If you missed the announcement late last year, former foreign minister Gareth Evans has been appointed chancellor of arguably the most prestigious and most successful university in the country: the ANU. A steady stream of foreign policy seminars, lectures, awards, receptions, cocktails, cheese and crackers now awaits him.
Since leaving Australian politics Evans has set about making a name for himself among the mainstream foreign affairs glitterati as a deep thinker on international affairs, particularly on conflict resolution and humanitarian interventionism. His earnest reflections on ethics and humanitarianism are now garnering him accolades, including for his latest book: The Responsibility to Protect: Ending mass atrocity crimes once and for all.
Most of Evans’s opportunities since leaving Australia have somehow derived from his former role as Australia’s foreign minister. Unfortunately for Evans, his time in this position was distinguished by a series of disastrous errors of judgment toward East Timor and toward one of the most hideous dictatorships in Asia: Suharto’s New Order in Indonesia.
It’s true that Evans’s latest book sets out some noble concepts, but it strangely avoids going into detail about how his experience of East Timor fits into them. The book does refer to East Timor, but it does not examine Evans’s own East Timor policies during the 1990s. Given its title and topic, why is East Timor not extensively covered? With a former foreign minister’s access to primary sources, you’d think this kind of information would be most useful for a treatise on preventing mass atrocities.
Perhaps it’s missing because Evans is ambivalent about it. As foreign minister, he enjoyed a strong professional relationship with his Indonesian opposite number, Ali Alatas, who once likened East Timor to a pebble in Indonesia’s shoe. It would appear that Evans has an idea how Alatas felt.
What happened in East Timor was proportionally one of the greatest crimes against humanity committed in the 20th century.
With diplomatic and logistical assistance from Australia, the UK and the US, the Indonesian security forces committed ongoing human rights atrocities in East Timor from 1975 until 1999.
For someone making the argument that an ethical dimension to diplomacy and foreign policy might prevent mass atrocities from occurring, the absence of specific detail on East Timor in the 1990s is striking.
Canadian political philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul provides a useful definition of ethics, describing them as "a matter of daily practical concern described glowingly in universal terms by those who intend to ignore them". When it counted, did Evans embrace the ethical notion that he had a responsibility to protect? Let us refer to his record on East Timor so that we may decide for ourselves.
After signing the 1989 Timor Gap treaty with the Indonesians, Evans fawned over Alatas, drinking a toast with him for the cameras as they flew over the territory in question. Despite the fact that Alatas was foreign minister for Suharto, Evans personally nominated him for an Order of Australia. He also allowed himself to muse over the historical nature of the treaty and the enormous wealth it could bring, saying that it would be worth "zillions" of dollars.
Indonesia’s only right to the territory came from military invasion and a brutal occupation, yet the Australian government negotiated with the Indonesians on how to jointly steal the rightful resources of an impoverished and subjugated people. Australia, an extremely wealthy Western nation with natural resources envied by the world, gained the power to commercially exploit East Timorese oil.
As Foreign Minister, Evans dismissed and denigrated the possibilities of Timorese self-determination or freedom from Indonesian military rule. He defended or downplayed accusations of endemic human rights abuses in East Timor by the Indonesian authorities.
Even after the notorious 1991 Dili Massacre, Evans again rejected the notion of endemic human rights abuses. We can only speculate about the evidentiary basis for this extraordinary judgment.
He also heralded the Indonesian investigation into the massacre as a positive development. This investigation downplayed casualties and blamed the massacre on the unarmed crowd of protesters. John Pilger reminds us how "After the massacre, where 450 human beings were killed or wounded, the joint Australian-Indonesian board overseeing implementation of the treaty awarded 11 contracts to Australian oil and gas companies." When he was asked "about the international principle of not recognising and exploiting territory taken by force, Evans said, ‘The world is a pretty unfair place.’"
And when, nearly a year after the massacre, US authorities suspended military training programs with the Indonesians, Evans and DFAT instead implemented an expansive program of Australian-Indonesian military exercises. The question of military cooperation with the very army occupying East Timor has never troubled either Evans or Paul Keating. Despite the documentary evidence and this devastating CAVR report, neither Evans nor Keating have ever expressed true contrition for their policies and personal attitudes.
In May 1994 the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia had passed startling information — gained from an Indonesian special forces officer — about the massacre to the Department of Foreign Affairs. This information was that "Indonesian soldiers and intelligence agents had killed even more civilians around Dili … The [ambassador’s predecessor had] kept this information confidential, in line with the wishes of the Kopassus officer who conveyed it to him, Lieutenant-Colonel Prabowo Subianto." This information was later sent to Evans.
Evans had famously downplayed the massacre as "an aberration, not an act of state policy", but the revelation that information about the extra killings had been sent to him made it hard to justify that statement. He defended his position: while there was some evidence of additional killings, there was no evidence of a second massacre of people wounded in the original massacre. Evans also stated that: "I did not at any time as foreign minister conceal from the Australian public any knowledge I had about the nature of the scale of killings that occurred in or around Dili in November 1991."
So rather than viewing this as a serious occasion for personal or organisational ethical reflection, Evans argued that these additional murders did not in fact constitute additional statistics for the Dili massacre. In Evans’s view, there was no need to count the extra atrocities as part of the Dili massacre because they belonged to a separate and distinct body count. Following this cold line of argument, Evans had not misled anyone about the Dili dead, and his personal honour was unscathed.
Such weasel words in response to a heinous and inexcusable atrocity is troubling, particularly from anyone who dares call their book, "The Responsibility to Protect". Evans has stated that "the notion that we had anything to answer for morally or otherwise over the way we handled the Indonesia-East Timor relationship, I absolutely reject."
The question of what our government knew during the period in which the East Timorese desperately needed protection has been a recurrent one for Evans. While it is not widely publicised, there is plenty of academic literature highlighting the military, technological and intelligence advantages that Australia holds over its nearest neighbours, including surveillance advantages that enable our security agencies to listen in to almost everything occurring in its region as it happens. It is seemingly an open secret in the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) that the Indonesians are easily eavesdropped.
ANU academic Desmond Ball has published a number of articles highlighting this fact, and the Indonesians are certainly well aware of this reality. If Evans was unaware of Indonesian atrocities throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was not because the AIC was ignorant. Did Evans really have no proper briefings with ASIS or other members of the AIC?
The idea of bringing ethics into his practice of foreign affairs paid dividends in the case of Cambodia which Evans outlines extensively in his book. Yet in his ministerial contribution to Indonesia and East Timor, Evans appears to have been able to repeatedly sideline such ethical concerns .
Erasing ethics from the policy equation isn’t necessarily an immoral practice — rather it is better understood as a type of "amorality". Saul defines amorality in this way:
"[It is] a quality admired and rewarded in modern organisations, where it is referred to through metaphors such as professionalism and efficiency. Amorality is corporatist wisdom. It is one of the terms which highlights the confusion in society between what is officially taught as a value and what is actually rewarded by the structure. Immorality is doing something wrong of our own volition. Amorality is doing it because a structure or an organisation expects us to do it. Amorality is thus worse than immorality because it involves denying our responsibility and therefore our existence as anything more than an animal."
Gareth Evans may have been made chancellor at the ANU, but his other achievements cannot erase the past. What’s stopping Evans being taken seriously as an ethical torchbearer for 21st century international relations? It is a pebble — a pebble called East Timor, and it sits uncomfortably inside his expensive shoes wherever he chooses to walk.
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