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Gareth Evans on global indifference

by Vincent Ciccarello

Gareth Evans QCGareth Evans QC, president of the International Crisis Group, last month delivered the Anti-defamation Commission Gandel Oration at UniSA’s Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre.

Atrocity Crimes: Overcoming Global Indifference, examined the obstacles to international intervention in humanitarian crises, suggested ways to overcome them, and urged governments into action.

"While we have made progress over the last decade or so, we certainly still cannot be confident that the world will respond quickly, effectively and appropriately to new human rights catastrophes as they arise," Evans said.

"Overcoming global indifference means addressing four big recurring problems: the problem of perception; the problem of responsibility; the problem of capacity and, as always, the problem of political will."

Citing the deteriorating situation in Darfur, Evans said competing priorities and preoccupations – "seen by governments as more immediately involving national interests" – are currently at the core of the general problem of indifference.

"But it is simply not acceptable for governments to look away, claiming more pressing engagements, when crimes against humanity are being committed or are manifestly about to be committed."

He said that while the first problem to confront in overcoming global indifference "is to ensure that policy makers know that there is a problem out there", it is more important "to establish a perception, in the minds of policy makers and those who influence them, of the seriousness of what is occurring".

The increasing tendency to label situations as "genocide" had too often resulted in "endless legal argument" about whether or not some humanitarian crimes met the strict definition of genocide.

"The real issue is the need to act to protect people when atrocity crimes of any kind are being committed, or are about to be committed, and to hold the perpetrators to effective account," Evans said. "We should all just use the generic expression ‘atrocity crimes’."

He suggested the "habits of non-intervention" on the grounds of sovereignty are changing as a result of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and added that despite their shortcomings, the UN and other international institutions had delivered "some remarkable results over the last decade or so".

In closing, the former Federal Attorney-General and Foreign Minister emphasised the crucial role of "national political will" in dealing with international conflict, human rights and humanitarian issues.

"It remains my fervent wish that Australia plays such a role again, consistently, credibly and constructively on the international stage," he said.

The Hawke Centre presents numerous perspectives on national and international affairs from leading experts for the community’s benefit. The 2006 event program and past address transcripts are available at www.hawkecentre.unisa.edu.au