Gareth Evans

In a series of public talks over the next ten days, the distinguished Australian politician and university chancellor Gareth Evans will look at some of the most pressing issues that face us in avoiding the horrors of war between and within states.

Evans will insist that disarmament is achievable: nuclear weapons cannot be ‘uninvented’, but they can be outlawed, as chemical and biological weapons have been.

Gareth Evans describes himself as “a glass half-full kind of person” while acknowledging that anyone optimistic about anything in international affairs “runs the risk of being branded ignorant, incorrigibly naïve or outright demented”.  His snapshot of himself might come as surprise given Evans’s career of more than 25 years in grappling with some of the world’s most intractable problems of war in all its terrible guises – from cross-border conflicts in the Gulf to the horrific internal strife that has beset Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia and many African states.

Born just before the end of the Second World War, Evans was educated at Melbourne University (where he studied Law) and Magdalen College, Oxford (PPE). After a career in law, he entered Australian politics, and was a long-serving Cabinet Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments, including as foreign minister from 1988-1996. He followed that with nearly a decade as president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, and he is now chancellor of the Australian National University.

Currently in Cambridge as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Statecraft and Diplomacy, and a visiting scholar at Pembroke College, Evans will be giving three public lectures that will tackle profound questions about human behaviour. Recognising our innate capacity for violence (and just how quickly combative situations can escalate), he will examine the major challenges facing the international community in brokering peace and protecting the vulnerable.  Overall, his message will be one of optimism, albeit balanced by some powerful caveats.

Peace does not make news; war does.  In his first lecture (‘Ending Deadly Conflict: A Naïve Dream?’ on Wednesday, 8 May), Evans will set the scene by taking the long view, both of how we operate as individuals and as states. He will show how, despite the headlines that assail us, the last 15 years have seen a substantial decline in the number of major conflicts both between and within states, in the number of genocides and other mass atrocities, and the number of people killed.

Evans puts this drop in major conflict down to improvements in diplomatic peace-making, peace-keeping and peace-building that goes on behind the scenes – but rarely makes the news – and the gradual emergence of an effective system of international criminal law, notably the establishment of  new international courts and tribunals delivering an increasingly  plain message to warlords and warmongers that they will be taken to task for their actions.

He also believes that on a deeper level there has been a disappearance of what the French call bellicisme, the ideology seeing virtue and nobility in war.  Here he is in tune with the American psychologist Steven Pinker who, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, writes that norms in influential groups have shifted to the view that war is inherently immoral and that at least interstate war may go the way of “customs such as slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disembowling, bear-baiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning….”.

An associated development has been the emergence of a strong taboo on the use of nuclear weapons that no civilised state would consider breaking – though recent research suggests disturbingly that this taboo is not felt as strongly as previously thought by the US public.

In his second talk (‘Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes: A Hopeless Dream?’ on Friday, 10 May), Evans will discuss the hugely tricky problem of how the world should respond to mass atrocity crimes committed within state borders – and the failure for many years of the international community to honour its vow of never letting the horrific killings carried out in, for example, Bosnia, Darfur and Sri Lanka happen ever again. He describes the evolution of the new norm of “the responsibility to protect”, initiated in an international commission he co-chaired in 2001, and endorsed by 150 heads of state and government attending the 2005 World Summit on the occasion of the 60th birthday of the UN, which has been largely successful in building bridges between North and South in a way that “the right to intervene” rallying cry of the 1990s could not.

But fine words are one thing and implementation something else, as Evans admits. Military intervention – how and when to apply coercive force – is always a contentious issue, now being hotly debated again in the context of Syria. The Security Council has been largely paralysed, not least because of differences that have emerged over the implementation by NATO-led forces of the “responsibility to protect” mandate they were given in Libya: seen by their critics as focusing on regime change rather than civilian protection, rejecting genuine ceasefire offers, striking fleeing personnel who posed no risk, hitting locations with no military significance, and selectively ignoring an arms embargo to support the rebel side. Evans argues that it is crucially necessary to re-establish broad Security Council consensus on how the hardest atrocity-crime cases should be tackled, and he will suggest how this might be achieved.

In his final talk, Evans will concentrate on nuclear disarmament (‘Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: An Impossible Dream?’ on Monday, 13 May). The big picture is chilling: nine nuclear-armed states share the current global nuclear weapons stockpile of just under 18,000 weapons with a combined destructive capacity of almost 120,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.  But, as Evans notes, a topic that in earlier decades mobilised thousands of activities to demand disarmament  now barely resonates with the public or with policy makers apart from an occasional flurry of activity about what North Korea  or Iran might be planning.  He will argue that complacency is indefensible: so long as any state retains nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any weapons are retained by anyone they are bound one day to be used, by accident if not design; and that any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.

Optimistic to the last, Evans will insist that disarmament is achievable: of course nuclear weapons cannot be ‘uninvented’, but they can be outlawed, as chemical and biological weapons have been. What is necessary is leadership – top down from key heads of government, bottom up from civil society actors, and from peer group international pressure; and recognition that in the world of the 21st century international cooperation, rather than confrontation, is the only rational course.

All three of Gareth Evans’s talks will take place at the Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, Cambridge, 5-6.30pm. Open to all, no need to book. A symposium 'The Future of Deadly Conflict: Is Optimism Defensible?' will be held on Tuesday 14 May at the Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge. To register for the symposium and for all details about the lecture series go to

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