Gareth Evans on Life, Politics, Australia, and Good International Citizenship
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com/bloom/garethevans
Full transcript below ^_^
In this interview, Nick and Gareth discuss:
- Gareth’s early life and influences, and what drew him to politics
- Some of his most enduring political and policy achievements
- Reflections on Bob Hawke and Paul Keating as men, and as Prime Ministers of Australia
- The current world order, and the state of multilateralism and global cooperation on “problems without passports”
- Mass-atrocity events, and the personal and moral challenges of being Foreign Minister of a sovereign state with competing policy priorities
- The development of the global political commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)
- Memories and reflections on Gareth’s work as President and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Brussels, and the differences in preventing deadly conflict from within an NGO than in government
- Reflections on his time as Chancellor of the Australian National University, and the university’s unique role in Australian society
- The meaning of Australia, and some of Gareth’s most treasured corners of the country
- Reflections on life and retirement
Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA is Distinguished Honorary Professor at the Australian National University, where he was Chancellor from 2010–19. He was a Cabinet Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983–96, in the posts of Attorney General, Minister for Resources and Energy, Minister for Transport and Communications and — from 1988–96 — Foreign Minister. During his 21 years in Australian politics he was Leader of the Government in the Senate (1993–96) and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives (1996–98). From 2000 to 2009 he was President and CEO of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the independent global conflict prevention and resolution organisation.
Friday, 3 July 2020
00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a conversations podcast about anything and everything, featuring people who have led meaningful and interesting lives for others. I’m lucky to be joined today by Gareth Evans, an extraordinary Australian politician, international policy maker, academic and barrister.
00:17 Gareth served in the Australian parliament from 1978 to 1999, most notably as Foreign Minister in the Hawke-Keating government from 1988 to 1996. Between 2000 and 2009, Gareth led the Brussel’s based international crisis group, making significant contributions to international policy making, particularly as an architect and advocate for the Responsibility to Protect.
00:41 More recently, Gareth served as Chancellor of the Australian National University from 2010 until his retirement in early 2020. In this conversation, Gareth and I speak about his early life and influences, his experiences as cabinet minister in the Hawke-Keating government, mass atrocity crimes and the Responsibility to Protect, his work at the international crisis group and his time as chancellor of the Australian National University. We also reflect on the meaning of Australia and a life well lived. Thank you so much for your time today, Gareth. It’s an honour to be speaking with you.
01:13 Gareth: My pleasure, Nick. Happy to join you.
01:17 Nick: To kick things off, I was wondering if you could speak a bit about how you’ve found the lockdown experience in Melbourne and whether you’ve picked up any new skills or hobbies in isolation.
01:26 Gareth: Well, I’m deeply conscious that the lockdown experience has been pretty traumatic for one hell of a lot of other members of the community, financially, physically, psychologically.
01:36 By comparison, I’ve had a pretty easy time, I have to say. I think one of the great advantages of the lockdown is it’s given me a kind of psychological permission to move into the kind of retirement mode that I really did need to gracefully slide into.
01:51 When you’ve been around as long as I have with, multiple decades of doing different things — 10 years as an academic and a lawyer, a civil libertarian activist, 20 years in politics and government, 10 years running an international NGO and another 10 years back in academia, ANU, writing, involved in university governance — I think it really is time for a rest, time to move over and let the next generation get on with things. It’s obviously difficult to make that transition, but being locked up in virus exile made it a lot easier.
02:25 In terms of new skills that I might have learnt, I think the most obvious one is the capacity at last, after more than half a century of hoarding paper, to actually cull, because I’m very much in the business of trying to sort and cull and archive all my papers and photos and God knows what else has accumulated, n the principle that — if and when I cark it, which hopefully won’t be too imminent — I don’t want the tip truck just to come in and my family to be faced with a counsel of despair of what to do with this mass of material. So, I can’t pretend any new thing in the way of crocheting or needlework or pie making, but culling I’m pretty good at.
03:07 Nick: That’s wonderful to hear that there might be a Gareth Evans archive in the works as well, but I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your early life and influences and what drew you to politics.
03:18 Gareth: Well, I came from very much a working class background. My dad was a tram driver and strong trade unionist but not directly engaged in politics, but my instincts I guess with that background were from the beginning, and have remained, on the left.
03:33 I think it was Gough Whitlam — I was very active in student politics but not in party politics — who really energised my generation to think of the possibility of parliamentary politics, really for the first time, as a way of making the country and world a better place. It really captured my imagination.
03:54 A lot of other formative experiences, particularly traveling experiences, influenced the kind of direction my political activity has taken — a passion and preoccupation with racism and criminal justice and obviously a whole range of international relations issues. But for politics as such, the attraction for me was really always that you could actually do things on a macro scale. Being a lawyer, you could do very good things in the community, but they’re essentially micro. In politics, if you get into government at least, you do have a chance to do things, change things on a really significant scale, and that was an important motivation. Beyond that God knows what the psychology is that gets you into this often very unhappy, misery-generating business, but the rewards are great when things fall into place and you really feel that you can and do achieve something in government.
04:53 Nick: Fantastic. So, on that note, in 2014 you wrote Inside the Hawke-Keating Government, A Cabinet Diary based on your experience in a range of senior roles in the Hawke-Keating government. You were Attorney-General, Minister for Resources and Energy, and most notably as Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996. So, looking back, what are some of the achievements you’re most proud of and what policy changes have been the most enduring over the past three decades?
05:19 Gareth: Well, there’s a whole bunch of things I guess, bit by bit, portfolio by portfolio. As Attorney-General, a lot went wrong but we did get right freedom of information legislation and family law legislation — and we won the Dams Case of course to stop that massive, ugly hydro development in Tasmania.
05:41 As Resources and Energy minister, I was in the middle of saving the North-West Shelf project which was at danger of complete collapse. And I was involved a little later on in working with Prime Minister Hawke in saving the Antarctic from mining and oil exploration of any kind to create a wilderness park there.
06:01 As Transport and Communications minister, I was party to quite an important enterprise in changing the way in which state owned enterprises, in telecommunications and land transport and shipping and aviation, all worked to make them more effective players in a contemporary economic environment. But I suppose the most specific achievement there tht I’m remembered for by at least some people is that I was the first minister in the world to ban smoking on aircraft: It made me very, very popular with hostesses and cabin crews thereafter.
06:33 As Foreign Minister — my primary focus in my last years in government — there are a lot of things that I think of with some pride: the Cambodia peace process which we initiated and brought to successful fruition, at least so far as peace was concerned ( we didn’t do so well with human rights I’m afraid, and democracy); . bringing to conclusion the Chemical Weapons Convention; initiating some major international rethinking on the possibility of nuclear disarmament; and a whole variety of other contributions to thinking about effective multilateral processes in the UN and regionally, including creating APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum) and other forums of regional security architecture. That was a very busy time and one that I’m pretty proud of in retrospect, even though obviously we didn’t get everything right.
07:27 In Parliament, I guess the thing that I remember most fondly of all the things I was able to do was leading the Senate in the debate on the Mabo legislation, bedding down that fundamental change in the understanding of Native Title and the reality that Australia — the High Court did the original, conceptual, legal job in declaring it — that the country was no longer terra nullius but actually owned and occupied by our Indigenous forebears. It depended on us in the parliament to pass the legislation to turn all that into a practical reality, and it was the longest debate in the history of the Senate up until then. I was on my feet I think for over 50 hours in the committee stage, defending it against the neanderthals and the trogs on the other side of politics. It was a pretty memorable achievement when we got that one through.
08:20 There are a whole variety of things I do look back on, along with other things I’d prefer to forget, with a certain sense of achievement which I think justified that original aspiration or motivation for going into politics.
08:34 Nick: Yes, and I think it was Paul Keating who spoke about policy and politics and being able to build things into the bedrock of the nation. Speaking of those sort of great historical figures that you worked with and lived with for so long, could you reflect on some of the differences between Hawke and Keating as leaders of the Australian Labour Party and their differences as prime ministers, and maybe as men as well?
08:56 Gareth: Well, they did have very different personalities but they were actually very complementary. When they were working together — and not getting into old bull versus young bull mode as of course happened, with eventually a divorce — it was a very, very successful combination. They both had extraordinary strengths. Hawke’s strengths were self-evidently his capacity to connect with people of all shapes and sizes and social ranks and status; his capacity to craft a really effective narrative about what direction the government and the country needed to go in; and his capacity for collegiality — the way in which he brought people in to work together very effectively in government without too much ego, notwithstanding that personally he was a bit of a narcissist as we can all remember. It was a very collegiate, cooperative, collective operation and Hawke was central to that.
09:58 Also, I think the other thing about Hawke which was extraordinary, particularly given his wild, carousing, boy-o days in the trade union movement, was the discipline — the personal discipline, the institutional discipline — that he brought to the role.
10:11 Keating was a very different character. His main strengths obviously were his ability to set a strategic direction and to stick to it and, above all, his unrivalled capacity to communicate. Keating’s the best communicator I’ve ever seen, not just in his public performance but in his capacity to persuade — working the corridors of the media. Just persuading, persuading, persuading — and that wonderful gift he had for language, and invective. Very tough, yes. Very cruel, yes, but always with the rapier rather than the bludgeon at the heart of it. A very impressive performer. Some of his language we all remember — of Peacock, that ‘a soufflé can’t rise twice’…
11:04 Nick: Doing you slowly and things like that..
11:05 Gareth: Yes, to Hewson, ‘I’m going to do you slowly’. My favourite Keating remark was one that I don’t think ever got into public print, mercifully, when he described I think it was John Howard as ‘having all the charm of a used suppository’. There we go. Keating actually is a very attractive character personally. One of the odd things about public figures is that sometimes people who seem most distant and arrogant to the public at large are the warmest and most genuine and unaffected in personal relationships — and the converse.
11:42 Whereas, Hawkey was super bloke, super mate to the public. I mean, I — even though I was quite close to Hawke for a very long time — I always found Keating a warmer personality as an individual than Hawke was. That’s something that was just not understood I think by the wider public.
12:01 But look, both of them were towering figures in Australian politics and I think we all — not just people like me who were part of it, and not just rusted on Labour supporters. but I think commentators generally, analysts generally — look back on the Hawke-Keating governments as a golden age in Australian politics I think that’s not a bad description, and it owes everything to the quality of leadership of those two.
12:23 Nick: Absolutely. So, it’s commonplace, especially in 2020, for people to be speaking about a prevailing feeling of disorder and fragmentation in the world with the rise of populism, the return of the nation’s state in great powers, the tensions and uncertainties in longstanding western alliances and the breakdown in multilateral cooperation on a range of global issues. So, as someone who was instrumental as you mentioned in the development of regional multilateral bodies like ASEAN and APEC and having been deeply involved with the United Nations and similar organisations, do you have a sense that much of that liberal and democratic promise of the early 1990s and sort of that halcyon way in which we look back on those days is unravelling before our very eyes?
13:05 Gareth: Well, yes and no. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of crude nativism, nationalism, reassertive protectionism and sort of authoritarian populism — that’s not a contradiction in terms — going on at the moment. Obviously the predominance or role of Trump, and the menagerie of uglies around the world with which he is associated — the Bolsonaros, the Erdogans, the Orbans, the Dutertes, and so on. All are very bad signals that the way in which the world might go.
13:37 But my own instinct is a little bit more optimistic — as so often — about these things. I mean, I think it’s quite possible — if not probable, it’s certainly possible — that the COVID pandemic crisis will be a wake up call as to the absolute necessity for cooperation globally, among all the major powers and countries generally, if these big problems are going to be solved. Not just the big existential problems that threaten life on this planet as we know it — pandemics, the possibility of nuclear war and of course climate change — but a whole bunch of other transnational problems, problems which Kofi Annan used to call ‘problems without passports’ because they were not capable of resolution by any country acting alone, however big and powerful.
14:24 Piracy, terrorism, trafficking, other forms of arms control other than just nuclear: all of these things do require, obviously, cooperation if they’re going to be solved. And the populists haven’t been doing all that well in terms of the effectiveness of their response to the virus: that’s been chaotic and undisciplined and self-indulgent and they may well pay the price for that. Maybe that’s too optimistic a reading, to think that multilateralism is in for a new dawn. Everything will depend I think — an awful lot will depend, certainly — on the outcome of the November presidential election. If Trump by some miracle now, given how far behind he is in the polls, does get re-elected, that’s a horrible sign for the future of global cooperation and global decency. If he is defeated, then I think we’re in with a chance of re-establishing that spirit of multilateral cooperation which is so critical if we are to ever make the world a safer and saner and more civilised and decent place.
15:32 Nick: Yes, and speaking about that safer and saner world, you’ve been concerned with International Humanitarian Law and the Responsibility to Protect throughout your professional life. So, I wonder as Foreign Minister, what it was like at a human level to be, you know, in a position of power and having to make major foreign policy decisions about Australia’s response to mass atrocity events as they unfolded in major hotspots during your time in Somalia, Rwanda and nearby in East Timor as well.
16:02 Gareth: You talk about being in a position of power. but actually the strongest sentiment I had was one of awful impotence in the face of those atrocity crimes that you refer to, particularly when perpetrated in places like Rwanda and so on. We just had no capacity to act in any way individually. All we could aim at doing was to prod and poke the other key players, to sort of prod their consciences, and to act more effectively ourselves when something did erupt of that kind in our own immediate neighbourhood.
16:40 With Cambodia of course, we led the charge — subsequently, not at the time, since I wasn’t around in ’75 when all the ugliness first broke out, by the time I was in office, there was a sense that we could and should do something to redress that situation.
16:57 When it happens on your own immediate watch as it did with Dili in ’91, I mean, it really, really is traumatic. It’s not just a matter of a small country that Australia could sort of boss around. This was Indonesia, a responsible country of 200+ million people and, not a country that we could afford to go to war with over something like that and a country that was very, very defensive about its behaviour. Not so much Foreign Minister Ali Alatas with whom I had a very close personal relationship and had worked so closely and effectively with on Cambodia.
17:37 I broke the news to him actually of the Dili Massacre. We were in Tokyo together -. I was the first to hear about it. His face went absolutely white, white as a sheet, not because of the implications for his diplomatic role but just personally. He was horrified by what had happened.
17:54 I knew it was the military then that was out of control. It was out of his control in Foreign Affairs. It was just a very, very difficult situation. We could use all the diplomacy in the world to try, but we didn’t have to use any diplomacy with him. I mean, he knew that a terrible wrong had been perpetrated. He wanted desperately to do something about it but with the authority the military then had in the Suharto government, it was very hard, even from the inside to do something.
18:24 They’re very, very frustrating, these things, and all you can really aim to do which is what I was subsequently I guess up to a point able to do — try to use such credibility as Australia had, as I had, to work internationally to create a new way of thinking about how to deal with these genocide and other atrocity crimes.
18:46 I did work very actively as you’re probably aware, as chair of a big international commission which established the principle of the Responsibility to Protect.which won recognition at the UN in 2005 with the unanimous endorsement with the world’s heads of government, heads of state, that what happened behind state borders when these atrocity crimes occurred was not nobody else’s business, but the world’s business: there was a Responsibility to Protect populations so treated. A responsibility to act preventively and a responsibility to act after the event.
19:27 What we had to do was get a normative change, a cultural change and a political change so that the countries with the real authority to do something about this, not just the smaller powers and the middle powers, would be energised. So, it was not easy responding to those sort of situations but, you know, these things are never easy.
19:46 Nick: As you’ve mentioned there seems to be a bit of a moral bridge between your time as Foreign Minister and witnessing things like the Rwandan genocide, the Dili massacre in ’91 and then also moving into your role as you just mentioned as CEO and President of the International Crisis Group in Brussels from 2000 to 2009. That’s a global NGO blending field-based research, policy analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent war, mass atrocity events, genocides and ultimately to promote peace. So, could you sort of reflect on the differences in working for a global NGO rather than a government, a national government, in preventing and resolving those deadly conflicts?
20:28 Gareth: Well, the big difference is that when you’re in a senior position in government, you’re inside the room when decisions are being taken. Not every decision because Australia is not a player in the same class, with the same clout, as the current five members of the UN Security Council and so on. Nonetheless, in many, many, many contexts, you are actively engaged in the decision making process.
20:51 Whereas as an NGO, all you can possibly hope to do is to influence that process. All you can ever be really is like the urchin outside the tart shop, pressed at the window wanting to get in, hopefully influencing the play.
21:06 The International Crisis Group is an unusual organisation in that we are inside the room rather more often than almost any other security-focused NGO in the world. Because I was a former Foreign Minister, very well known to an awful lot of the current players, I was able to get in to discuss with presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, defence ministers, and very senior officials a whole bunch of things which were beyond the advocacy capacity of other organisations. We had a very, very powerful, strong and highly recognised board of directors, a very strong team of linguists and other people on the ground and we were coming up with very good ideas. But at the end of the day, it’s not the same as being in government. Even though my experience at International Crisis Group was one of the most satisfying and challenging in my life and we did quite a few good things, it was never as good as the buzz, as the actual capacity to achieve things, when you are there hammering things out across a table and making decisions that actually stick, not just making recommendations.
22:18 Nick: Yes, and so what would be some of the more memorable experiences from your time at the International Crisis Group, including crises and issues you were involved with but also as you mentioned earlier, the 2005 UN General Assembly commitment to the Responsibility to Protect which was a sort of doctrine or a new norm or I suppose an international consensus where there wasn’t one before that.
22:44 Gareth: Well, that’s two things. Let’s begin with the International Crisis Group. The sort of things we were involved in which I remember most were, first, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the response to that. It was a nightmarish business to persuade my board, which was quite heavily American and neo-con influenced, to accept our analysis that the invasion was utterly without justification on any of the three grounds that had been articulated — the weapons of mass destruction one; the terrorism one; and even the human rights one, because even though Saddam Hussein was a serial human rights violator, so too were 60 or 70 other countries around the world at that time with their leadership, and if that was to be the ticket for invading a country, then God help any kind of rules based international order.
23:34 The role that we played in articulating that case I think was pretty important. It certainly cost me a personal friendship with Tony Blair, among many other things, and I remember that vividly.
23:43 Secondly, we did play a very important role in articulating the case for the terms of what would have been a very good settlement to the Israel-Palestine ongoing horror story. At a time — no longer I’m afraid with us — when a two state solution looked really, really possible, it was a question of how you got the negotiations moving forward. We came up with an end game first, reverse engineering sort of approach, with literally scores and scores of pages of deep analysis as to what a workable solution might look like.
24:21 It was very influential with everybody except the players that counted most, the Israeli government and the US government which weren’t inclined to push it, but that was a very important role we played. The other role I particularly think of during that period that was with the Iran nuclear issue with which we were very much involved.
24:40 I was playing a sort of second track envoy role almost, going backwards and forwards to Tehran and speaking with key players: the Europeans then were talking but not listening to the Iranians and the Americans were not even talking. So, what we were able to do was to craft a solution to the burgeoning standoff on the nuclear program issue, which actually was adopted in almost word for word terms in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action 10 years later, which if our particular proposal had been accepted at the time, it would have solved and saved an awful lot of tears I think and certainly get where we did get to — before Trump — a lot quicker.
25:26 So, that was the International Crisis Group. It was and remains I think a very important NGO with that combination of very sharp field based advocacy, very thoughtful policy recommendations and high level advocacy — not grass roots campaigning but high level direct advocacy.
25:44 It was wearing that particular hat I guess that I got involved in the other exercise of the Responsibility to Protect which you asked about. So, very quickly, the story with the Responsibility to Protect is that for centuries and certainly for decades, there had been no consensus about any kind of wider international responsibility to respond to genocide and other mass atrocity crimes occurring behind state borders. Even after the Second World War Holocaust, you did not have any kind of consensus as to what a reaction should look like. Even after the Genocide Convention, there was no consensus in practice. And that was certainly the case through the 90s and the Balkans war, Srebenica, Rwanda and the horrors there.
26:26 So, what we were able to do with the commission the Canadians asked me to co-chair was come up with this concept of ‘the Responsibility to Protect’ which was an alternative way of looking at the problem other than so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ which up until then had been the solution — the military solution: ‘send in the marines’. The West, the global North, were disposed to adopt that in principle but not very often to apply it in practice; the global South thought it was a terrible idea because it was completely at odds with the notion of their sovereignty and independence and so on.
27:03 So, what we did was come up with this principle of the Responsibility to Protect which was articulated in a way that won unanimous endorsement in 2005 — the UN General Assembly meeting as the world summit on the anniversary of the UN. Looking back at how much has been achieved that the recognition that there was a Responsibility to Protect — both preventively and reactively, including in an extreme situation with military means — I think there are four benchmarks, if I can rattle them off quickly.
27:37 Nick: Yes, it doesn’t have to be quick at all.
27:40 Gareth: Well, okay, benchmark one is ‘have you made normative difference?’ Have you changed the way in which people think about this particular issue? I think the answer to that is yes and the evidence for it is in successive annual General Assembly debates on this issue where it has become clear that there is still a genuine international consensus, with only a very tiny number of hold outs, as to the principle that there is a responsibility to protect and react in these situations.
28:12 I think the second benchmark is ‘has the principle acted as a catalyst for any kind of institutional change? ‘ I think the answer there is yes. It’s been very influential in the development of the International Criminal Court, for all the problems that the court continues to have. It’s been very influential in getting likeminded states, many of them, to cooperate in developing civil action programs, preventive and reactive. And it’s been very influential in getting militaries to change their doctrine, their rules of engagement, their training, their way of thinking about ‘mass atrocity response operations’ which are not full scale war fighting but involve something necessarily — in hard cases — more than just traditional peace keeping.
28:57 The third benchmark is preventive: ‘Have we been successful in preventing things exploding which might otherwise been avoidable?’Yes, I think by and large we have. Of course, when you succeed at prevention, nothing happens and therefore nobody notices. Prevention, which everybody talks about, is very hard to prove. But one of the best examples I can think of is Burundi, right next door to Rwanda. Very, very similar demographic makeup. Similarly on the edge of a genocidal volcano constantly. But so far, for the last 15 years anyway, that’s been avoided because the Responsibility to Protect has been invoked and the Security Council has met. Practically every time the situation has looked like going over the edge, there’s been a flurry of diplomatic and other activity to stop it. So, in a quiet kind of way it has worked well.
29:50 But of course the fourth benchmark and the one that really matters, where the rubber hits the road, is reactive: ‘How effective has it been as a reactive mechanism when prevention has failed and atrocity crimes are occurring?’ Here of course, although there have been some early successes, the recent record has been one of manifest failure. Above all in Syria but also Sri Lanka, Yemen, most recently the Rohingya people in Myanmar. There has been a loss of any kind of consensus on these really hard cases, where maybe military action is required, on the Security Council. It’s going to be really hard to recreate that consensus. I don’t think it’s impossible. I think it’s linked with the earlier discussion we had about multilateralism and whether we’re going to see an acceleration of that mood of defensive or aggressive nationalism and a rejection of global rules and norms and processes, or whether rather we’re going to see a reversion back.
30:49 I haven’t given up on ‘R2P, as it’s abbreviated, once again becoming a very effective reaction vehicle as well as effective in the other ways I mentioned. Even with China — which hasn’t been too flash in recent times in terms of it’s respect for civil liberty, certainly not domestically, and has been perpetrating some horror stories of its own with the Uighur people in Xinjiang in particular. Even China has paid more than lip service to the Responsibility to Protect and if there were to be another really, really awful case like Rwanda or something, you know, explode in front of our eyes without other great power interests being in play, it’s not impossible that China would be a serious supporter of reacting to that. So, again I remain optimistic about the longer term, but right now it’s tough going.
31:42 Nick: Sure, but speaking about those reactive benchmarks you mentioned, could you reflect on whether R2P, as it sort of came to a consensus towards the end of the 2000s decade, also through your book you published, The Responsibility to Protect, Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All, in 2008. Is R2P future fit for the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape? Because you mentioned Russia and China in particular but their vetoing of the Security Council’s resolution to intervene in Syria in 2011 — that’s where that notion fell through the cracks certainly.
32:21 Gareth: Well, the rot set in with the Security Council with Libya actually in 2011, where it was a champagne moment initially, where the Security Council approved a military response to what was universally anticipated there, which was a massacre in Benghazi: Gaddafi’s troops were moving across northern Libya and a massacre was thought likely to be imminent and he refused to take any notice of earlier Security Council resolutions.
32:50 That took place, the international response, and the massacre was averted. But what happened is the United States, UK and France — the P3, Permanent Three — decided that it wasn’t good enough just to stop atrocities. They wanted to achieve full scale regime change. But they didn’t have a Security Council mandate for that and they didn’t go back to the Security Council to seek a mandate. They just used the mandate they had to move from civilian protection into full scale war fighting.
33:21 That completely eroded the capacity for consensus when the Syria case came along just that same year. Mid 2011 was when the first stages of Syria resembled almost eerily the first stages of Libya with unarmed demonstrators being shot down by Assad’s goons.
33:45 The failure of the Security Council then to respond, not militarily — that was always a much more complex situation — but just through condemnation and just through sanctions, through arms boycotts and embargos, really made a difference. The fact was that the Security Council was totally divided with Russia, China and a lot of the other southern countries, including the other BRICS countries so called, Brazil, India, South Africa, all saying, “Look what happened in Libya? You give these countries an inch, they take a mile.”
34:18 So, what we have to do is to recreate that sense of consensus in the Security Council, that when genocide is occurring, when mass atrocity crimes are occurring, it’s in nobody’s interests to let the forces of indecency and horror actually win. That whatever else we disagree about, however the tectonic plates might be clashing elsewhere around the world, we ought at least to be able to agree on common, united, effective, preventive or reactive action.
34:51 One way in which we can square the circle on this is by adopting a proposal which was put out by Brazil at the time in 2011, which they called Responsibility While Protecting, a rather interesting notion: ln short, ‘RWP], if you’d like to add to the acronymphomania around the place. RWP was the idea that if you are going to give a military mandate, as was given initially in Libya, then it ought to be: a) done on the base of very clear agreed attention to a very clear set of agreed criteria as to what should justify military action, and there should b) be some ongoing scrutiny, monitoring, review of the exercise of that mandate by the Security Council itself, so that it’s not just a matter of giving a mandate in an extreme situation and then somebody pocketing that mandate and running off and doing a different enterprise.
35:51 So, there is a sort of solution there but it does depend on a culture change, it does depend on a mood change. It does depend on a change of international atmosphere away from where we have been over the last few years, which has been a triumph of inward looking nationalism as you say.
36:06 But I do nurse the hope, particularly if there is a change in US government. You can’t have much optimism about either Russia or China at the moment, particularly Russia now with Mr Putin getting himself potentially President there for life, God help us. But with the Chinese, I still think we may be overlooking the possibility of getting a significant degree of Chinese cooperation on what I call global public goods issues.
36:36 Nick: Yes, but one does wonder though about whether they would indeed be cooperative, given a lot of the global commentary about what’s happening in Xinjiang is referred to as, you know, cultural genocide or literal genocide in the sense of forced sterilization. So, is the R2P norm or consensus as it was — at the end of Libya and Syria, around then…
37:00 Gareth: Obviously it’s got a lot tougher as a result of what’s been going on in Xinjiang which is by all accounts indefensible and becoming more so. Look, we always had to recognise right from the outset that the Responsibility to Protect was never going to be fantastically effective for violations of these rules by the really big guys themselves internally, because there are none of the sanctions you’ve got at the end of the day apart from naming and shaming and diplomacy — you certainly don’t have a military sanction against a country like China or the United States or Russia or, just name them, the other really big guys. Because if you did try to exercise the military sanction, you’d just be plunging the whole scenario into a full scale war which would create even far greater immiserisation than the problem that you’re trying to solve. So, there’s an inbuilt dilemma there and an inbuilt limitation.
37:54 But when it comes to countries where, as I said in passing a moment ago, great power interests are not immediately involved — where you’re looking at situations in a Rwanda or in an East Timor or wherever -maybe that’s not perfect, but maybe at least there could be a degree of consensus that this sort of stuff is intolerable and there need to be effective redress mechanisms.
38:22 I know that sounds a little bit naive but I think you’ve got to be a little bit naive and a little bit optimistic about the possibility of getting change in these things otherwise nothing ever happens.
38:32 Nick: Yes, wonderful. So, to change tack a little bit — or a lot rather — you’ve recently retired from your role as Chancellor of the Australian National University after a decade of service in that role which is now occupied by another former Foreign Minister in Julie Bishop. The Australian National University (ANU) has won extensive praise for its research and teaching, it’s championing of equity and accessibility through a range of scholarship programs, it’s leadership and governance, notably Brian Schmidt as well, and also for it’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. So, could you reflect on your time as Chancellor, the role of the ANU in Australian society and some of the achievements or memories you’re most proud of over the last decade.
39:13 Well, it’s a great privilege to have had the role of being Chancellor of the ANU. It’s a great international university and of course its real value-add in the Australian scene is it’s the only national university that we have, certainly the only national public university.
39:30 It’s a university that right from the outset was created with that the national mission in mind, not just a research mission and not just later on the education mission but a national development mission, a contribution to the policy debate dialogue and implementation mission.
39:52 I think, far more than any other Australian university, there is right across the spectrum a sense of that responsibility to contribute not just to pure blue sky research and not just to effective education of undergraduates and graduate students, but to that sort of translational research, to contribute to a public policy debate, to produce that stuff whether it’s in the national security sphere, whether it’s an education policy, whether it’s in epidemiology, whether it’s climate change or other physical or biological science areas.
40:31 ANU really has been at the forefront of such effective, communicated research and advocacy, and living across the Lake as we do from the organs of government, it gives us far greater opportunity for interaction with government than most other obviously Australian universities have.
40:50 I think we do make the most of it. I guess my happiest role at ANU was really focusing on and seeking to reinvigorate that self-conscious public policy role by renaming the Crawford School as the school of Public Policy, by establishing this big set piece annual conference, the Crawford Leadership Forum which brings together by invitation key players in not only the public sector, and the universities and think-tank sector, but the business sector as well, to try to debate and reach consensus on the big policy issues of the day.
41:31 I think Julie Bishop is going to very much maintain that tradition. She’s very passionate about those issues and she just sort of gets it about where the ANU is at. We’ve been blessed with some very effective vice chancellors: now Brian Schmidt, Nobel prize winning astrophysicist and someone who is passionately committed not only to super-high-quality education and research but also that contribution to public policy.
41:59 The other thing I think that is wonderful about ANU is the campus experience that it does offer. More and more of the big capital city universities are becoming commuter universities in a way that is completely foreign to my own university experience, you know, back in the sixties when, you really spent the whole day and night in and around the campus, engaged in endless student activities, not to mention protests and so on. It was your life. It was fun.
42:24 But these days, people are coming and going, with part time jobs, economic pressures. You know, it’s really not the same. But ANU is very much still a residential campus. And a very small university: we deliberately made the decision to keep it at 20,000 max rather than the 40,000/50,000/60,000+ of the other mainstream Australian universities, and to really maintain that atmosphere of community and giving youngsters a really wonderful all round experience.
42:55 The final thing to say about ANU I think is we’ve really taken fantastically seriously the national responsibility towards Indigenous Australians through scholarship programs, pathway programs, and all sorts of things which are designed to play to our role as a national university with outreach all around the country in our recruitment plans and processes.
43:17 I think we’ve been having quite a lot of success with that. I was also personally very actively involved in the physical planning of the campus, the master plan, and building programs and God knows what else to pull all these big aspirations into physical form. ANU has had a hell of a year with not only the bushfires but, flooding and hailstorms and now the virus: I mean, all we’re missing is the locusts. Other universities are suffering similarly. I think ANU will bounce back. It’s a great Australian university. It’s been a very great privilege to be associated with it.
43:56 Nick: Yes, and so one of the more controversial stories though during your 10 years as Chancellor was the decision to withdraw from negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, and you were not obviously alone as a university in doing that, and it’s proposal for a degree in Western Civilisation. So, I was hoping you could speak a bit about that decision but also whether you see a future for a degree in western civilisation.
44:17 Look, that decision was absolutely not driven at all by any argument that Western Civilisation was somehow at odds with the sort of things that contemporary Australian University ought to be teaching and researching, that the canon — the great books, the great traditions of art, music, literature, philosophy of the West were somehow no longer relevant or core to us being the kind of country that we are. That’s been part of the argument against it of course, that, you know, live has moved on and in the post-imperialist period that sort of discourse is outmoded, that it’s positively offensive.
45:02 I think that’s nonsense — ‘nonsense on stilts’ as Jeremy Bentham might have said. It was no part — no part — of our decision making. We’re always desperately keen to get financial support for the humanities generally, particularly with a government like the present one that’s obviously got a distaste for the humanities and all their works generally (maybe retaining a bit of touching faith in ‘western civ; but that’s another story).
45:30 So, financially we were quite happy but the problem was the Ramsay Foundation wanted to micromanage, wanted to appoint the staff, wanted to set the curriculum, wanted to determine every single last element of the way that particular course was run.
45:50 Tony Abbott made public pronouncements which were absolutely clear cut and he was the chair of their governing board, and it was just an intolerable situation for any university that cherishes its freedom, its autonomy and the whole notion of academic freedom. You must not be beholden under any circumstances to outside donors, whether they’re well motivated, ill motivated or somewhere in between.
46:13 That was what we tried to make very, very clear to the Ramsay people. They just didn’t get it. I mean, they’ve made some concessions now. They had to in terms of getting a toehold with their program of support in other universities like UQ and Wollongong, but ANU was the one that they came to first and we were the ones that had to confront this dilemma.
46:33 We would love to have had that money — $50 or $60 million was involved — to run programs. Of course we wanted to run the programs in a particular way. We wanted to make sure that there was a comparative element in the Western Civ courses so that it wasn’t with an element of campaigning or it wasn’t goal driven, but was a genuine attempt to teach about the great intellectual traditions and cultural traditions of the West but also to put them in context — to see , for example, what the Confucian tradition had to say about individualism, and the Buddhist tradition or the Hindu tradition, as well as the Western tradition and so on.
47:13 This was all anathema to the Ramsay people. They just wanted a straight down the line western civ thing and they wanted it done their way or the highway and unfortunately, that was just not something we could accept.
47:25 It was not well understood by the wider community on either side and battle lines were drawn around the idea of western civ itself which was I think silly. I mean, western civilisation is a crucial part of our heritage, our upbringing, our continued thinking and it is important that we be knowledgeable about that tradition, even though as I constantly say, Australia’s future is clearly going to be determined far more by our geography than our history. It’s absolutely critical that we recognise our role as essentially an Asian hemisphere country, rather than a hangover from the Euro-Atlantic past, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study this stuff, be aware of it, be thoughtful about it. That was the terms of the debate that we had and that’s how it panned out as it did.
48:13 Nick: Yes, fantastic. So, you’ve lived an extraordinary, varied and colourful life and career. One could say many lives and many careers, but a thread that seems to unite most of your endeavours is Australia, be it your early legal concerns with Australian constitutional law and civil liberties law, your service in the Australian parliament and your leadership of the ANU as we’ve just spoken about. So, could you reflect on perhaps in more poetic terms the idea of Australia and what it’s meant to you over the years?
48:42 Gareth: Well, what I’ve always loved about Australia is the egalitarian tradition more than anything else. What I’ve loved about Australian peacekeepers out on the ground in Somalia and other places dealing with people who don’t look like them — don’t look like the Australians of yesteryear anyway — is that Australians have got a superb reputation for neither sucking up nor kicking down, but treating people exactly as they find them. There’s something about the Australian character which I find deeply attractive and it’s very embedded in our culture, the way we like to think about ourselves. Sometimes we don’t always live up to those standards and our capacity for tolerance is sometimes put under real pressure — as it is being at the moment in the COVID context with some of the treatment unhappily being meted out to Chinese-Australians and other Asian-Australians which is completely at odds with the kind of country that I thought I was now living in, but hopefully we will recover our balance because we are essentially a decent country.
49:47 That’s what Keating and Hawke and I found when we were plugging this idea of Australia as a good international citizen — flogging the idea of Australia as a country that had a role to play in the world standing up for not just western values or Australian values but for universal values, plugging the idea that Australia as an active, energetic, creative middle power could actually change not just what happened within the country but what happened in our wider region and beyond and change it for the better.
50:19 There was a spirit of ambition and confidence about the kind of country we were which I very, very strongly related to and sought to articulate. There are all sorts of other things we can say about the kind of country we are but what I like about it is that we are instinctively egalitarian and that we are instinctively confident and proud of the kind of things that we stand for, the universal values that we stand for, and have shown a real willingness very, very often in the past to translate that pride and that confidence into effective not just local but international behaviour.
51:00 So, the international side is the one that I guess I emphasise now more than my early starting point, which was constitutional law and domestic civil liberties and domestic economic issues and so on.
51:13 But countries that you are proud of are countries that do have a place in the world that is really respected. I think what I love about Australia is that most of the time we earn that international respect. It’s something I find incredibly satisfying.
51:30 Nick: Yeah. Is there a part of the country in terms of a physical place and earth and landscape that you love most? I mean, you spent a lot of time near the Brindabellas in Canberra obviously or is it the Bay here in Melbourne?
51:44 Gareth: Well, I’m a bit of a sucker for the Great Ocean Road. We’ve got a beach house down there where I’ve spent most of the last few months. Urquhart’s Bluff, on the way between Anglesea and Lorne, is just a little piece of magic on this earth — the beach, the cliffs, the waves, the rocks, the reefs — that’s my idyllic place. There’s so much else — I have seen so much of the country that you wouldn’t believe, the Kakadus and the Daintrees and the Barrrier Reefs, the landscapes and the beaches-and it’s a wonderful country. But you asked me about my little bit of it, that which I’m most personally attached to, and that’s probably it. That’s where my ashes — hopefully not too soon — will probably end up being washed out to sea, from that little bit of landscape.
52:35 Nick: Yes, “a sweet corner of the planet” as Bob Carr I think phrased it in his diaries, about Sydney not that place you just mentioned. Final two questions. Coming back to the earlier, opening question about your early life, what do you think the young Gareth Evans traveling through Asia on his way to Oxford University on a Shell scholarship would have made of the life you went on to lead had he been able to foresee it, and is there anything you would have done differently?
53:00 Gareth: Well, he would have been pretty surprised that I’m still going 55 years later because I certainly had no expectations that I’d be maintaining anything like the level of activity and engagement I was able to for so long. I think young Gareth Evans would be pretty happy that by and large we, around the edges at least, had been able to make a bit of a difference on a lot of things that matter, whether it’s Indigenous, race issues like Mabo land rights; whether it’s international issues like arms control or the Responsibility to Protect; whether it’s just some of the other great civil libertarian issues of the day and education policy issues. I think all of those things that I’ve been involved in, were things that — looking forward — I would have been rapt to think that maybe I could have some potential influence on.
54:03 But of course, you know, life is not all roses. There are an awful lot of bumps along the way. As I say in the preface to my memoir, all of us are familiar with this phenomena of HPTFTU, the human propensity to fuck things up, and I am absolutely no exception. I’ve certainly screwed a number of things up along the way which I’m deeply conscious of. Quite a number of them are on the public record and very visible. But you know, the notion that you can go through your life with some unadulterated rise and rise and rise, with no bumps and no falls and no plunges along the way, is completely foreign to just about everyone’s experience, both personal and professional. It’s certainly foreign to mine, which has had many, many bumps.
54:51 But at the end of the day, you look back and you say, well have I at least around the edges been able to make a little bit of a difference. Hopefully I have and hopefully my younger self wouldn’t be completely disgusted with what my older self has managed to do.
55:08 Nick: Yeah. So, finally your career seems to have moved in decades, whether that’s intentional or not, from your first two — from your two decades in the Australian parliament, the decade at the ICG in Brussels and the decade as chancellor of the Australian National University. So, what is the next decade look like to you and what are you looking forward to doing on a day to day basis?
55:29 Gareth: Well, as I began by saying, what I’ve been most pleased with among all the horror of the lockdown is that it’s enabled me to realise my true destiny now, which is to withdraw from the world, fade off into graceful retirement and let the next generation get on with all this stuff.
55:49 There’s a word for this which I mention in my Memoir. I was introduced to it by former British prime minister, Jim Callaghan, when back in the 90s I was trying to get him to participate in the Keating government initiated international commission on the elimination of nuclear weapons. I said to Callaghan, “I’d love you to join my commission.” He said, “I can’t, my dear fellow. I’m a CLOOF.” I said, “What on earth is a CLOOF?” “Oh, everybody knows what a CLOOF is”. We went backwards and forwards. “If you insist. If you insist you don’t know what a CLOOF is. A CLOOF, my dear fellow, is a Clapped Out Old Fart.” So, I’ve now moved into CLOOF territory. I’m very happy to frankly admit. It’s proved quite useful in pushing back against people trying to persuade me to do all sorts of things. I mean, I do chair a New York based NGO on Responsibility to Protect. I do chair a Korea-based NGO on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. I do chair an ANU group, the Centre for Asian Australian Leadership, which I’m very proud to have helped initiate in the last few months. But look, at the end of the day, I’m finished. I’ve done my bit. It’s up to the next generation. It’s up to your generation to pick up these pieces and move on. You cannot go on going on. There are just so many problems out there that are going to require the kind of energy which we CLOOFs, I’m afraid, can no longer bring to the table.
57:16 Nick: Well, it’s a really wonderful invigorating note to end on. I definitely don’t think you sound clapped out. I think you fit more into your day than probably most people do when they’re in their twenties and thirties. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a real honour and privilege to speak to you.
57:33 Gareth: My pleasure, Nick, thanks for the offer.
57:34 Nick: Take care. Bye.
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com on July 3, 2020.