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Making Ideas Matter

Convocation Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of the Australian National University, President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, and Former Minister of Australia, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 28 October 2010

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 the ‘Honorary’ tag tells you I haven’t sweated for my degree today the way you have for yours, I am very deeply grateful to the University for deciding to confer it upon me. Given Queen’s renown for its teaching and research, not least in my own area of international affairs - with stellar faculty like Professor Kim Richard Nossal – 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 five minutes or so is going to give you immeasurable pleasure remains to be seen. But what I am sure about is that if you feel underwhelmed you will be much too polite to say so. One of your most distinguished postgraduate alumni, the international relations scholar and senior UN adviser Professor Ramesh Thakur, tells me – and I have no reason from my own experience to doubt him – that Canadians are the politest people in the world, with it being well documented, for example, (or so he claims) that when extracting cash from automated bank machines, at the end of the transaction at least every second one of you says ‘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 or middle power leadership 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 I have to concede that there have been a number of areas within recent memory – land mines, nuclear disarmament, human security issues generally, and the initial promotion of the G20 as a new vehicle for global policymaking prominent among them – where Canada and Canadians have exercised real international middle power leadership in a way that has been a model to us all.

None of us can ensure that policy roles and aspirations of this kind will necessarily be sustained through changes of government. Without wishing to be anything but wholly objective – although as a former long-serving politician and NGO leader before becoming an academic again, you have to allow me the occasional breakout – I think it’s fair to say that after my party lost office in the late ‘90s Australia simply went missing on the international stage for more than a decade… and I understand that in recent times in relation to Canada there have been one or two search parties out.

There is one particular area, on which I want to briefly focus today, where Canada did unquestionably take the lead, in a way that has proved to be very influential, 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 mass atrocity crimes committed within state borders, 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 into the early years of this decade in Darfur and elsewhere; and never again any leader, military or civilian, being 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 by the world’s presidents and prime ministers in 2005 by the UN General Assembly 60th Anniversary World Summit –the biggest  such high-level gathering ever held.

The basic idea, in a nutshell, is that – despite the practice of centuries – state sovereignty is not a license to kill. States retain the primary responsibility to protect their own citizens against genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, but others have a responsibility to assist them, and when a state – through either incapacity or ill-will – fails to give that protection, the wider international community has the responsibility to step in with whatever it takes to resolve the situation. It is not a matter of the ‘right to intervene’ of the big guys, but the ‘responsibility to protect’ of everyone.

We still have some distance to go in bedding down this new international norm, ensuring that it is not only fully understood in principle, but fully implemented in practice. But the speed of embrace for a doctrine of this historical significance has been extraordinary, and it is an achievement of which Canada and Canadians can remain very proud.

There is a larger theme here on which I want to conclude. 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 both of the power of ideas – something that universities are very good at generating – to change the world. And I have learned never to underestimate  the huge difference that passionate and caring individuals in all walks of life can make when they choose to direct even just part of their energies to working to make those ideas real.

Now that you’re thinking, as you all are, about your life beyond this great university – my plea 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.

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 in life that really matter.