankara decided that the Greeks of the regions of Atabazar and Kaltras, first, and later the Greeks of the Pontos , would be slaughtered and eliminated. He assigned Yavur Ali to burn down a Greek village which is near Geive and to kill all of its inhabitants. The tragedy lasted two days. The village, with its 12 factories and its nice buildings became a dump site. Ninety per cent of the population were slaughtered and burnt. The few who were able to escape in order to save their lives went to the mountains. In order to preserve his Chets , Mustafa Kemal had to find an area which he could attack.”
The extensive references to the actual historical events and their effects prove that these politicians are not motivated by political expediency in the recognition of the Genocide. Indeed, they have nothing to gain politically from doing so. Instead, through their own research and critical faculties, they have become convinced that the Genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia is a historical fact that needs to be recognised at a formal level. All of them ought to be commended for this, especially in the face of vociferous protest by the Turkish consular authorities. I am informed, though I have not seen a copy of the relevant letter, that the Australian Foreign Minister has written to the Attorney General of South Australia, stating that it is not the Federal Government’s policy to recognise the Genocide. Perhaps the Australian government should take a leaf out of the enlightened South Australian parliament’s book and pass resolutions based on fact and not Realpolitik.
The president of the Federation of Pontian Organisations of Australia, Harry Tavlarides, the alternate president, Panagiotis Jasonides and many others have worked tirelessly over the years, not to politicise the issue, but to firstly raise awareness of the Genocide among the Pontian and broader Greek community, then to liaise and co-ordinate commemoration events with the Armenian and Assyrian communities (and indeed, it was this diametric move away from isolationist activities and the placing of the Pontian Genocide into the broader context of the fate of other Christian nations in the same region, that arguably allowed the issue of recognition raise itself from the quagmire of obscurity,) and finally, to present the facts to members of Parliament and have them make up their own mind.
In many ways, the whole campaign for Genocide Recognition has its inception in Federation member, Central Pontian Association “Pontiaki Estia’s” Pontian Genocide Workshops. The brainchild of Litsa Athanasiadis and George Papadopoulos, these have run for almost a decade now, having transmogrified into the cultural and theatrical annual “Seed” event at the Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds. Neos Kosmos has also played a prominent role in raising awareness of the Genocide and calling for its recognition through its frequent articles on the topic over the years and of this, and the fact that South Australian parliamentarians: “draw the attention of the house to an article in Neos Kosmos , described by some as Australia's leading Greek newspaper and the largest ABC audited ethnic publication,” we should all be very proud. As one member of the Pontian Federation remarked to me: “I was told a few years back by some first generation leaders of the Pontian community that there was absolutely no way that the Pontian Genocide would ever be recognised in Australia. Now look how far we have come.” We have come thus far, because of the grass roots support of a broad swathe of the Australian community, carefully informed, and despite the politicking of most of our parochial community organizations.
In a sense, I sympathise with members of the Turkish community who will feel enraged at the South Australian Parliament’s recognition. After all, they, just like us, share nationalistic myths about the destiny and character of their race. They, just like us, have been brought up to think that there race is noble, just, courteous and of great benefit to mankind. An official recognition of the genocide shatters such myths just as it calls them into question. As a corollary, why does official Greek historiography skim over the massacre of innocent Turks during the taking of Tripolitsa, or the atrocities committed by the Greek army in Asia Minor? Simply because the Greek people are also, to some extent, informed by the same nation-building myths. What the recognition teaches the Turkish community, as well as us, is that crimes against humanity are not committed by races. They are committed by human beings, and it is those human beings, not their race, creed or colour that are to be condemned. It is degrading to defend the indefensible and we should all be possessed of the conviction to uphold what is right and denounce the wrong, regardless of our kinship with its perpetrator
The recognition of the Genocide should thus not be viewed as the ascendancy of one ‘ethnic’ lobby over another. It is justice achieved, a little victory for a people downtrodden and crushed into the dust. All that remains therefore, as we pay respect to their memory, is to echo the laudable sentiments of the Honourable Michael Ferguson: “Rest eternal, grant unto them, Oh Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.” Αμήν.


First published in NKEE on 11 May 2009