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Remembering the Past to Save the Future

Acceptance Address at Jeju 4.3 Peace Prize Presentation Ceremony, Jeju, Republic of Korea, 30 May 2023

I am profoundly honoured to receive the 5th Jeju 4.3 Peace Prize, and both gratified and humbled by the many kind things that have been said in the citation, and this presentation ceremony, about my efforts over many years to make this troubled world of ours safer, saner, more equitable and just – although I fear with many more failures than successes along the way.

What is most meaningful for me about this award is that it honours and commemorates the memory of all those who died – some 30,000 men, women and children, around 10 per cent of the then population of this beautiful island – in the terrible massacre, and orgy of property destruction that accompanied it, that took place here seven decades ago: still not as well-known as it should be in the rest of the world, but never forgotten here.

It is this award, and all the other accompanying work of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation on peace and reconciliation, that will keep that memory alive, and ensure that its message will be much more widely communicated and understood.

Of all the wise things that have been said over the years by philosophers, one of the wisest of all must be that statement of the Spanish-American George Santayana, over a century ago, that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

If mass atrocity crimes of the kind that occurred here on Jeju are not remembered and seared into the nation’s and the world’s consciousness – if memory of them is suppressed by the kind of ruthless cover-up that successive ROK governments imposed until democratisation, and the election of Kim Dae-Jung as President in 1998, broke the story open – then the prospect is all too real that these horrors will recur again, that people will fail to recognise the early warning signs of catastrophe before it is too late, and that we will fail as an international community to develop the kind of prevention and response strategies that will minimise that risk.

That perception – the necessity to retain memory of the worst if we are to progress at all toward achieving the best – has sustained and energised my own work for peace over the decades, in three policy areas in particular:

  • First, trying to get global acceptance and traction for the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’ populations against genocide, other major crimes against humanity and war crimes, atrocities of the kind committed in Jeju.
  • Second, trying to improve global and regional performance in the field of conflict prevention and response more generally: if we fail to remember the indescribable horror and misery that is involved in any major war, we are at profound risk of sleepwalking into another.
  • And third, trying to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world’s military arsenals: if we fail to remember not only the awful indiscriminate inhumanity of the carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the lessons now clear from the Cold War archives as to just how close we came, and how often, to those weapons being used again in a major global conflict, we are at grave risk of threatening the very existence of life on this planet as we know it.

Let me take this opportunity to say just a little more about each of these projects – why they have mattered to me, and I think will to you, and what remains to be done to realise them.

Responsibility to Protect. Slaughtering people not for any killing or other harm they may do but simply for who they are – their race, ethnicity, religion or (as for the great majority of casualties in Jeju) just their political identity or affiliation, real or assumed – is morally as bad as it gets. Yet that has been the fate of at least 80 million men, women and children over the last century, with neither international law nor political will doing much if anything to avert or halt genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.

Even after the horrifying massacres in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s became common global knowledge, there was no consensus as to how to respond: the global North talked of ‘humanitarian intervention’ but didn’t act, and the global South resisted any idea of the big former imperial powers having any kind of ‘right to intervene’ in other states with military force.

It was in response to that catastrophic failure that the Canadian-sponsored International Commission that I co-chaired came up with the circuit-breaking concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) which was unanimously endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005. Our achievement was fourfold. To change the language of the debate – from ‘right’ to ‘responsibility’, and from ‘intervention’ to ‘protection’, in a way that was much more conceptually acceptable to the global South’. To emphasise that working to end mass atrocity crimes was every state’s responsibility, not just that of a self-appointed handful of global police. To shift the emphasis away from use of military force to effective prevention and a wider range of non-military reaction options. And to emphasise the importance of post-crisis reconciliation and community-building.

After nearly two decades of implementation, R2P is still work in progress. Its basic principles continue to command almost unanimous global support, as evident from UN debates; there has been a significant growth in institutional response capability, both nationally and multilaterally; and a reasonable record of effective prevention in stopping tense situations becoming explosive.

But the record in stopping full-scale atrocities already under way – particularly since the breakdown of Security Council consensus over Libya in 2011 – has been much less impressive, not least in Syria, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and now Ukraine.

Those of us involved in the creation of R2P had a single overriding objective, which I know deeply resonates with the people of Jeju: to ensure that whatever else the international community messes up in its conduct of international relations, we would not continue to mess up – as we had for many decades, and indeed many centuries, before – when it came to responding effectively to the threat or reality of mass atrocity crimes.

We wanted, above all, to ensure that when genocide, ethnic cleansing or other crimes against humanity or major war crimes were being threatened or committed behind sovereign state borders anywhere in the world, the rest of the world would regard this as everyone’s business, not nobody’s business. I can’t pretend that we have yet completely succeeded in that enterprise, but I live in hope.

One thing that does give me confidence for the future in this area is the evolution of the Jeju model of truth, reconciliation and international solidarity – the work being successfully done here in truth finding, reconciliation of victims with those responsible for their suffering, and legal recognition of the scale and impact of the abuse of power involved.

The Jeju provincial government and people now want to share their experience with the world, to see the lessons learned here applied universally, and I will be happy to do whatever I can to help make that happen.

Cooperative Security. The prevention not just of atrocity crimes, but deadly conflict more generally, has been a sustaining preoccupation for most of my professional life – including nearly two decades in total as my country’s foreign minister and heading the International Crisis Group.

I have always been struck by the extent to which the drums of war tend to be beaten loudest by those who have never experienced it, and how those whose voice is loudest for peace are often those military personnel and others who have had close personal exposure not to its glory but its horror and misery. Here as elsewhere, memory matters.

I don’t think there is much left, anywhere in the world of that notion, very evident in the years before the First World War, that war is noble, and can be purifying and cleansing – what the French call bellicisme. Witnessing the carnage in Ukraine should surely bury any trace of that culture beyond redemption.

But what I do find troubling is the notion, now very widespread certainly among policymakers and commentators in the United States (and among fierce supporters of the US alliance in my own country and elsewhere), that war is thinkable -– not just as a last resort in defence of the UN Charter, or one’s own country in the case of genuinely existential threat, but in pursuit of other policy objectives. Including – most troubling of all – maintaining undisputed US regional and global primacy in the context of a challenge to that primacy by a newly risen and assertive China.

Of course complex geopolitical problems – and our region and world is full of them at the moment, not least on the Korean peninsula – demand more than simplistic responses.

But I don’t think it is too simplistic to say that the most crucial need in global international relations right now is for policymakers to change their mindset, to step away from an instinctively confrontational approach, and make a new commitment to cooperative security – that approach which focuses on finding security with others, not against them; on confidence-building strategies; on seeing security as multidimensional, with many economic and social as well as military and other hard-edged traditional components; and, above all, on building habits of dialogue, consultation and cooperation between nations.

What will best guarantee our security is not a world in which the US retains undisputed primacy in North East Asia and everywhere else, but rather one in which its leaders accept publicly what I heard Bill Clinton say privately two decades ago: that rather than trying to stay top dog in perpetuity, a better choice for the US would be to try to “create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block”.

But I don’t think we should hold our breath waiting for that to happen.

Nuclear Disarmament. If there is one area more than any other where remembering the past should shake us out of any complacency, it is the genuine threat of annihilation that we face so long as any nuclear weapons remain in existence.

We know now, as the Cold War archives have opened up and the memoirs of participants published, what we didn’t fully appreciate at the time. And that is just how close we came – in the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s, to the Able Archer exercise of the 1980s and on multiple other occasions in between – to errors of information or analysis leading to a catastrophic nuclear exchange.

That we have not had a nuclear weapon used in conflict for nearly eighty years is not a result of statesmanship, system infallibility or the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence. It has been sheer dumb luck.

Of course South Korea is closer to the eye of the storm than my own country, and most others. Your preoccupation with North Korea’s ever-increasing nuclear weapon capability, and endless rhetorical belligerence, is perfectly understandable.

And in that context many domestic voices will no doubt continue to be heard arguing for the ROK to acquire its own nuclear weapons. But for that to happen would be disastrous for the global non-proliferation regime, and with it your country’s international reputation, while doing little or nothing to actually enhance your security.

It is good news that your present government has resisted that siren song. But it is less good news that at their recent summit Presidents Yoon and Biden doubled down on their commitment to nuclear deterrence. What South Korea, like Australia, should focus on ensuring in our alliances with the US is not extended nuclear deterrence, with all enormous risks that entails, but extended conventional deterrence. Should North Korea ever be crazy enough to launch a nuclear assault on the South, the US – with ROK support – would not need nuclear weapons to turn Pyongyang into a car park.

Realising the dream of a nuclear weapons free world – which I share with Moon Chung-in and many other Korean colleagues who are members of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) – is still, realistically, many years away.

But the world could and should be doing much more than we have been to achieve nuclear risk reduction, focusing on reduced deployments, minimizing hair-trigger alert launch mechanisms, freezing and reducing weapons numbers, and securing a commitment by all the nuclear-armed states to ‘No First Use’.

And this is an enterprise in which close US allies like South Korea and Australia – both of us capable and influential middle powers in our own right – can make a crucial difference if we work together, as I hope very much we increasingly will.

Staying Optimistic. On all the issues I have been discussing – my personal passion projects to try to end mass atrocity crimes once and for all, to avoid deadly conflict by embracing a cooperative security rather than confrontational mindset, and to minimize and ultimately eliminate the existential risk posed by nuclear weapons my final word is this. If we want to build, nationwide and worldwide, a culture of peace, there is a crucial need not only for us to remember what has gone so badly wrong in the past, but to stay optimistic about changing things for the better.

For all of us working for peace, within governments, intergovernmental organizations, or NGOs or as ordinary individual citizens, it is critical to go on believing that what we do can and will make a difference. In international relations, as in life itself, optimism tends to be self-reinforcing and pessimism self-defeating. If we want to change the world for the better, we must start by believing that change is possible, and keep working for that belief, whatever the frustrations and setbacks.

I’m sure that is the spirit which sustained the people of Jeju during those long decades of government denial and suppression of the truth, before democracy and decency finally prevailed.

I know it is the spirit which will sustain the effort to universalise the Jeju model of truth, reconciliation and international solidarity.

And I hope it is the spirit which will continue to sustain us all as we continue to work for a world in which the culture of peace prevails, not the insanity of war, mass atrocity crimes and potential nuclear holocaust.

Thank you again for the honour you have done me by conferring this Award. I will do my best, with such remaining energy as I have, to justify your confidence in me.