Australian Foreign Minister Tried to Stop Assyrian Genocide Monument

12/20/2009 6:12:00 AM
Approved Assyrian Genocide Monument in Sydney Australia

The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, attempted to intervene personally in the approval of a monument commemorating the contested Assyrian genocide after being lobbied by the Turkish Government.

But his advice was ignored by Fairfield Council and the 4.5-metre statue to be built in Edensor Park was approved.

In a strongly worded fax sent to the Mayor of Fairfield, Nick Lalich, Mr Smith urged the council to consider diplomatic consequences. ''Under Australian law, whether or not Fairfield City Council supports the construction of such a monument is a matter for the council,'' Mr Smith wrote.

''However, I must impress upon you in the strongest possible terms that the construction of such a monument would run the very grave risk of causing significant tension in the Australia-Turkey relationship, and for this reason I request that the proposed construction not proceed.''

Elsewhere in the fax, Mr Smith urged Mr Lalich to delay the approval vote, carried successfully last Tuesday, so that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could give the council a full briefing.

''Australia does not intervene in the historical debate,'' Mr Smith wrote. ''The Australian Government acknowledges the terrible loss of lives from the many communities at that time, the effect this has had on subsequent generations, and their identity, heritage and culture.''

The councillor who moved the motion, Anwar Khoshaba, said the fax was not read out at the meeting but was given to councillors before the vote.

''It was unanimous. There was no discussion. Nothing,'' he said. ''I don't think local government is intervening in international affairs. This is something for the local area,'' Cr Khoshaba said.

''This is something people asked for and we approved it. We approved a statue in Parramatta for the Vietnamese. This is no different. Stephen's letter indicated this was a council matter. The council disagreed with him.''

Mr Smith's intervention came as riot police separated hundreds of Turkish and Assyrian protesters outside the council meeting last week.

The Local Government Association formally recognises that genocide was perpetrated against the Assyrians after World War I, but neither the NSW nor federal governments have acknowledged the claim and it is disputed by Turkey.

''We should not be intimidated by the Turk and let their politics pressure us,'' the Australian regional secretary of the Assyrian Universal Alliance, Hermiz Shahen, said of Mr Smith's intervention.

''We are not trying to insult anybody but this has an effect for us. We cannot build this monument in Turkey or in Iraq. We are doing it here because we are stateless people.''

A spokeswoman for Mr Smith said the minister was unhappy with the council's actions. ''Ultimately it is a decision for the council,'' she said yesterday. Neither Cr Lalich nor the Turkish ambassador returned the Herald's calls last night.