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A World Free of Fear: In Defence of Optimism

Acceptance Remarks by Gareth Evans, Presentation of Four Freedoms Award for Freedom from Fear, Roosevelt Stichting, Middelburg, Netherlands, 29 May 2010

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Prime Minister Balkenende, Foreign Minister Verhagen, Excellencies, fellow laureates, members of the Roosevelt family, ladies and gentlemen

This is a great occasion, celebrating as it does the lasting contributions to human dignity and our common humanity of two of the greatest humanitarian internationalists who ever lived, and I am delighted, proud and grateful to be part of it.

The experiences of our youth sear us all and often determine the course we take in the rest of our lives. And two such experiences help explain why I am standing here today.

The first was in Cambodia, back in the late 1960s. As I travelled for many months through Asia on my way to study in England, I met and became friends with scores of my contemporaries, a great many of whom I kept in touch with in later life. But in Cambodia, of all those young students with whom I drank beer or ate noodles or shared wild countryside bus rides, I never saw any of them again – or even anyone like them. The reason is harrowingly simple: none of them survived the Khmer Rouge genocide. They were executed outright as middle-class intellectuals, or were worked or starved to death in the fields.

With the concept of “the responsibility to protect” to which I helped give birth I think we have now reached an international consensus – that never again do any of us want to look back at another mass atrocity catastrophe, like Cambodia, or Rwanda, or Bosnia or more recently Darfur or Sri Lanka, and have to ask ourselves, with a mixture of anger, incomprehension and shame, how could we have let this happen again.

But getting the UN to agree on broad principles is of course only a starting point. As such terrible cases arise in the future, as they surely will, we will have a huge job to fully implement the responsibility to protect in practice, with effective civil and military preparation, prevention and reaction. But do this we must, for – as both Roosevelts would have insisted – our common humanity demands no less.

My other really formative experience as a young man was visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the early 1960s, in my first ever trip outside Australia. I have felt passionately ever since about our common responsibility to ensure that the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented should never again be used on our fellow human beings. When Franklin Roosevelt defined “freedom from fear” in 1941, he focused squarely on global disarmament as the central issue, and we can be sure he would have made the point even more strongly had he known then what the nuclear weapons age would bring.

In recent times I have been trying to give that commitment substance as co-chair of the Australia and Japan-sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. This Commission’s report, published last December, sets out a very practical agenda for global policymakers for the years and decades ahead – starting right now, in 2010, which is going to be a make-or-break watershed year for the whole nuclear project, but one about which I now think we can be a little more optimistic following the successful conclusion of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York yesterday.

Or course for many vulnerable populations around the world the most immediate fear is not so much nuclear holocaust or genocide, but the horror of war and civil war more generally.

Here, again, I think we can be just a tiny bit optimistic, and I say this after years of intense work in various capacities on general conflict prevention and resolution. The good news, counter-intuitive as it may seem, is that for all the many things that continue to go wrong – not least in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East – there are many things now going right.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has in fact been close to an 80 per cent decline in the number of wars, and number of people dying violent deaths in such wars. And that is attributable, more than anything else, to the huge upsurge of commitment – through the UN and elsewhere – to conflict prevention, to negotiated conflict resolution, to transitional peacekeeping, and to effective post-conflict peacebuilding to ensure that the whole weary and ugly cycle of violence does not repeat itself.

To be an optimist about anything in international affairs is to run a strong risk of being branded ignorant, incorrigibly naïve or outright demented. But I am an optimist about our capacity to learn something from the past and not repeat its most awful mistakes in all the areas I have mentioned.

It is crucial in this respect that the world, and particularly the younger generation, have examples before it of people and institutions who remained optimists, naïve or otherwise, and have made a real difference. Very few of us – and I certainly would not pretend to put myself in their company – can claim to have achieved even a fraction of what Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt did to rid the world of fear and want. But I feel immeasurably proud to be linked with their names, and to those of my fellow awardees over the years, as one who has, at least, tried hard to implement their magnificent vision.

Thank you for this great honour.

Following is the Citation delivered by Netherlands Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, Presentation to Gareth Evans of Four Freedoms Award for Freedom from Fear, Roosevelt Stichting, Middelburg, Netherlands, 29 May 2010

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

When President Roosevelt described the Four Freedoms in January, 1941, he sought a world where disarmament was the priority of governments, and prevention of war was the responsibility of every person – everywhere in the world.

On this, the 29th day of May, 2010, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to international governance to assure peace and social justice, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Fear Medal is awarded to Gareth Evans, who has won for both Australia and himself the respect and gratitude of the family of nations for his commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Having graduated with a first-class honors degree in Law from the University of Melbourne, and receiving an advanced degree from Oxford, you returned to Melbourne to teach and practice law, but you also had a strong interest in politics, and in 1977 won a seat in the Australian Senate as a member of the Labor party. You remained in Parliament for the next 21 years – as a Senator, a member of the House of Representatives, and as a cabinet minister serving as Attorney General, Minister for Resources and Energy, Minister for Transport and Communication and, finally, as one of the longest serving Foreign Ministers in your country’s history.

In those crucial years – 1988 to 1996 – your service as Foreign Minister won international acclaim for leadership in the development of the United Nations Peace Plan for Cambodia, a nation forever scarred by its Killing Fields. The Chemical Weapons Convention is also a significant international agreement that bears the hallmark of your considerable work.

In 1999, you left Parliament but your career as a statesman had just begun. You were appointed Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Inspired by the tragedies of Cambodia, Rwanda and Srebrenica, the Commission grappled with the complex question of when the international community has a right to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation to prevent genocide and other atrocities. In a world dominated by nation-states, this question has perplexed statesmen for generations. Thanks to your guiding hand and leadership, the Commission came up with a simple yet novel solution – The Responsibility to Protect. Rather than focus on the question of whether a given state has the right to intervene, you argued for the principle that it is the responsibility of all states to protect their own people. Therefore, the primary responsibility to prevent genocide rests with every state, and failure to do so would trigger action by the international community – the obligation to intervene.

The Right to Protect was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. It establishes the principle that state sovereignty implies responsibility, responsibility not to kill, but to protect, and that failure to meet that responsibility will have international consequences. This achievement is a landmark in human history. The Netherlands has strongly supported the concept of Responsibility to Protect, working with you and others to turn it into a reality for the world’s citizens.

Your public service continued as President of the International Crisis Group in Brussels, working to prevent and resolve deadly conflict between nations. And today, you are deeply involved in the world’s most critical challenge – nuclear non-proliferation – which is being confronted in both the United Nations and in negotiations with North Korea and Iran in the months ahead. Your leadership is acknowledged by your appointment as Co-Chair of the International Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission. The Netherlands, too, supports a world free of nuclear weapons, and we will do our utmost to work towards this noble objective, including by assisting you in your important task.

In January of this year, you were appointed Chancellor of the Australian National University. Your life, your extraordinary service to the ideals of democracy and the United Nations have won the admiration and appreciation of all those who share Franklin D. Roosevelt’s commitment to the Four Freedoms. In his name we make this award and honor you this day.

Thank you.