Statement by Gareth Evans, Eminent Persons Group for World Conference against Racism (2001)
Statement by Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, President, International Crisis Group, Brusssels, and former Foreign Minister of Australia, at Eminent Persons Group Roundtable, World Conference Against Racism Preparatory Committee Meeting, Geneva, 3 August 2001
I come to this table wearing two hats – one as an Australian, and the other as head of an international NGO, the International Crisis Group, dedicated to conflict prevention and containment. From both these perspectives, there’s nothing I want to see more than consensus from this Conference – with clear and unmixed messages, a clear program of action, and a new kind of pressure being able to placed on governments, and political and ethnic leaders, as a result.
As an Australian, the theme of the Conference that resonates most immediately and emotionally for me is that of acknowledging the past – coming to terms with the wounds of history, and finding ways to bind those wounds.
Aboriginal Australians have many wounds to bind. They have suffered successively, over the two centuries since white settlers arrived, annihilation, dispossession, forced assimilation, prejudice and humiliation .
They have had many, many wrongs done to them by those generations of later-arriving Australians who stole their land, tore apart their culture, denied them acknowledgment as citizens, stole their children, and humiliated and distressed them in ways that non-Aboriginal Australians are even now only just beginning to understand.
There’s not a lot that can be done to make up for all of that, but there are some things. Three in particular:
First, we can make sure that racist policy and behaviour doesn’t continue. I’m more confident about that in Australia than I am about some other things. Formal, institutional, legislative, discrimination has long disappeared; and behavioural discrimination and prejudice is far less widespread, far less visible and far less socially tolerated than it used to be. We can’t be complacent, it’s critical that political leaders give the right leadership, and that education programs continue of the kind I hope this conference will endorse, but the future looks much brighter than the past.
Part of the reason is that Australia overall is becoming so comprehensively a multi-cultural society. To give you some sense of the scale of this – my electorate in the Australian Parliament, not a particularly unusual one for a suburban industrial area, had 130,000 people: of whom just on three-quarters had been born outside Australia, or born of one or more immigrant parents, and who came from 120 different countries . They were Asians and Africans and Europeans and Latin Americans of every conceivable race and colour, they mixed together completely in the workplace and gmarketplace and swimming pools and schools, and they were a totally harmonious community. I used to say over and again, I’ve seen the future of my country, and maybe the world, in this electorate of mine – and let me tell you the future works.
Second, we can do at least a little to repair and compensate for the material damage of the past.
We have been trying to do that in Australia with legislation, 200 years overdue, to formally recognise and make provision for the enjoyment of Aboriginal land rights - and the passage through the Parliament in 1993 of that Native Title Act, of which I had the carriage, was unquestionably the proudest moment of my twenty-year political life.
But we haven’t been doing at all well since on the nuts and bolt of land rights delivery, and we haven’t done anything at all on monetary compensation for those who were victims of the appallingly misguided and destructive assimilation policy of removing mixed-blood Aboriginal children from their families in the bush to give them foster-homes with white families in the cities. And thirdly, we can certainly do something to compensate for the psychological and emotional damage of the past.
It’s rather a small thing – just to say “sorry”, simply, sincerely and officially. Unhappily it’s a small word beyond the capacity of the present leader of my country to say – despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Australian want him to say it , with 200 000 people marching across Sydney Harbour Bridge not so long ago just to ram the point home.
He won’t say sorry in any formal way, on behalf of the nation, because today’s Australians cannot be blamed for the sins of past generations. He won’t say sorry on behalf of government officials doing what was lawful then but unlawful now, because it wasn’t unlawful then. He won’t say sorry now because that might be taken by some court somewhere as an admission that would expose the government to financial liability. He won’t say sorry because the real priority in Aboriginal affairs should be to get on with building a better future, not agonizing endlessly about what might have gone wrong in the past.
With a capacity like that to so comprehensively miss the point, maybe the passage of a resolution by a huge world conference urging that the wounds of the past be bound, won’t move him either. But I think it just might. There’s only so long that even the most dogged can stand outside the mainstream of ideas of their time, and the idea of apology to the racial victims of the past – and the reconciliation process that goes with it – is absolutely an idea of the present.
Major UN conferences over the last 30 years (starting with the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972) have become the primary means of encapsulating, shaping and giving coherence and momentum to those ideas – and I hope and believe that the voice of Durban will be heard even in Canberra.
There are many other places around the world where the voice of Durban needs to be heard, and I work in a fair number of them wearing my hat as President and Chief Executive of the International Crisis Group.
We’re an organisation now of around 60 people, funded by foundations and governments and generous individuals, which works flat out to stop political and social disputes and crises sliding or escalating or returning to deadly conflict. And over and again we find racism, and racial discrimination and xenophobia and other forms of intolerance at the heart of the crises and conflicts with which we are wrestling.
We have field-based projects in nineteen separate crisis-afflicted countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, and in all but five of them inter-ethnic hostility or ethnic minority rights issues in some form or other, is either at the very genesis of the problem, or fuelling it or getting in the way of a solution.
The racial issues get mixed up with lots of other forms of fear and greed and grievance, and there’s no doubt that irresponsible political leaders playing racist and xenophobic cards are far more often to blame for catastrophe than generalised community sentiments and prejudices.
But again, when consensus can be built, and articulated, about the indefensibility and sheer horror of racially motivated violence – when international norms can be clearly stated by conferences like this, making clear that indefensibility and horror, and when effective education programs can draw the teeth of some of those appeals to racial prejudice – it will become just that harder for those racist flames to be stoked, deliberately and overtly, as often as they have been in the past.
There will always be those inclined to obstruct or destroy consensus in order to pursue their own particular passions. That’s always an issue at conferences like this. The only way forward is to constantly remind ourselves, and tell each other, about the magnitude of the issues involved, in so many different ways, and in so many different parts of the world.
With so much at stake, and so much capable of being achieved by coherent, unified, global standard setting, it is irresponsibility of the worst kind to stand in the way of that consensus being achieved.