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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.

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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.


Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus .

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