Dr. Simon Adams published the following op-ed on 13 April 2015 for the New Zealand news site Scoop.
As the centennial commemoration of the mass slaughter we refer to as World War One continues, the eyes of New Zealanders and Australians shift towards the Dardanelles. Although the Anzacs have a sacred place in popular memory, there is much that still eludes us.
At school I was never taught, for example, that the Gallipoli landing was connected to the Armenian genocide. But as the Allies sailed towards Anzac Cove on the night of 24 April 2015 the arrest of Armenian intellectuals began in Constantinople. The arrests were followed by the first mass deportations as the Ottoman Empire systematically attempted to dispossess, disperse and exterminate the Armenian minority whom they considered inherently treasonous. In all, an estimated one million Armenians died.
The centenary of the Armenian genocide will not receive the global recognition it deserves. In Turkey just acknowledging the genocide remains a punishable offence under Article 301 of the country’s penal code. As a result, and with an eye on burgeoning Turkish trade and investment, many governments will remain silent on 24 April. New Zealand should not be one of them.
Britain, France and Russia had no qualms in denouncing the massacres at the time. In May 1915 they jointly declared, for the first time in history, that the Turkish attempt to exterminate the Armenians constituted a “crime against humanity.” But post-war attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice were sacrificed for reasons of expediency.
Two decades later in August 1939, as another World War approached, Adolf Hitler apparently asked his Generals, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler was trying to steady their nerves before invading Poland. But he was also aware that despite sublime speeches given in Paris, London or Moscow about the mass murder of the Armenians, most Turkish perpetrators had escaped punishment.
What is the relevance of all of this, you may well ask, to contemporary New Zealand?
On 1 January Australia ended its two-year stint as an elected member of the UN Security Council just as New Zealand assumed its seat. Australia’s time on the Council is widely regarded as a diplomatic success. Among other achievements, it got the deeply divided five permanent members (China, France, Russia, United States, United Kingdom) to agree to a resolution on expanded humanitarian assistance to starving civilians in Syria.
Australia also helped place North Korea’s human rights abuses on the Council’s agenda. In doing so it ensured that future discussions are not just limited to avoiding a nuclear confrontation on the divided peninsula, but will also focus on crimes against humanity perpetrated by Kim Jong-un’s regime against their own people.
The Australians played a supporting role in mandating enhanced peacekeeping operations for Central African Republic and South Sudan. They also helped the Council grapple with the need to recognise ISIL not just as a terrorist menace, but as posing an existential threat to minorities in Iraq and Syria. Overall, Australia’s term on the Council helped strengthen human rights at the UN and advanced the international norm of the Responsibility to Protect.
What can New Zealand learn from this? The UN remains a twentieth-century organization struggling to deal with twenty-first century problems. The power imbalance between the permanent and elected members means that the system is designed for elected members to drown under its arcane working methods and formidable agenda. But that does not mean they cannot make a difference.
The last time New Zealand was on the Council, in 1994, it was unable to overcome the permanent members’ resolute indifference to Rwanda’s genocide. Twenty-one years later, Syria’s sectarian civil war has exposed the historic anachronism of five permanent members who can veto any attempt by the international community to stop mass atrocity crimes if doing so does not accord with their partisan interests. But New Zealand’s election to the Council fortuitously coincides with the best opportunity since 1945 to confront this problem.
France recently proposed that the Council’s permanent members sign a “statement of principles” agreeing to restrain the use of their veto in any mass atrocity situation. New Zealand opposed veto rights for the great powers at the UN’s founding conference seventy years ago. It should actively support the French initiative and similarly pledge, as an elected member, not to vote against any resolution aimed at halting the commission of mass atrocity crimes. Such actions will increase the political cost of any Security Council member using its vote, or veto, to protect perpetrators of atrocities.
Not least of all because the line of blood that connects Australia and New Zealand to Gallipoli also leads to the Levant. In 1915 those Armenians who survived the death marches and massacres eventually arrived in the Ottoman territory of Syria. Survivors rebuilt Armenian communities around Aleppo. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Armenians remain there today, trapped between the atrocities of the Assad government and those of ISIL and other extremist armed groups.
In honouring the sacrifice of the Anzacs, New Zealand should speak up for the one million Armenian dead of 1915 and those millions of Syrians trapped and crushed by civil war a century later. Lest we forget.