Sunday, March 10, 2013


In an unprecedented move that has infuriated Australia’s Armenian and Assyrian communities, along with those in the Greek community that have some knowledge of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia, Australia’s Foreign Minister, the unelected Senator Bob Carr, responding to a question, by the Armenian National Committee president, Vache Kahramanian at a recent function at the Lowy Institute, as to Australia’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, responded thus: “As a Government we don’t take a stand on this historic dispute.”
Tormented Armenian woman with her child
Collection Russian language "Iskri" newspaper, 18 October, 1915

A priori, it is worth commending Mr Kahramanian and the extremely vigilant Armenian community for posing his question. After all, it is not often that one would witness a member of the Greek community managing to extricate themselves from the quagmire of insular politics for long enough in order to raise questions of such importance at such a prestigious and mainstream forum as the Lowy Institute.

That being said, Senator Carr’s answer could not but inflame and infuriate the passions. After all, it was this self-same Bob Carr who, as premier of New South Wales, led his government to a unanimous recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 1997. The motion had called on the Federal government of Australia to follow New South Wales and recognise the Armenian Genocide as well. Furthermore, it was the unprecedented success of the New South Wales recognition, that caused Greek activists in South Australia to feel empowered enough to seek support from such eminent politicians as the former attorney general Michael Atkinson for the recognition of the genocide of the Pontic Greeks.

It is quite difficult to reconcile Senator Carr’s stance with previous statements on the issue of the Armenian genocide. In a letter of 24 April 1996 to the Armenian community, he wrote: “The world should never forget the Armenian Genocide was the murder of a nation. There are no grounds to deny it – the European Parliament voted to recognise the Armenian Genocide in 1987.”

On 17 April 1997, Premier Carr, as he then was, rose in the New South Wales Parliament to ask: “Why is it appropriate that the New South Wales Parliament commemorate the Armenian genocide? Firstly, because it was the first known genocide of the twentieth century…Turkey must face up, as Germany has, to crimes committed in its name….the world must acknowledge this tragedy..”
Armenian Children from Adana, from whose bodies’ pieces of flesh
were ripped off with cotton hooks and whose kneecaps were severed.
On 24 April 1997, Premier Carr, while delivering the keynote address at the Armenian Genocide commemoration in Sydney, called upon his audience to: “honour the victims of the Armenian genocide…. It is of value to see that Turkey accepts its responsibility and undertakes reparations.”

In May 1997, Premier Carr wrote to the Armenian National Committee that: “Worthwhile causes such as the commemoration of 1.5 million Armenian victims of this horrific crime deserve the unanimous support of people’s representatives and the community as a whole.”

As late as 2005, when Premier Carr met a visiting Armenian dignitary, he was welcoming “…heightening awareness of the Armenian genocide” and calling “for justice-acknowledgment and remembrance.”

Starved Armenian woman with two children, 1915
Collection of Armin Wegner Society
When someone repeatedly tells you that they not only recognise the genocide but also demand reparations and then, execute a volte face, maintaining that the Australian government takes no stance, one’s natural reaction is to accuse the speaker of lying either as to the first or the second statement. Yet it would be wrong to accuse Senator Carr of being a liar, as many incensed members of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities have done. Rather, his most recent statement, reveals much about the nature of Australian politics and how ethnic agendas can be utilised for various ends, catching ethnic communities unawares.
Armenian children, the victims of the Turkish atrocities
Collection of "Armjanski vestnik" weekly, Front page photo, 27 November, 1916

Senator Carr, if pressed, could justify his inconsistent behaviour by pointing out that between 1997-2005, when he was vociferously proclaiming his recognition of the Genocide, he was doing so on behalf of the New South Wales government. In 2013 however, in the guise of Australia’s foreign minister, he is merely pointing out that the Federal Government of which he is a member, chooses not to take a stance on the issue. Senator Carr could argue that there are many issues that politicians feel strongly about that do not meet cabinet approval, thus causing their convictions to contrast with government policy and foreign policy is no exception. There is scope therefore for Senator Carr to differentiate the Federal Government’s position from his own. If Senator Carr does so however, he should be asked, based on his statement of May 1997, whether he still believes that, in the face of Cabinet refusal to take a stance on the issue, the recognition of the Genocide “deserves the unanimous support of people’s representatives,” and if so, what steps he is taking to secure this unanimous support.
The remains of Armenian children, drowned in the Black sea, Trapezus, 1916
Collection of the "Album of refugees 1915-1916"
Widespread community consternation therefore does not centre upon whether Senator Carr has compromised his integrity by stepping away from an issue he has so passionately supported. After all, in an Australian political zeitgeist dominated by spin and sound-bytes, we have now been conditioned to expect ambiguity. Rather, consternation derives from a sudden realisation that while State Governments, who after all have no constitutional powers in relation to foreign affairs, may be willing to take stances on such issues as are important enough to ethnic minorities that they translate into votes, these stances carry little practical weight where real political power resides, in Canberra. In this context, even a domino effect of each and every Australian state succumbing to lobbying or pressure in order to recognise the Genocide, would have absolutely no effect upon the Federal Government’s foreign policy, which tends to value its good relations with Turkey far more than any demand by ethnic groups to recognise the first genocide of the twentieth century and the prototype of the Holocaust.
Starving Armenian deportee children in desert, 1915
Collection of St. Lazar Mkhitarian Congregation
And herein lies the problem. Australia’s humanitarian record has been a laudable one for which, on the whole, we can justifiably be proud. It is because of this record that when cynicism and pragmatism seem to take precedence, we feel indignant and hard-done by. For some reason, rather than seeing it as a crime against humanity, the current political incarnation of Bob Carr implies that Australia views the Genocide as an ethnic conflict or dispute it wants no part of. This is sickening.
Armenian children victims of Erzerum massacre, photo by 1895
Collection of Nubarian Library

Yet there is some benefit to be derived from Senator Carr’s honest admission. He has given us to understand that State governments are merely pandering to the ethnic vote when they take stances on causes that they have no power to further. This is proven by the following clarification from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “Although various groups at state and local level have expressed or might express different views … these do not represent Australian Government policy.” Our communities should resist being used in this cynical way and instead, re-direct their energies to those corridors of power where they can actually effect change rather than merely be seen to be doing so. Furthermore, given that at least in theory, the members of the government are our representatives, should we not be co-ordinating our efforts in order to demand more moral rather than self-interested approaches commensurate to Australia’s consciously cultivated image as a humanitarian leader in foreign affairs? Should we be tolerating a political culture that allows political magicians such as Senator Bob Carr to alter the colour of the policy rabbits that he periodically pulls out of his various hats? Consider the view of the Turkish ambassador to the European Union, Egemen Bagis as expressed to a Swedish member of parliament: "What have you Assyrians accomplished by using the [genocide] question like masturbation by proclaiming it in the media and in the Swedish parliament? Why do you involve the Pontic Greeks into the question?"
Armenian child starved to death, 1916
Collection of Armin Wegner Society

Given that this is an election year and the propensity of politicians to provide subtle clarifications upon stances otherwise taken for granted, it would be a worthwhile exercise for members of our community to write to our Federal politicians, seeking their views on issues pertinent to us. A proper judgment can thereafter be made on the suitability of said candidate for parliamentary election.
Starved Armenian woman with her son in Syrian desert, 1916
Collection of the Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute Archive
On 17 April 1997, Bob Carr referred in New South Wales Parliament to Adolf Hitler’s infamous quip, in 1939, where he tried to justify Nazi persecution of the Jews: "Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" In 2013, he answered his own question. He doesn’t speak of the annihilation of the Armenians today, because it is not in his government’s interests to do so. Yet we must speak of the annihilation of all of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks of Anatolia, of genocide, brutality and racial intolerance in all its forms throughout the world and demand of our government that it abandon its cowardly and insulting policy on this historical fact, for it is in acts of moral cowardice that injustice is permitted to thrive. This is why when we go to the polls, all of us should speak of the annihilation of the Armenians.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 10 March 2013