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The Other Rich List

Convocation Address by Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, President of the International Crisis Group, on occasion of conferral of degree of Honoray Doctor of Laws, University of Sydney, 24 October 2008

This is a great occasion for you - the graduating students, your parents and friends and all those who have supported you - and I am delighted to have the privilege of not only congratulating you on your achievement, but sharing the occasion with you, although the 'Honorary 'tag before my degree means I obviously haven't earned it by sustained hard work in the way you have yours.

Honorary my degree may be, but honoured I certainly am by being awarded it by this wonderfully prestigious university, not only Australia's oldest but the academic birthplace and home throughout our history of many of this country's most distinguished public intellectuals - including not least my colleagues and friends since our days in national student politics together 40 years ago, Deputy Chancellor Alan Cameron, presiding over this ceremony today, and High Court Justice Michael Kirby, who I suspect might have had something to do with persuading the University Senate to make this rather splendid gesture.

I have to say it is a splendid gesture for a Sydney institution to make an award of this kind to a lifelong Melbournian, given the strain usually involved for Sydneysiders and Melbournians in giving each other even the time of day. I can only promise in return, whenever I'm asked overseas about the difference between the two cities, as I often am, to stop repeating that stale old line old line that Melbourne is for the mind, and Sydney is for the flesh (or, in one of its less elegant variations, that Melbourne is Cate Blanchett and Sydney is Paris Hilton). Clad now in these doctoral robes how could I possibly cast any aspersions on Sydney's taste and discrimination in matters cerebral?

Most of you, now that you have graduated, are probably thinking much less about study and scholarship than the life which lies beyond it. While some of you will have very clear ideas about what you want to ultimately achieve in your personal and professional lives, and have very clear plans about how you want to go about getting there, I suspect that for rather more of you, the future is something you are facing with rather less certainty and rather more trepidation -- not least since the meltdown in the global financial system, and the flow-on effects in the real economy which are just beginning to be calculated. The overall job market looks much less open than it was even just a few weeks ago, and the dream some of you may have had of earning buckets of loot in the higher reaches of the corporate world, and in investment banking in particular, must now look more like a pipedream.

I guess I have just two basic messages to give you in this context. One is that it's the norm, not the exception, at this stage to not really have a clue what you are going to do with the rest of your life and career. Some of it is going to be determined by what you have - or haven't -- so far formally trained for, but a lot more is going to be determined by the twists and turns in your personal experience in the years immediately ahead, and in the sheer luck of the draw - what turns up and when. I came from a working class family who were as delighted as I was that I had had the chance simply to go to University, and I had no particular role models immediately to hand when it came to lawyers or academics or politicians or NGO heads or people working in international organizations. Although I thought at one stage or another when I was studying for my own first Arts degree I might be interested in doing something in one or other of these areas, I didn't really have much idea of which, or, in most cases, even how to begin to go about getting there.

So I simply decided early on to prepare myself with the widest range of formal credentials that I possibly could, focusing on breadth rather than depth; to have as many experiences as I could with as many people from different walks of life as I could; to do whatever job I was doing with as much energy and enthusiasm as I could muster -- and then wait to see what turned up! It doesn't sound like a very brilliantly planned strategy, but somehow it worked out, since I have ended up working in every one of the areas that were on my tentative early wish-list, and have had a pretty fascinating and stimulating time along the way.

My other message is that maybe it's not such a hugely bad thing that getting into one of those annual rich lists that appear in the business papers and the glossy magazines now looks a little harder than it might have not so long ago. There's another rich list out there - not for the squillionaires of this world, but for those rewarded by the sense that what they are doing might actually make a difference for the quality of many more lives than their own.

What I am talking about is the personal satisfaction rich list, on which you'll easily earn yourself a place if you devote your working life, or at least significant chunks of it, to those public policy issues and public service issues about which you care passionately, whether it's the environment, or gender equality or dealing with the misery and waste of poverty or anything else. In my case the issues about which I have cared most intensely, and to which I have devoted most of my working life, are those to which I first became committed during my university days in Melbourne in the 1960s: a hatred of injustice in all its forms, and in particular racial injustice; and a horror of war and deadly conflict, and its unending capacity to generate death, destruction and terrible human misery.

What made all these issues resonate for me, not just as abstractions, but as gut-wrenching emotional motivations, was probably, above all else, my experience travelling in Asia, Africa and the Middle East in the late 1960s, just after graduating from Melbourne - sitting, in effect, where you are now. In a dozen countries, particularly around South and South East Asia, I spent many days and weeks on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process - usually fleetingly, but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day - scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of that generation.

In the years that followed I have kept running into Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis and others who I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them. Not one of those kids with whom I drank beer, ate noodles and careered up and down the dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in share taxis, scattering chickens and pigs and little children in villages all along the way.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later under Pol Pot's murderous genocidal regime - either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state, or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease following forced displacement to labour in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those young men and women -- has haunted me throughout my adult life, and haunts me to this day.

It was what drove me through much of my work as foreign minister in the 1980s and 90s, working on the Cambodian peace process in particular; and it has driven everything I have been trying to do to find global consensus on how to ensure that we never again fail in our responsibility to protect those at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, about which I'll be giving a talk on this campus later today.

The knowledge that we are just not doing, as an international community, what we should be doing about conflict more generally and the risk of catastrophe from weapons of mass destruction, has led me to work, as I am again now, on a number of panels and commissions trying to find ways of ridding the world of nuclear weapons once and for all.

And it has led me, above all, to my work for most of the last decade as head of the International Crisis Group, an extraordinary and unique organization now working in some sixty crisis areas across four continents, with high-level advocacy offices in the world's major capitals, to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. Working on conflict prevention - where if you succeed nothing happens, and nobody notices -- 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!

Devoting your life to this kind of public policy effort has innumerable 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.

And believe me, you don't have to be foreign minister or head of a major international NGO to make a difference in a great many of these areas. 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 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. You're never going to make much money doing this kind of thing, but you'll be immensely well rewarded in all sorts of other ways. When you look back in many years time on your brilliant careers - and how could most of you not have brilliant careers after graduating from this great university! -- I think you'll agree that of all the rich lists it's possible to be on, the one that counts is the personal satisfaction rich list.

I congratulate you again on the achievement you are celebrating today, and wish you every success in ensuring that the future brings you many more of the rewards that really matter.