Refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide – which started the same day the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli – has been a long-standing position under successive New Zealand governments. In an age of fake news, it’s time we stopped enabling denialists, writes Gareth Hughes.
It is a great privilege to be a Kiwi at an Anzac Day service in Gallipoli. History is alive there. You can clamber up the steep hillsides New Zealand and Australian soldiers fought their way up 100 years ago. You can imagine pressing yourself to the soil as bullets flew past. Puffing from exertion, at the top you can see how far they advanced and how perilously close the Turkish lines were – literally a stone’s throw away. Looking out across the glittering waters of the Dardanelles you can imagine the vast naval flotilla and look down to the narrow beaches where wounded soldiers were stretchered-off onto pinnaces. The ceremony itself, so similar to what happens each Anzac Day morning in New Zealand, is a moving remembrance of the loss and the reconciliation between Turkey and New Zealand today.
The bravery, futility and tragedy of Gallipoli is a story well-known to New Zealanders.
What isn’t well-known is the direct Anzac Day link to a heinous act of genocide committed by forces of the Ottoman Empire.
On the same day New Zealand soldiers were storming the beaches of Gallipoli, and directly in response to the external invasion, Ottoman officials commenced their plan to eliminate a perceived internal threat – the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek peoples of the empire. This started with arrests in Istanbul on April 25 to decapitate the Armenian leadership and led to deportations, death marches and massacres that over the next few years would directly lead to the death of 1.5 million people.
At the time, this was front page news in New Zealand. Anzac soldiers wrote home eyewitness accounts, generous Kiwis took in Armenian orphans and led fundraising appeals. The Kiwi connection is well-documented in New Zealand journalist James Robins’ recent book When We Dead Awaken: Australia, New Zealand and the Armenian Genocide.
The term genocide wouldn’t be invented until the horrors of the holocaust in the World War II but what happened 100 years ago in the Ottoman Empire was a genocide. The Armenian genocide is currently recognised by 31 countries, the European Parliament, Pope Francis, the International Association of Genocide Scholars and on Anzac Day 2021 by US President Joe Biden. But not New Zealand.
Every atrocity or act of genocide denied or ignored makes the next one easier to perpetrate.
On Anzac Day we say ‘lest we forget’, yet when it comes to the Armenian genocide this tragic interconnected part of our history is widely forgotten except for the small Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities in New Zealand. For years they have requested formal recognition. When I was a Green MP in Parliament, I tried to convince other parties to pass a recognition motion and hosted historians, researchers and the descendants of the genocide at Parliament. But my request was rejected.
Turkey, which denies the genocide, has pressured other states considering recognition, casting a shadow over New Zealand’s inaction. The New Zealand Government’s continual refusal to join US, German, Canadian and other parliaments to recognise the genocide is a stain on our moral record.
Every atrocity or act of genocide denied or ignored makes the next one easier to perpetrate. Adolf Hitler is believed to have said in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” In 2022 we still see atrocities occur – this time happening in Ukraine. In 2019 I had the honour to be in Rwanda with the Speaker of Parliament on a delegation to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. I broke down when I saw the clothing, toys and written words of children slaughtered by Hutu extremists. At the time, the national government of the day bravely spoke up for the victims on the UN Security Council when that body stood by. This principled act is still fondly remembered in Rwanda which has been on a 25-year journey of reconciliation built on a foundation of recognising the genocide.
Remembering the past is important. It’s something we have increasingly recognised at home, now teaching New Zealand history and with Rā Maumahara, the journey to commemorating the New Zealand Wars. There’s an apt Māori proverb ‘Ka mua, ka muri’ or ‘looking back in order to move forward’, that describes how we benefit from acknowledging our past. Acknowledging historical truth is an important step in building bridges and understanding. For the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks it is hard to move forward when the very truth of what occurred is still actively denied.
New Zealand isn’t responsible for this genocide and the deaths of 1.5 million people but our response 100 years on is a test of how we treat their memory and aid the cause of truth.
Refusing to acknowledge it as a genocide has been a long-standing position under successive New Zealand governments. It’s Realpolitik – a position designed to appease Turkey, a powerful and influential state who could retaliate by refusing to cooperate with future Anzac Day commemorations.
In 2018, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the loss of life but wouldn’t recognise it as a genocide. Ardern told journalists “Those are issues that we have left for [a] reconciliation process between those parties who were involved, but we’ve always acknowledged that significant loss of life.”
It’s difficult to envision a genuine reconciliation process when one side refuses to acknowledge the genocide and actively works to deny it. I believe New Zealand’s self-interest is better served through acknowledging truth in an age of fake news, the rights of smaller states over powerful ones who want to control history, and global regime of accountability towards ending genocide.
Like climate change there is a perceived debate surrounding the genocide but it wouldn’t be accurate to call it a debate. In 2008 then-US senator Barak Obama said “the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely-documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.”
We live in an age of fake news, alternative facts and sadly still violent atrocities being committed in the name of one people against another. Truth matters more than ever. New Zealand’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide aids the denialists and harms the movement within Turkey who want – like Germany, Rwanda and South Africa – to use historical truth as a first step in reconciliation building.
The start of the genocide can be traced to the very same day young New Zealand men waded ashore at Gallipoli. Through the Anzac connection our country is indelibly linked to this tragic event. New Zealand isn’t responsible for this genocide and the deaths of 1.5 million people but our response 100 years on is a test of how we treat their memory and aid the cause of truth.