Armenian Genocide

  • June 25, 2018

I move that this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) the first major international humanitarian effort of the Commonwealth of Australia following Federation was to mount relief efforts for orphans and other survivors of the Armenian Genocide;

(b) Australia’s relief efforts were supported by Armenian relief committees established across the nation;

(c) the Australian Government made available the government steamer Hobsons Bay, to support those humanitarian relief efforts; and

(d) an Australasian Armenian relief committee was established by Reverend James Cresswell in 1922 to coordinate Australian relief efforts;

(2) recognises:

(a) the extraordinary humanitarian efforts of the then newly formed Commonwealth of Australia for the orphans and other survivors of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the other Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire including Greeks and Assyrians, as one of Australia’s first major international humanitarian campaigns, which set a proud tradition of international humanitarian efforts by Australia;

(b) the tireless efforts of all of those Australian individuals and organisations involved in this historic humanitarian effort mobilising a broad spectrum of political, civic and religious leaders, including James Cresswell, Edith Glanville, Jessie Webb, Stanley Savage, Isobel Hutton and Cecilia John, as documented in the University of NSW Press publication Armenia Australia & The Great War authored by Professor Peter Stanley and Vicken Babkenian; and

(c) the special bond between Australia and Armenia forged by the humanitarian efforts of the newly formed Australian nation to support the Armenian people during one of the darkest chapters of modern human history; and

(3) calls on the Australian Government to ensure that this important part of Australia’s history and the role of individual Australians supporting the victims of the Armenian genocide is properly commemorated.

On the eve of Anzac Day, our own day of national commemoration, millions of people around the world, including in Australia, come together for a different purpose. They pause to remember those who perished in what was one of the great crimes of the modern era—the Armenian genocide. While very different, Anzac Day and the Armenian genocide are forever linked. Both are associated with events that commenced a day apart. As our ANZAC troops finalised preparations for the landings that would take place in the darkened hours of 25 April 1915, the intellectual, political and religious leadership of the Armenian community was being arrested in Constantinople. The two events were separated by around 300 kilometres, little more than the distance from Sydney to Canberra. On that night, 230 Armenians were arrested; just eight were ever to be seen again. It was the first act of a genocide which, over the course of the next eight years, would see up to 1.5 million Armenians murdered or die as a result of death marches, sickness or starvation.

The linkages between the events of Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide run deeper than simply time and geography. Australian troops, particularly POWs held in Turkey, were to bear witness to many of the atrocities of the genocide. Many of the dead were interred in houses and churches that had been home to Armenian communities. Their experience was typified in the words of Lieutenant Leslie Luscombe, from Geelong, who was captured at Gallipoli. He wrote of what he witnessed at a railway junction in Turkey:

On the platform a considerable number of Armenian women and children were huddled together … Turkish soldiers armed with whips were driving the women and children into the sheep trucks. It was evidently intended to transport them to some distant concentration camp … All the Armenian men that could be rounded up were liquidated.

Australians, so far away but more aware than ever of this part of the world because of their own losses, rallied to support the victims of this genocide. This motion recognises those efforts, which, collectively, represented the first major international humanitarian effort of our still relatively new nation. In so doing, they started a tradition that has typified our role in the international community. Be it through the work of individuals, non-government organisations, our religious institutions or the federal government itself, Australia has proved time and again its generosity of spirit in helping those far from our shores who are in desperate need.

The horrors of what was befalling the Armenian people motivated Australians from all walks of life—from the churches to our councils and parliaments, and, equally importantly, among our citizenry. Those relief efforts began in Victoria, with the establishment of the Armenian Relief Fund in 1915. By 1922, Armenian relief committees had been established in every state and territory, and an inspiring South Australian, the Reverend James Cresswell, was to become the national leader of Australia’s contribution. Through those relief funds, the equivalent of some $1.5 million in today’s terms was donated to help Armenian orphans and survivors—an incredible contribution from a nation that was emerging from its own losses during the Great War. In addition to financial relief, Australians donated urgently required food and other goods, and many travelled to the region to work in orphanages that became homes to tens of thousands of children who had lost their parents in the genocide.

The efforts of those Australians who extended a helping hand and friendship across the globe should be recognised by this parliament, as they represent an important part of the early narrative of our own nation. We should be proud of their contribution and ensure that they are appropriate commemorated. In so doing, we will also be sending a powerful reminder that Australians will always stand against those who seek to commit acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing. In remembering the victim of the Armenian genocide and the Australians who came to their aid we send a message that the events which started in 1915 are not just some footnote in history. If we hide from the truth, if we fail to recognise the evil that was perpetrated against the Armenians, we simply provide succour to those today and in the future who think that they can deny the most important of human rights—life itself.

At the most human level, we owe that recognition to those who today continue to bear the scars of the Armenian genocide—people like the Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian; or my predecessor in North Sydney, Joe Hockey; or our colleague the member for Goldstein, whose own families were devastated by the Armenian genocide. We owe it to the thousands of Armenian Australians across our country who want the truth of the genocide to be known. That is surely not too much to ask.