Domestic origins of Australia’s approach to genocide

Ellen Van Beukering | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Image Credit: Matt Hrkac

April 24, 2021 marked the 106th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. While United States President Joe Biden took the opportunity to formally recognise the massacre as a genocide for the first time in the United State’s history, Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeated Australia’s stance of acknowledgement but non-recognition. His statement continues a trend of a lack of Australian commitment to the recognition of genocides during a time when our most prominent allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union—have been stepping up their rhetoric about these humanitarian atrocities.


The Biden administration recently launched a review to determine whether the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar constitutes a genocide, while states including Canada and France have formally recognised this as genocide. Meanwhile, the US, Canada, the Netherlands, and the UK parliament, among countless others, have formally recognised the genocide of Uyghurs in China. Australia, however, remains committed to the non-recognition of either of these events, with the federal government blocking a motion by Senator Rex Patrick in March 2021 that would have recognised the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.


Domestically, there is growing pressure for formal recognition of these events. Most recently, more than 20 federal and state parliamentarians, including Adam Bandt, leader of The Greens, and Hon. Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communication and the Arts, along with numerous government and opposition Members of Parliament, called for the Australian Government to officially recognise the Armenian Genocide.


Moreover, in 2013, the Parliament of New South Wales passed a motion commemorating and condemning the Armenian Genocide. The Parliament of South Australia did the same in 2009. The motions passed by both states called on the federal government to do the same.


Nothing came from any of these appeals, but it should be noted that Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as a backbench MP in 2011, also called for such recognition. What changed between his time as a backbencher and as Prime Minister?


Certainly, the formal recognition of genocide has immense political impacts. Labelling the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide would cause Australia-China relations to spiral further; doing the same for Armenia would create tensions with Turkey, and similar strains would surface with Myanmar when discussing the Rohingyas. Despite this, it remains surprising that Australia has not followed in the footsteps of its allies-something we are usually keen to do.


The reason for this lack of action may lie closer to home than we realise: Australia’s colonial past and the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians could be setting a precedent for the nation’s approach to acts of genocide.


The 1997 Bringing them Home report, published at the conclusion of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, was unmistakable in its finding that “the Australian practice of Indigenous child removal involved both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law”. Among the 54 recommendations put forward was financial compensation for victims on a national level.


While no political entity in Australia has recognised these events in the country’s past as genocide, several state governments have made reparations for victims of the Stolen Generations. This is in direct contrast with the federal government, whose acute inaction has led Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory to file a lawsuit this year against the federal government seeking compensation. The federal government was legally responsible for the Northern Territory at the time of the atrocities and as such is accountable for the reparations recommended 24 years ago by the Bringing them Home report.


It thus becomes a question as to why Australia’s federal government, specifically, declines to act both domestically and internationally to recognise and aid those who have suffered historical injustice.


It’s possible that those in charge of policy fear domestic retribution for their actions on the world stage. If the Australian Government were to recognise the treatment of Armenians, Uyghurs, or Rohingyas as genocide, members of the public would likely ask why the same has not been done for Indigenous Australians. Once this begins, there are very few excuses that can be made for the blatant and continuous sidelining of Indigenous Australia, and the continued lack of substantial action to solve these historical wrongs.


Such calls for formal recognition would likely be coupled with an increasingly critical analysis of the current state of relations and the stagnation of real progress towards reconciliation. For example, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart called for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution-four years later, negotiations are ongoing and there is still no projected date set for a referendum. Any form of criticism tends to be bad news for a government, and on such a sensitive topic, discourse is often avoided altogether.


A state’s foreign policy is influenced not only by its international ramifications, but also by domestic emotions and public opinion—Australia’s stance on genocide is no different. By utilising a softer rhetoric than other states when addressing overseas historical atrocities, Australia minimises the risk of domestic and international scrutiny of its own violent past.


Ellen Van Beukering is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.