Australia won't attend Armenian mass killings centenary commemorations

Australia won't be officially represented in Yerevan next month at the centenary commemorations of the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.

Turkey in 1915 when Armenians

This is the scene in Turkey in 1915 when Armenians were marched long distances and said to have been massacred. (AP Photo, File)

The Australian government says it won't be officially represented in Yerevan next month at the centenary commemorations of the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.

The commemoration of what is widely referred to as the "Armenian genocide" coincides with the centenary of the Anzac landing in Gallipoli, an occasion expecting a high level delegation led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The "Armenian genocide" – terminology rejected by Turkey – is the cause of long-standing tensions between the two countries.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told SBS that the Australian Government would not be sending a representative to Yerevan.

The Department wouldn’t confirm whether Australia was invited to attend official events in Yerevan and no further comment was provided regarding the reason behind the decision.

Vache Kahramanian from the Armenian National Committee said it was "Ankara's ongoing gag order on Australia on the issue of the Armenian genocide”.

"We've heard from many members of Parliament throughout the country that Turkey continues to use Gallipoli and the centenary of Anzac Day as a bargaining chip to ensure that Australia does not formally recognise the Armenian genocide," he said.

Diplomatic cables between Canberra and Ankara obtained under Freedom of Information laws showed that last year the matter arose in a letter from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to her then-Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.

In April, Ms Bishop wrote that "recognising the important interests at stake for both countries, I assure you that there has been no decision to change the long-standing position of successive Australian governments on this issue".

"The Australian government does not… recognise these events as genocide," she said.

Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute
A picture released by the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute dated 1915 purportedly shows soldiers standing over skulls of victims from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan in the Mush valley, on the Caucasus front during the First World War. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The diplomatic cables also made reference to a statement attributed to Treasurer Joe Hockey by organisers of an Armenian-Australian community commemoration in Sydney last year.

Mr Hockey, who is of Palestinian-Armenian descent, did not attend.

SBS has sighted a letter the organisers said was instead sent by the Treasurer.

Part of it read that “there is simply no other word for what happened to the Armenian people of Ottoman Turkey”.

Ertunc Ozen, from the Australian-Turkish Advocacy Alliance, said it was "inappropriate for an Australian or any other government or minister in that government to be making declarations or affirmations about foreign historical events”.

One of the diplomatic cables revealed that Mr Hockey's statement received a lot of press coverage in Turkey.

Others detailed a flurry of diplomatic activity between Australian and Turkish officials in both countries, in the weeks after the letter emerged.

Several pages of the Turkish response had been completely redacted.

"The Turkish government is well within its rights to want some assurance about the position Australia does or does not take about this," Mr Ozen said.

The diplomatic documents also showed the Turkish government's apparent concern about the Armenian diaspora's plans for centenary commemorations this year.

They quote President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the Armenian diaspora was "desiring to reflect the 1915 events in a particular and one-sided way, to take them out of their historical reality, and to turn them into a political campaign".

In the cables, Mr Erdogan went on to say that "Turkey needed to be prepared to ensure those events were marked in what it calls "an objective, scholarly and realistic way”.

Armenia put the number of its people killed by the Turks between 1915 and 1922 at around 1.5 million.

It said many more were forcibly deported from territories held by Ottoman Turk forces.

Historians tell of other minorities, the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and Greeks, as being targeted.

These groups want the modern Turkish state to recognise its predecessor's actions as genocide.

While there is no international consensus on the matter, more than 20 countries have officially recognised the Ottoman Turk killings of Armenians and other ethnic groups as genocide.

Australia isn't among the countries to officially adopt the term “Armenian genocide” at a national level, although two state Parliaments have done so.

FOI documents obtained by SBS:

4 min read
Published 30 March 2015 at 8:03pm
By Kristina Kukolja
Source: SBS