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Making a Difference

Convocation Address by Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, President of the International Crisis Group, on occasion of conferral of degree of Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa, Carleton University, Ottawa, 13 November 2005

This is a great occasion for you – the graduating students, your parents and all those who have supported you – and I am delighted to have the honour and privilege of not only congratulating you on your achievement, but sharing the occasion with you. Although that Latin tag in the title makes it perfectly clear that I haven’t earned my degree in the way you have yours, I am very deeply grateful to the Senate of Carleton University for deciding to confer it upon me. Given the renown of this university for its research and teaching in international affairs – not least of course with the superb Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, so ably directed by Professor Fen Hampson and celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year - and given also some of the exalted doctoral company I will now be keeping, including Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan, it really does give me immeasurable pleasure to be wearing these splendid robes before you today.

Now whether having to listen to me for the next ten minutes or so is going to give you immeasurable pleasure, or even as much pleasure as you would get from ten minutes over the bar at Oliver’s – remains to be seen. But what I am sure about is that even if you feel that way you will be much too polite to express it. A much travelled colleague of mine now at the University of British Columbia swears – and I have no reason from my own experience to doubt him - that Canadians are the politest people in the world. He documents this, in the finest social science traditions of the Arts and Science Faculty from which you are graduating today, by recording that when Canadians are extracting cash from automated bank machines at least every second one of them at the end of the transaction can be heard to say ‘thank you’.

Of course it pains me as an Australian to acknowledge that Canadians could ever be better than us at anything, whether it’s domestic social behaviour or good international citizenship of the kind I used to try to get us to practice when I was Australia’s Foreign Minister. I certainly didn’t concede any of that ground to Joe Clark and Barbara McDougall and Lloyd Axworthy during all the years I sparred with them. But maybe that was because during those years Australia was scoring a few goals of its own. Not as many as the Ottawa Senators, true, but a few nonetheless: the peace plan for Cambodia, the foundation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the initiation of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, to name just some of them.

But I have to concede, without getting too political about it, that in recent years, under its current management, Australia has been looking much more inward than outward, and that among the world’s middle powers it has been Canada rather than us that has been exercising the real leadership on issues like land mines, nuclear disarmament and human security issues generally.

In particular it has been Canada that has taken the lead in wrestling with one of the great international moral issues of our time: how to ensure that we respond effectively to the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing and other atrocity crimes, ensuring that there will never again be Rwandas and Srebrenicas to sear and shock our consciences; never again the orgies of hate-fed killing and maiming that destroyed the lives and futures of so many hundreds of thousands in the 1990s; and never again any leader, military or civilian, obliged to endure, in the way your own wonderful General Romeo Dallaire had to, the agony of impotence in the face of evil.

It was Canada that responded to the challenge thrown out to the international community by Kofi Annan at the UN General Assembly in 1999, and again in 2000, to once and for all find consensus on the tension between the demands of humanity and the claims of state sovereignty that were so deeply dividing it. It did so in a very Canadian way, by establishing an international panel of experts, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which I was asked to co-chair along with my distinguished Algerian colleague Mohamed Sahnoun, and which published its report, The Responsibility to Protect, at the end of 2001.

And it followed up that report in an even more familiar Canadian way, with an intensive and sustained international diplomatic and political campaign, which resulted in the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept being unanimously endorsed this September in the UN 60th Anniversary World Summit – one of the very few achievements, in fact, of that extraordinary gathering, the biggest ever held, of all the worlds leaders.

The core idea here is a very simple one, so simple that one wonders why no-one had ever put it this way before, but that’s often the case in human affairs – and something that gives all of us hope that, however limited we think our capacity for innovation or technical expertise might be, it is possible to make a difference in the way the world works. The idea is simply to look at the issue of humanitarian intervention in terms not of the ‘right to intervene’ of any country in the affairs of another, which had been the unproductive currency of all the earlier debate, but rather everyone’s ‘responsibility to protect’ men, women and children against genocide and other such man-made horrors. The responsibility to protect its own citizens begins with each sovereign country itself, but if it abdicates that responsibility – through either ill-will or incapacity – the responsibility to protect then shifts to the wider international community, and it extends in extreme cases to the responsibility to react with military force to avert catastrophe.

It is a fascinating exercise in intellectual history to trace the evolution of this idea, over little more than five years, from just a gleam in the eye of a group of rather idealistic commissioners, through a whole series of conferences and commentaries and panels and regional commitments, to the point where it can now be regarded as an emergent international norm, and on its way toward becoming an accepted principle of international law. We have won just about universal acceptance now for the principle that was just a dream when Kofi Annan first uttered it: “state frontiers… should no longer be seen as a watertight protection for war criminals or mass murderers.”

In all of this I feel particularly privileged to have been able to play a personal role, enabling me to make a contribution on issues about which I first became really passionate and committed during my own university days in Melbourne in the 1960s, and which have motivated me ever since: a hatred of injustice in all its forms, and in particular racial injustice; a horror of war and deadly conflict, and its unending capacity to generate death, destruction and human misery; a sustaining belief in the power of ideas to make a difference; and a sustaining belief in the power of individuals to make a difference.

This is a set of obsessions that sustained me through all my years in politics and government, and it’s a set of obsessions that continues to this day with the work I am doing at the International Crisis Group, an extraordinary and unique organization now working in some fifty crisis areas across four continents, with high-level advocacy offices in the world’s major capitals - using all the contacts and applying all the strategies I learned as Foreign Minister – to prevent and contain deadly conflict. The thing about prevention, of course - in Burundi or Somalia or Kosovo or the Caucasus or Central Asia or anywhere else - is that if you succeed nothing happens, and nobody notices. That doesn’t appeal much to practicing politicians: asking a Minister or MP to do something useful for which he or she is almost bound not to get any recognition is like trying to bath a dog. But it’s a great job for political has-beens like me, who have already had our 15 minutes of fame and don’t want or need any more!

The great thing about conflict prevention is that if you learn and apply the right lessons it does actually work. There are a few things that we know now much better than we did before:

The first is that the very best way to prevent wars is not to actually start them – a message the U.S. is certainly now pondering after its rush to war in Iraq.

The second is that the next-best way to prevent wars is to engage actively in effective post-conflict peace-building, since we now all acknowledge that best single indicator of future conflict is past conflict. Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Haiti are all stark examples within recent memory of peace accords not being properly followed through, with catastrophic consequences.

The third is that the hard, grueling grind of conflict prevention and resolution efforts – week in, week out, using the whole toolbox of measures from diplomacy to development to the deployment of peacekeepers – really does work. Another Canadian initiative, the Human Security Report just published by UBC’s Liu Centre, has shown us – counter-intuitive though this may seem – that the number of conflicts and violent deaths worldwide has in fact dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, and this has been due more than anything else to UN-led efforts in preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

In all of this, and in all the international advocacy in which I have been immersed in and out of government, I have learned never for one moment to underestimate or lose sight of the power of ideas to change policy. It is ideas that universities are particularly good at generating, and it is in the power of ideas to change the world that universities must continue to believe. Yes, ideas have to be operationalised, made relevant to the real world, turned into programs and strategies, and campaigned and lobbied for, if behaviour is to change. But they do have the power to change the way decision makers think about and respond to issues. Think about the huge significance of the idea of “sustainable development”, invented by the Brundtland Commission, in setting the agenda for a whole new constructive international and domestic debate on environmental issues. And think now about the power of the idea of the ‘responsibility to protect’ as a whole new norm of international behaviour.

As much as ideas, however, it is individuals that make a difference, and this is the theme on which I want to finish, because it so directly and immediately matters for those of you graduating here this morning. Of course individual leaders make an enormous difference: think of how much has depended on whether states at critical periods in their history have been dealt by the fates a Mandela or a Milosevic or Mugabe, a Rabin or a Sharon, an Ataturk or an Arafat. At a less dramatic level, whether a Prime Minister or President gets on the phone or to his colleagues – as Paul Martin did for the World Summit on the responsibility to protect issue, but practically nobody else did on any of the other great issues – can make an enormous difference in determining the success or failure of international reform initiatives. And how, within countries like yours or mine, ordinary democratically elected political victors choose to play their cards on enormously sensitive social issues, like race and immigration, can affect the whole fabric of a country, and how it stands and appears in the world.

But it’s not just leaders who can make a difference to the way our societies and the wider world works. Passionate and caring individuals in all walks of life, who choose to direct even just part of their energies to working for public goods, can make an impact. I have seen it every day of my working life as young lawyers take a couple of years off to work as investigators or prosecutors or defenders in East Timor; as young arts graduates go off to wrestle with the problems of Aboriginal settlements in the outback; as young historians or social scientists or language graduates – and maybe music students, whether inspired or not by the thought of a gig with Bono or Bob Geldof – go off to help non-government organizations build stronger civil society institutions, in war-wracked or authoritarian or poverty-stricken countries. To do these things is a wonderful way not only of helping others, but of giving substance and satisfaction to your own professional and personal lives.

My final plea - now that you’re thinking, as you all are, about your life beyond this great university - is that you do think very seriously about a career in public policy and public service (whether in government or non-government organizations), even in fact in politics (though I’d give a lot of thought to that one) as an alternative to a headlong plunge into business or professional life. If you do care passionately about some of the things I have been talking about, or other great policy issues like the environment, it can be fantastically rewarding to spend your whole life, not just a marginal part of your life, wrestling with them.

It’s a life bound to be full of frustrations and disappointments, and reverses and dips and u-turns: you practically never achieve as much as you’d like to. But it’s fantastic when something, just occasionally, goes more or less right, and you feel that you really have made a difference. You’re never going to make a huge amount of money doing this kind of thing, but you’ll be immensely well rewarded in other ways. When you’re looking wistfully at all those annual rich lists in the glossy magazines – and thinking what it might be like to be a billionaire or a squillionaire – it’s worth giving just a little time to the thought that the personal satisfaction rich list is not a bad one to be on.