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Why One of the World's Leading Peace Advocates Threatened to Punch Me in the Face

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.

Gareth Evans, former attorney-general and foreign minister in Australia.
Photo Credit: London School of Economics Library/Wikimedia Commons


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.

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