Australian Parliament News
December 4, 2018 Tuesday 4:21 PM EST
SEN KENEALLY DELIVERS SPEECH ON ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
Senator KENEALLY (New South Wales) (19:33): I rise today in support of a motion that was debated in the House of Representatives on 25 June. On that day, a number of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle spoke of recognising our country's first major international humanitarian relief effort. In 1917, Australians from all across the country began raising money for the survivors of one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century. Two years prior, a program of extermination had been inflicted on the Armenian people across the Ottoman Empire. The population were forced from their homes and subjected to involuntary labour, starvation and rape as they were marched across the ancestral homelands they had occupied for nearly three millennia.
All told, it's estimated that 1½ million people perished during this period. Their stories echoed so strongly here at home because many of our brave Anzacs bore witness to it. Our soldiers were brought into direct contact with the extraordinary suffering of the Armenian people while serving our country in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I. Their accounts inspired the thousands of stories that were published in Australian newspapers at the time detailing the systemic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people and their culture. These newspapers reported 'atrocities', 'massacres' and 'decimation' but never used the term 'genocide', simply because we hadn't yet invented a word that could fully encapsulate the myriad cruelties that were inflicted on the Armenian people.
In response to this tragedy, Australians from all walks of life banded together to raise funds to assist the orphans and survivors of the Armenian genocide, as well as other Christian minorities such as the Greeks and the Assyrians. The Armenian Relief Fund raised the modern-day equivalent of $1.5 million, and sent supplies on the government steamer Hobson's Bay to aid survivors. This is a proud moment in our history, and more than a century later the Armenian-Australian community is one of the many groups that contribute to the rich cultural tapestry of this nation. But we have not forgotten—indeed, we cannot forget—the special history we share.
As a Catholic, I was stirred by the words of Pope Francis in 2015 when he called on the entire human family to heed the warnings of this tragedy to 'protect us from falling into a similar horror'. Pope Francis called the genocide:
… the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims …
And warned that:
Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.
As a former member of the New South Wales parliament, and indeed Premier of the great state of New South Wales, I am proud that a motion was passed in 1997 that acknowledged the Armenian genocide and honoured its victims. Today, that historic action is still commemorated with a memorial on the ninth floor of the New South Wales parliament building. Taking the step to recognise this event is so profoundly important to our society. It shows proper respect to survivors and it reinforces our steadfast opposition to any violent crime that seeks to dehumanise and destroy.
While I acknowledge that the word 'genocide' invokes sensitivities, I believe our failure to recognise these events undermines our relationships with our friends and allies. Australia plays a crucial role in promoting peace and human rights in the Asia-Pacific and across the globe. The harsh reality of the 21st century is that not all in the international community have learnt from the horrors of the era that preceded it. Ethnic and religious violence continues to plague countries around the world, and it serves only to undermine the fundamental laws of human rights that we hold to be true. We play a crucial role on the international stage in promoting these values but we fall short if we are not willing to acknowledge these acts when they occur, and particularly one that is so intertwined with the legacy of the Anzacs and our emerging nation.
If we are to stop the bleeding, we must denounce crimes against humanity whenever and wherever they occur. I am proud that our great nation helped the Armenian people in their time of need and that our actions served a community who today contribute so much to our modern multicultural society. It is important that we recognise our history, both our own and the one we share with the people of Armenia. I join my colleagues who have spoken in this house and in the other, both past and present, in calling on the federal parliament to acknowledge our first humanitarian effort as a country and to recognise the Armenian genocide.