International Citizenship: Gareth Evans

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Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC has been Chancellor of the Australian National University since January 2010, and is President Emeritus of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the independent global conflict prevention and resolution organization which he led from 2000 to 2009. He previously spent 21 years in Australian politics, thirteen of them as a Cabinet Minister. As Foreign Minister (1988-96) he was best known internationally for his roles in developing the UN peace plan for Cambodia, concluding the Chemical Weapons Convention, and initiating new Asia Pacific regional economic and security architecture. 

Professor Evans is one of the thought leaders participating in Ideapod’s launch, promoting the “big idea” of International Citizenship. Sign up for the waiting list at to share ideas with Professor Evans.

Over your long and distinguished career as Australian foreign minister, head of the International Crisis Group, and initiator, member or chair of a number of international commissions and panels, you have been a leading advocate of the need for effective multilateral action to deal with some of the major challenges to security. Nowhere is this more strikingly illustrated than in your advocacy of nuclear disarmament and the “responsibility to protect”. If we begin with the nuclear weapons issue, what is your assessment of the current situation?

Of all the international policy issues with which I have been involved over the last twenty-five years none has tested my optimism more than nuclear disarmament. An issue that in earlier decades mobilized hundreds of thousands of activists around the world, and on which every political leader and senior policymaker had to have some kind of an opinion, now barely resonates at all with policymakers or publics, except for the periodic occasional flurry of anxiety as to what a North Korea or Iran might be up to. Progress on disarmament has been, as a result, glacial.

Part of the reason for this seems to be complacency: the perception that in the post Cold War world nuclear stockpiles are not the threat they may once have been. Another part of the explanation appears to be an ingrained fatalism: the perception that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented and are therefore always going to be with us. But perhaps the most important part of the explanation is the tenacious perception in many quarters that disarmament is actually undesirable – because nuclear deterrence works.

All these positions can and should be contested. I am enough of an optimist to believe that given sufficient pressure and effective leadership significant movement can occur.

What grounds are there for thinking that progress may be possible in the foreseeable future?

Despite recent lack of progress, we do see a few encouraging signs. The mindset is changing, however slowly. Deterrence realists are on the back foot and policy makers are increasingly on the defensive. The Obama Administration remains intent on persuading Congress to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and in his recent Berlin speech Obama, while avoiding the thorny questions of ballistic missile defense and US conventional superiority, nevertheless undertook to work towards a reduction in US deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third and to seek negotiated cuts with Russia. At the same time greater prominence is being given to the need to make a ‘sole purpose’ declaration integral to nuclear doctrine. We are also seeing growing peer pressure, for example a number of like minded countries are drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons (an issue that I have taken up with the Australian government and to which they are sympathetically disposed), and a cross-regional grouping of ten countries, initiated by Australia and Japan, has been meeting at foreign minister level – as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI).

What do you see as key to any progress on the elimination of nuclear weapons?

Progress will to a large extent depend on how effectively we can articulate five crucial messages. These are: that nuclear weapons are morally and environmentally indefensible; that as long as any state retains any nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used; that as long as any state retains nuclear weapons others will want them, so multiplying the prospects of such use; that nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious, and at worst zero, utility in maintaining peace; and that nuclear disarmament is actually achievable.

It is the case that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, but they can be outlawed. For this to happen we need to map a credible path to zero. With this in mind, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired, argued in its 2009 report for a 2025 ‘minimization’ target – reducing the world’s stockpile by then to around 2,000 weapons (no more than 500 each for the U.S. and Russia, and no more than 1,000 for all the other nuclear-armed states combined). Steps were also advocated to ensure that by then very few of those weapons were actually physically deployed, that none of them were on dangerously high alert launch status, and that in terms of nuclear doctrine, every nuclear-armed state was credibly committed to no-first-use.

Crucial here is the need to capture the imagination of publics around the world to generate bottom-up pressure on governments, and so engage their attention and commitment. Equally important is the power of good ideas, supported by the power of evidence-based argument in putting to the test bad and outmoded ideas. The good ideas here are that a nuclear weapons free world is both overwhelmingly desirable, and achievable. And the bad idea is that nuclear deterrence is a force for peace and stability in the world of today.

Can we now turn to the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P as it is widely known. You are rightly credited with playing a key role in developing the concept and in securing its acceptance by the international community. Clearly, a great deal has been achieved in the short period since the release of the report in 2001 by the Canadian-sponsored Commission which you co-chaired. But this new norm in international relations appears to have run into some difficulty with events in Libya and now Syria. Do you agree?

There is no question that Libya represents an important landmark in R2P’s development. It is worth recalling that in February 2011 the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1970 which impressed on the Gaddafi regime its responsibility to protect its population. Gaddafi’s refusal to comply with that resolution was followed three weeks later with Resolution 1973 (passed by majority vote and no Chinese or Russian veto) which authorized “all necessary measures” by member states to protect civilians under threat of attack. Acting under this authorization, NATO-led forces took immediate military action, and the feared massacres did not eventuate.

But with this success also came what I’ve described as a mid-life crisis. As time went on, the NATO-led intervention came under fierce attack by the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, china and South Africa – for exceeding its UN mandate and pursuing regime change, which eventually led to the overthrow of Gaddafi in October 2011.

As a result of this disagreement the Security Council has been unable to agree on almost anything in response to the alarming situation in Syria, even on coercive measures that fall short of military force. The Syrian crisis, it is true, is quite different in terms of sectarian internal divisions, anxiety about many of the elements that make up the opposition, Russia’s longstanding commitment to the Assad regime and the strength of the Syrian army. But there can be little doubt that recriminations about the implementation of the Libyan mandate have made Security Council consensus on Syria virtually impossible, even in the face now of evidence about regime use of chemical weapons, which takes the horror to a whole new level.

What, then, do you see as the way forward for R2P?

The first thing to say is that R2P as an international norm remains alive and well. Many states are, of course, more comfortable with Pillar One (the responsibility of each state to protect its own population from mass atrocity crimes) and Pillar Two (the responsibility of others to assist it to do so) than they are with Pillar Three which requires the international community to respond in ‘timely and decisive’ fashion if the state in question is ‘manifestly failing’ to protect its people. Yet, it is clear from the annual debates in the General Assembly, including in 2011 and 2012 when disaffection over the Libya mandate was at its height, that the norm is not under challenge. As Ban Ki Moon put it in 2011, ‘our debates are now about how, not whether, to implement R2P’. For all its divisions over Libya and Syria, the Security Council has continued to use explicit ‘R2P’ language in its resolutions on Yemen, South Sudan and Mali.

It is equally clear, however, that when it comes to Pillar Three there are important issues to consider. In implementing Resolution 1973, the P3 (US, UK and France) were contemptuously dismissive of the concerns of the international community: they did not appear to treat at all seriously Libyan overtures for a ceasefire, and they must bear some responsibility for the shooting of fleeing soldiers and the killing of Gaddafi.

The upshot is that if an un-vetoed majority vote is ever going to be secured again for tough action in a hard mass atrocity case, the concerns expressed by the BRICS states, which reflect those of many other developing states, have to be taken seriously. The Brazilian proposal offers a way forward. It calls for the R2P concept to be supplemented – not replaced – by a set of principles and procedures that it labels ‘responsibility while protecting’ (RWP). Specifically, it proposes the adoption of a set of criteria which would need to be fully debated before the Security Council approves any use of military force, and some kind of enhanced monitoring and review process that would enable such mandates to be seriously debated by all Council members during their implementation. Australia, which currently has a seat on the Security Council, might be well placed to initiate debate on this crucial aspect of R2P.

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