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Genocide Question Arrow Vol 1 No 2 Contents
About borderlands Volume 1 Number 2, 2002



Getting Over the Genocide Question:
Australia and the Stolen Generations Debates

Aboriginal History No. 25, 2001. Special Section: "Genocide?: Australian Aboriginal history in international perspective" edited by Ann Curthoys and John Docker.

Kay Schaffer
University of Adelaide

1. Genocide, Trauma, Guilt, Shame, Willful Forgetting, Denial. Before the release of Bringing them Home: Report of the Forced Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families (1997) these words were not part of the Australian lexicon. Now they are. Before the release of the report these terms resonated with popular understandings of the horrors of the German Holocaust. They had no relevance for Australia. Or so we thought. The charge of genocide made by the framers of the Report shocked the nation. It was not the first time the scare word had been invoked. As early as 1969 Aboriginal leaders were claiming that assimilation was a failed policy "which amounts to cultural genocide" (National Tribal Council, "Policy Manifesto" 1969, 13). Nearly twenty years later Kevin Gilbert introduced the personal narratives in the anthology of black writing, Inside Black Australia (1988), as documents to Human Rights violations amounting to cultural genocide (xxi). In the decade of the 1980s some Australian historians came to similar conclusions, beginning with Peter Read’s seminal 1981 essay "The Stolen Generation". These prior references, however, carried little weight or legitimacy within the larger White Australian community.

2. All this changed with the release of the Bringing them Home Report. There, as part of a nine page section on ‘International Human Rights’, the Report claims, "the Australian practice of Indigenous child removal involved both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law" (266). Coming from a national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity inquiry, and chaired by a respected former High Court judge, the Report had clout. Although the discussion in the report addresses child removal within the broader contexts of international human rights law, and addresses the genocidal nature of child removal policies in the light of Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin’s 1944 conception and definition of the term (which informed the UN Genocide Convention of 1948), critical responses paid scant attention to these nuances. Headlines charging genocide hit the newsstands, searing through the body politic:

Forced removal policy ‘genocide’, Australian, 21 May, 1997

‘Genocide’ of black children, Daily Telegraph, 27 May, 1997

Genocide: that’s the verdict from the stolen generations inquiry, Koorie Mail, June 4, 1997

3. Stung by the rebuke, the nation took sides. Onerous and inevitable comparisons between Australia’s history of separation and assimilation of Aboriginal children with Germany’s purposeful annihilation of the Jews drew heavy fire. The voices, experiences, histories and ongoing effects of forced removal on the so-called "Stolen Generations" and their families vied with the din of opposition to the nation’s wounded pride. Inga Clendinnen, in a well known and often quoted attack, warned that the "persistent invocation of the term "genocide [constituted] . . . a moral, intellectual and (as is turning out) a political disaster" (Clendinnen, 2001, 26).

4. To be more precise, the National Inquiry, itself, did not persistently invoke the term. It was established as a Human Rights forum, designed to investigate Australia’s racial policies in the light of our obligations under international human rights law. The Report clearly situates the Inquiry’s brief within a number of United Nations instruments, including the United Nations Charter of 1945, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 and the Genocide Convention of 1948 (which Australia ratified in 1949 but never passed into domestic law). The five pages of the 689 page report that take up the Genocide convention frame it within international law and the juridical opinion on which it is based. Within this context then, the report concludes that: the forcible transfer of children and attempts at "partial destruction" of Aborigines "can be genocide" (272), that genocide as a crime against humanity was recognized by the international community prior to the 1948 convention, and that Australia was in breach of binding international law from 11 December, 1946 when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring genocide a crime under international law. A larger portion of the Report details breaches of human rights and common law rights within a broader international human rights framework. Despite these qualifications, it seemed that all the nation heard at the time of its release and debated in its aftermath was whether or not the policies of forced removal constituted "genocide".

5. In this climate, Ann Curthoys and John Docker approached the board of Aboriginal History, of which Ann is a member, to propose an edited volume designed to "address Australian and/ or international debates around concepts such as genocide, Holocaust, trauma, guilt, and apology, and their applicability or otherwise in the Australian context" (2). The resultant volume contains a special section of essays by nine prominent scholars under the title of " ‘Genocide’?: Australian Aboriginal history in international perspective". One notices at once the scare quotes around the title, followed by the question mark. The two distinctive diacritical marks signal to the reader: ‘we know there’s danger here’, ‘we intend to take care’. From the outset, the punctuation calls attention to the problematic term, distances the editors from necessarily identifying with the charge, and initiates a debate not only about whether or not removal policies constituted genocidal acts but also about what is at stake in invoking the word and the question itself. Readers coming to the text with these issues in mind will find much to reward their critical interest.

6. The multilayered text could well be set for seminar discussions in legal studies, politics, Australian Studies, Aboriginal Studies and cultural studies classrooms. Not only were the commentators carefully selected to present a diversity of academic views, the essays themselves have been thoughtfully organized by the editors in a way that builds and complicates the debate, lending the volume a dynamic, internal narrative trajectory. Discussions move from questions of ‘was it genocide?’ to how those questions are framed and tied to issues of historiography; from how genocide is defined by international law, and what difference it makes that Australia ratified the genocide convention but failed to enact domestic law, to what desires and motivations hide within and exceed the law; from issues of shame, guilt and responsibility to questions of who tells, who listens, who interprets; from attention to psychoanalytic processes of trauma, and healing to socially critical attention to issues of power and subjectivity; from seeing Aboriginal witnesses as victims evoking white settler empathy to addressing white settlers as culpable bystanders and collaborators in a victimization that denies Indigenous agency; from evidence, history and the law to rhetoric, voice and the motivations of discourse.

7. The first few essays take an historically engaged approach concerning definitions of genocide within international law and the philosophical principles articulated by Lemkin on which they were based (the introduction by Curthoys and Docker and Colin Tatz’s first essay). Clearly, the editors want to distinguish between understandings of the Holocaust as the defining genocidal event and the broader principles on which Article II of the Genocide convention was based. These principles were presented in the Bringing them Home Report, they appear on the cover of this volume of Aboriginal History, and since they influence so much of the debate, are worth reiterating here. Article II defines genocide as constituting "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as":

Killing members of the group
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

8. Several commentators take up these criteria in relation to Australia’s history, while at the same time, comparing Australia’s record with the German experience. Tony Barta and Andrew Markus, in complementary essays, are at pains to evaluate, coolly, rationally, and with considered deliberation, the similarities and differences in the historical events and situations in the two countries. But this is a ‘hot’, not a ‘cool’, issue. Before developing this line of thought, the writers, or the editors, might have attempted to mediate the highly-charged emotional response that the term ‘genocide’ provokes in the popular imagination, especially when direct parallels are made between Germany and Australia. One thinks of Primo Levi’s insistence that the Holocaust was not unique, and not of a different order, from the enormous evils and crimes against humanity committed in the 20th century; that each instance must be confronted in its particularity. Australia is not Germany and perhaps it was a mistake for the editors to invite direct comparisons in their letters to potential contributors. Certainly similarities can be found—although it is unclear as to how the exercise advances the debate. Similarities cited by Barta and Markus include the national deployment of a discourse on eugenics as an incitement to genocide, the shared belief in the "civilizing" power of the West, and similar policies of legalized racism and practices of calculated neglect (extending to the tacit acceptance of willful murder) of the ‘othered’ population. Authors emphasize, however, the important differences, especially in the aims and intentions of the Nazis and the Australian government. Here, the practices of racial discrimination (that include selective mass killings of Aborigines by settlers, indigenous deaths by European imposed diseases, and child removal), supported by eugenicist and assimilationist ideologies, policies and practices took place over a longer period of time. Here there was no aim of physical annihilation of an entire racial group but policies aimed to establish control over the land and diminish resistance by whatever means possible (points with which Deborah Bird Rose and Henry Reynolds concur in later discussions in the volume). No matter how ‘reasoned’ the arguments, however, they are bound to incite rebuttals and denials not because of the ‘facts’ of the case but because the affective elements of the discourse are bound to provoke reactions of guilt and shame, outrage and hostility.

9. Anna Haebich and A. Dirk Moses extend the comparisons to consider similar psychological processes involved in the "cult of forgetfulness" (Haebich, 71) and similar rhetorics involved in "coming to terms with genocidal pasts" (the title of Moses essay), within conservative and liberal camps in the respective countries. Both argue that not only were Australia’s policies genocidal, but the frameworks for understanding the processes are derived directly from the Holocaust experience. Terms like "perpetrator trauma", "post-traumatic shock disorder", "false memory syndrome", and the "cult of forgetfulness" are invoked to study the pathology (but also, one might add, to pathologize) the respective nations. What comes through each of these essays, regardless of approach, is the paradigmatic nature of the Holocaust for the 20th century; how it has become the signal event, the central and perhaps unavoidable trope, which defines trauma for the modern world. There are risks here. The problems that arise, in terms of how a nation’s history is received, remembered, lived and narrativized , and what is at stake in the processes, are issues taken up later in important essays by Roseanne Kennedy and Deborah Rose.

10. At times the academic and legalistic arguments verge on sophism when different authors debate and belabor the criteria on which to make their reasoned judgements. For example it can be argued variously that A. O. Neville was but Paul Hasluck wasn’t genocidal, or vice versa; that mass murder in the 19th century wasn’t but assimilation in the 20th century was genocidal, or vice versa; that intentions were but effects were not genocidal, or vice versa - depending on who classifies, according to what criteria. As historians get drawn into positivism, history becomes a battleground for maintaining the taxonomies and classifications of the discipline. Arguments proceed as if laws establish the truth about the past; as if events exist independently of interpretation; as if actions have inherent and universal meaning beyond the particular contexts; as if "the past" is about establishing frameworks rather than dealing with effects; as if the expertise of the historian, which is so much at stake here, could eclipse the experience and interpretation of the Indigenous actors. In this regard, it is salutary to read the following caution in Indigenous lawyer, Larissa Behrendt’s, contribution to the volume. She writes:

This ability of the colonial legal system to seemingly approach the claims of genocide with a façade of neutrality has also meant that expressions from an Indigenous point of view are sidelined. For Indigenous plaintiffs, it doesn’t matter whether the crime of genocide was committed as it was defined by international law and it doesn’t matter whether there was intention or not. What seems to be more important from the Indigenous perspectives are the effects of the actions of the government—these actions have amounted to damage to Indigenous people, families and communities and they choose to use the word ‘genocide’ to describe it. This moves the discussion outside of the words of the statute to the side-effects and legacies of those sanctioned actions (142).

11. In other words, the term genocide is not and can never be a neutral term. It is bound to evoke powerful reactions. Discussions about genocide are instrumental and strategic; some talk enables and some silences those most affected. Regardless of the various interpretations, whether or not genocide occurred is less important than the impact of the discourse of genocide, particularly for and on the lives of Indigenous peoples. And this is one area, not canvassed in the articles, where Australia’s experience differs significantly from that of Germany. The major commentators on the German Holocaust have been Jewish survivors and children of survivors. They are the commentators we turn to for discussions as to the meaning of the event. As victims, survivors and descendants of survivors they provide the "expert" discussions, although this itself is not without problems in relation to the privileging of certain speaking positions. Nonetheless it is clear that Jewish commentators are the subjects, not the objects, of knowledge about what has come to stand as the signal genocidal event of the 20th century. One thinks of the names invoked in various essays here: Nobel Laureate survivor, Elie Wiesel, historians Saul Friedlander and Leni Yahil, psychotherapists Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub, as well as the editors and authors of numerous collections of Holocaust testimonies.

12. This contrasts markedly with the legal, historical and political debates in Australia, which are carried on almost exclusively within and among members of the white settler nation. Historians and jurists become the "experts" while Indigenous commentators remain sidelined. Both Moses and Kennedy acknowledge the problem of making Indigenous victims, who were the objects of policy and practice in the past, the continued objects of knowledge and of scrutiny in the present. Kennedy asks us to alter our frame of reference. Instead of asking how Indigenous experience fits into white Australian history, we might begin to consider how White Australians fit into the history of separation.

13. Essays by Deborah Rose and Roseanne Kennedy nudge the debates in other directions. Not intent upon arguing the genocide case, they attend to what gets left out when legal and historical frameworks are invoked. Rose finds ambivalent motivations in Australia’s killing past. She moves quickly beyond legal definitions of genocide to the pleasures of torture, what she calls "trophy moments" (149) in Australia’s white settler history. She complicates the criteria for judgments by introducing multiple and often contradictory motivations and ambivalent emotions into the inquiry that the fields of law and history cannot accommodate. Specifically in regard to questions of intention and effect, she argues that there was a "double intention" to destroy (or terrorize) Aborigines on the frontier and to save them (to use as exploited labor or for sexual purposes).

14. Kennedy’s contribution attends to the contested questions of testimony, memory and historiography, with particular attention to the discursive nature of the debates. Like the final twist in a classic mystery, it stops the reader in her tracks, challenging what had come before and influencing what will follow. A number of contributors to the volume, including Moses and Kennedy, invoke Bourdieu’s discussion of "symbolic capital" - Moses to explain why conservatives deny the charge of genocide - because it reduces their symbolic power within the nation, and Kennedy to unravel what symbolic capital is at stake for historians, in terms of their status in Stolen Generations debates. In a critical move imitative of Bain Attwood, she takes one of his texts as her object of scrutiny (the article, which first appeared in the Australian Financial Review, is reprinted in part as the last of the nine essays in the collection). Attwood’s controversial position is one suspicious of Stolen Generation testimonies, and thus the Bringing them Home Report, because, for him, they endanger historical truth due to their reliance on fiction, myth and memory. " I propose," she writes, "that the central issue for Attwood is not the symbolic nature of testimonies, but who is producing historical meaning" (119). Kennedy takes Attwood to task for his privileging of ‘history’ as a neutral discourse in a way that also preserves the ‘expert’ status of the historian, thus denying the efficacy of testimonies or interpretations of the past coming from victims themselves. She deconstructs the arguments, tests their inconsistencies, and demonstrates how both history and the law operate through narratives comprised of symbols, fictions and subjective judgements. Thus, historical arguments might preserve the ‘expert’ status of the historian, but they nonetheless depower the victims. There are other ways of reading testimony.

15. Kennedy’s essay also explores some important differences between psychoanalytic and discursive approaches. The psychoanalytic model reads Indigenous testimony for trauma and affect. It makes speakers into victims, without agency, their lives reduced forever to being an effect of trauma. A discursive model attends to the contexts of reading in terms of power and subjectivity. It enables the production and reception of victim testimonies as examples of how people involved in a traumatic historical process interpret the events and understand the experience. It raises issues not only of trauma and affect but also of power and subjectivity. Kennedy explores these issues in more detail in an upcoming book, edited with Jill Bennett, entitled World Memory: personal trajectories in global time. Here, she briefly cites some of the Link Up narratives of survivors (which unlike the Bringing them Home Report do not divide victim testimony from expert interpretation), to indicate the different status of teller and listener involved in the different modes of address. Link Up stories do not ask readers to identify vicariously with the trauma but rather address white Australians as "implicated bystanders or potential collaborators" (129). Elicited, produced, received and read in this way, with attention to the dynamics of power involved in the taking of testimony, knowledge about Stolen Generation experience becomes a matter of negotiated meaning. It restores Indigenous agency and enables active Indigenous interventions into White Nation narratives.

16. For now, the genie is out of the bag. One cannot ‘take back’ the charge of genocide and its effects (for good or ill) on Stolen Generation debates. This volume, however, provides abundant resources to engage the question not only through academic disciplinary frameworks but also beyond them. Not only to consider White Australian history in the light of Stolen Generation testimony but also to ask how White Australians fit into the history of separation. Not only with an eye toward making historical judgements but also with an impulse to justice and a renewed moral and ethical vision.

Kay Schaffer is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Social Inquiry at the University of Adelaide and will be a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU from mid-February 2003. She is the author of several books, including Women and the Bush (Cambridge, 1988) and In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories (1995). Her latest publications include the edited anthologies: Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader (Rutgers, 1988), Constructions of Colonialism (Cassell, 1998) and The Olympics at the Millennium (Rutgers, 2000). She is presently working on a co-authored study (with Sidonie Smith, UMich) entitled Narrated Lives: Storytelling and the Politics of Human Rights.

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