One of the world’s leading peace advocates threatened to punch me in the face

By Stephen Zunes

Gareth Evans, a former attorney-general and foreign minister in Australia, threatened me because I raised the issue of his support for the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia.

I have rarely ever come face to face – only inches in fact – with such anger. Certainly not at an academic conference. And certainly not from such a prominent figure: chancellor of Australian National University, former attorney-general and foreign minister, former head of the International Crisis Group, and one of the world’s most prominent global thinkers.

Yet here I was with Gareth Evans, cursing at me, ripping my badge off, and threatening to punch me in the face.

What prompted his outburst was my raising the issue of his support for the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia during its savage repression in the occupied island nation of East Timor. Since the March 17 conference at the University of Melbourne – at which I, like Evans, was a plenary speaker – was about the first anniversary of the Arab revolts, the organizers came to his defense by insisting that I had raised an issue that was off-topic. In reality, it was very relevant.

Gareth Evans is perhaps best known internationally as the world’s principal intellectual architect and proponent of the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which calls for Western military intervention in crisis areas to prevent massacres of civilians. He was particularly outspoken in his support for what he referred to as “the overwhelming moral case” for the controversial NATO military intervention in Libya, which went well beyond the original mandate to protect civilians to effectively become the air force of the rebel coalition. Evans has insisted that his advocacy for the intervention was unrelated to oil or to Gaddafi’s traditional hostility to Western interest, but out of purely humanitarian concern.

At the time Evans began advocating for foreign intervention in Libya, less than 300 civilians had been killed by Gaddafi’s forces. However, as foreign minister, Evans supported close security cooperation with the Indonesian military during its brutal occupation of East Timor, in which over 200,000 civilians died. Furthermore, Evans denied, downplayed and covered up for a number of Indonesian atrocities and, during this time in office, was the only foreign minister in the world to formally recognize Indonesian sovereignty over that illegally occupied territory.

Evans’ blatant hypocrisy is now being used by opponents of R2P – including apologists for Gaddafi, Assad, and other tyrants – to back their contention that R2P is not an example of benign liberal internationalism, but simply an excuse for imperialist intervention.

The Incident

During the opening plenary of the conference when both Evans and I were in the audience, I thought it appropriate to ask an Egyptian speaker – who had expressed his disappointment at continued Western support for the military junta in Egypt – about perceptions in his country of Western double-standards. I prefaced my question by noting how the American and British governments were opposing the repressive regime in Syria while supporting the repressive regime in Bahrain, how Washington had called for greater democracy in Egypt while arming its autocratic military rulers, and how the principal advocate for Western intervention against the Libyan regime to stop repression under the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” had, as foreign minister of Australia, supported far greater repression by the Indonesian regime against the East Timorese.

Before I could get to the actual question, Evans shouted out, “Are you referring to me?” I answered, “Yes, actually.” “That’s crap!” he yelled. I began to explain why I thought it was a valid statement when the conference organizer asked me to proceed with my actual question, which I did.

At the end of the session and as the group in the auditorium exited for a coffee break, Evans rushed over to me and launched into his expletive-filled tirade, demanded to know who I was, ripped off my conference badge, threatened to punch me in the face, and insisted that he had in fact never supported Indonesia’s repression.

In order to diffuse a situation in which I felt physically threatened, I said, “If I misrepresented you, I apologize,” and eventually he stormed off.

In an interview about the incident with the Sydney Morning Herald two days later, he blamed me entirely for the incident, and quoting Clive of India, said, “I stand astonished at my own moderation.”

Evans’ Record

Evans claimed my assertion was “as ignorant as it was offensive.” Similarly, he later told the Sydney Morning Herald that my allegation was ”disgustingly defamatory.”

However, the record shows otherwise.

In early 1991, despite reports by Amnesty International and other human rights groups documenting the contrary, Evans had stated that East Timor’s “human rights situation has, in our judgment, conspicuously improved, particularly under the current military arrangements.” When Indonesian forces massacred 430 civilians at a funeral in the capital of Dili nine months later, Evans falsely described the mass killings as simply “an aberration, not an act of state policy.” In the face of international outrage at an Indonesian “investigation” of the tragedy which blamed the massacres on the nonviolent protesters, Evans claimed there was “no case to be supremely critical” of the regime. He insisted that the Indonesian dictatorship had “responded in a reasonable and credible way” and argued that “essentially punitive responses from the international community are not appropriate” (a very different perspective than he would later take toward non-ally Libya).

Evans was also a strong advocate of close Australian security cooperation with the Indonesian dictatorship despite its widespread mass killings of civilians, even though Evans later admitted that “many of our earlier training efforts helped only to produce more professional human rights abusers.” During the period in which Evans was foreign minister, Australia engaged in more military exercises with Indonesia than with any other country.

Perhaps Evans’ most notorious role as foreign minister was in his signing of the Timor Gap Treaty with his Indonesian counterpart in 1989, which gave Australia access to oil and gas reserves in the territorial waters of occupied East Timor. This “historically unique” agreement, in Evans’ words, came despite provisions in international law forbidding the exploitation of natural resources in occupied territories which fail to benefit the country’s inhabitants. Rutgers University professor Roger Clark, one of the world’s foremost authorities on international law, referred to the agreement as “the same as acquiring stuff from a thief. The fact is that they have neither historical, nor legal, nor moral claim to East Timor and its resources.”

In order to sign the treaty, Australia became the only country in the world to formally recognize Indonesia’s illegal annexation of the territory, in direct contravention of basic international legal statutes forbidding the expansion of any country’s territory by force and the legal principle than non-self-governing territories be granted the right of self-determination.

Despite no less than three UN Security Council resolutions demanding East Timor’s right to independence and an eventually successful worldwide campaign to end the occupation, Evans insisted that the Indonesian conquest was “irreversible” and declared “the sovereignty issue as effectively closed.” A few years later, when his Labour Party was in opposition, he worked hard to weaken a proposed plank in the party platform supporting an end of the occupation and the right of the East Timorese for self-determination. When Indonesia eventually conceded to international pressure to live up to its international legal obligations and offer independence to East Timor in 1999, Evans referred to it as “a fit of pique.”

Since East Timor finally became independent, much has come to light regarding the extent of the regime’s genocidal campaign against the people of that island nation, which lost one-third of its population in the course of the Australian-backed occupation. Yet Evans insists to this day 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.”


Rather than come to my defense following Evans’ public outburst and threats against me, the principal organizer of the conference, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, faulted me for provoking Evans, asking “what else could he do?” and prevented me from explaining to the assembly the factual basis of my allegations. Similarly, the brief article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the incident appeared to put most of the blame on me.

Australians, then, appear to be as much in denial of their political leaders’ complicity in war crimes as are my fellow Americans. (Indeed, the U.S. role in supporting Indonesia’s occupation is as sordid as that of Australia.) And they appear to be just as contemptuous of those of us who have the temerity to expose them.

The irony is that I deeply respect much of Evans’ work, particularly those addressing peace and disarmament issues. I was so impressed with his book on the United Nations, I assigned it as a required text in some of my courses in the 1990s. However, his failure to come to terms with his shameful role in East Timor will forever be an albatross around his neck.

Evans certainly is not alone regarding his moral culpability for the horror of the Indonesian occupation. Indeed, quite a number of other prominent Australian political leaders – as well as American political leaders, including Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke – have much to answer for as well. However, none have won such widespread accolades, honors, awards, and recognition as a liberal internationalist and peace advocate as Gareth Evans. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, he could get worked up into such a fit at someone publicly challenging such a positive image.

In many ways, Evans’ attack on me is but an extreme example of the contempt that Western governments and their supporters have for scholars, human rights activists, and others who raise critical questions regarding their support for occupying powers that engage in gross violations of international humanitarian law, be they Indonesia, Morocco or Israel. However, we must never succumb to such intimidation by those who seek to undermine the post-WWII international legal order and deny or justify the slaughter of innocents.

It was the tireless efforts of Australian human rights activists – along with their counterparts in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and elsewhere – who eventually shamed their governments into ending their support for Indonesia’s occupation and helped set East Timor free. However, if we do not also hold our politicians accountable for their collusion in such tragedies, there will be little to stop them from doing so again.

Published by Alternet, April 5, 2012

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