More sophisticated response needed

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans has some sharp criticisms of the handling of the war on terror in his current role as head of an international crisis resolution organisation

In his previous calling as Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans would have found more diplomatic words to express his disagreement with United States foreign policy, but in his current role as the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group, a multinational think tank that seeks to resolve and prevent conflict, he is not holding back.

'The net result of the war on terror, so far at least, has been more war and more terror', he said last month. 'In Iraq, the least plausible of all the reasons for going to war - terrorism - has now become the most harrowing of its consequences'. In an exclusive interview with Perspective on the first day of his visit to Bangkok, Mr Evans expands on the theme.

'A one-dimensional military response, supplemented by a criminal justice response... only takes you so far,' he says. 'You've got to have a broad ranging, sophisticated agenda of responses which deal with the sources of grievance and the way in which that grievance gets channelled into extreme violent behaviour.'

Mr Evans' brings his insights on defeating terrorism to Thailand at a time when acts of violence by Muslim separatists continue to ravage the South. On Friday, he held wide-ranging discussions with the Prime Minister, Dr Thaksin Shinawatra, and Foreign Minister Dr Surakiart Sathirathai. Mr Evans relationship with both men goes back several years.

As Australian Foreign Minister, Mr Evans worked with Dr Surakiart, then a senior policy advisor to then Prime Minister Maj-Gen Chatichai Choonhaven, on the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia.

Prime Minister Thaksin was Thai Foreign Minister in the mid 1990s when Mr Evans was Australian foreign minister, and was briefly on the board of the International Crisis Group, before he was forced to resign his board position on becoming prime minister.

'I'm extremely interested in the policy positions the Thai government takes. It's fair to say Thailand is emerging as a major regional leader _ it's well and truly emerged from the shadow of Indonesia _ so Thaksin himself is obviously assuming a very prominent and significant place in the order of things, particularly since Mahatir's departure,' says Evans.

The ICG have been keeping an eye on the events in the South from afar, but Mr Evans says the group is not in a position to be giving advice on this situation specifically.'Obviously since these characters have not articulated any kind of agenda, either religious or political, it is difficult to get a fix on what this is all about', he says.

'It's difficult to get a sense of how significant it is, whether it's just some localised exercise and a repetition of things that have happened in the fairly distant past now or whether it's more sinister than that and linked with the emerging concern about new terrorist forms of organisation around the region with a larger political agenda, nobody knows at the moment and it's one of the things I'm going to be interested in trying to find out. But I'm not sure the government knows either at the moment, so it's obviously a rather delicate situation.'

In general, however, Mr Evans has much to say on how the war on terror should be waged. It is crucial, Mr Evans says, that the United States and its allies systematically address the underlying political grievances of the Arab-Islamic world, most obviously the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is also vital, he says, to create the capacity and the will in the governments of nations where terrorism originates, to tackle the problem. 'They have to feel that there is community support, because the worst possible thing when you're trying to deal with a terrorist phenomenon is for people to melt away into the community rather as they seem to have in the South (of Thailand). When the community is hostile to what they see as a disruptive influence, then it's very easy to keep the thing under control... but when people feel a sense of hopelessness... then that's an environment in which terrorists will flourish.'

Those wishing to defeat terrorism, he says, also have to deal with 'the mechanisms that transmit generalised grievance', such as the extremist religious clerics who persuade disaffected young people to commit acts of violence.

The United States has failed to do these things, Mr Evans says, and instead, in the invasion of Iraq, 'has just given a whole new recruitment poster to terrorist organisations.'

Mr Evans says Thailand's involvement in the war on terror, in the form of sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, may have slightly increased the risk of terrorist attacks in the Kingdom, but he says Thailand is not as vulnerable as the Western countries that have figured more prominently in the campaign.

However, he says Thailand should use its influence with the United States-led coalition to push for a different approach. 'I think it is important for Thailand's voice to be heard in favour of a more broad based strategy, so it's not just part of the military response, not just part of the criminal justice response, but that it's also helping to develop a more creative political response.'


On Monday, Mr Evans will give a keynote address to the Asian Institute of Technology on the topic 'conflict resolution and humanitarian intervention in response to genocide' as part of the International Peace Foundation's 'Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace.'

The issue is a topical one, as, in the absence of weapons of mass destruction, supporters of the war in Iraq advance humanitarian justifications for invasion. In his speech, Mr Evans draws on his experience as co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to set out six guidelines for when military action is appropriate.

He will argue that the international community must make 'a serious effort to enforce the international rules we have, and to supplement them with further principled guidelines and criteria'. The alternative, he says, is 'to abandon the field to those who are more comfortable with the ad hoc exercise of power'.

'We will not be well-served if wars of naked territory-expanding aggression become a thing of the past - only to be replaced in the future by wars fought for almost as self-serving reasons but sought to be justified by an ever-widening interpretation of what is embraced by self-defence or 'threats to international peace and security'.

' Asia, like the rest of the world, may soon have to face up to the dilemma of sovereignty versus intervention, he says, citing mass starvation in North Korea and repression in Burma as possible scenarios which may necessitate military action for humanitarian purposes.

When asked whether he supports the Burmese government's road map to democracy, Mr Evans is non-committal. '(I) support anything which would break out of the present almost complete impasse but I'm profoundly sceptical as to whether it's going to go anywhere fast', he says.

'The proof of all this will be in actual performance, not in desultory announcements of good intentions. There have been too many such announcements in the past which have proved to be manifestly empty.'

The regime's demonstrated capacity to survive in isolation means Western sanctions are largely ineffective, he says, so it is up to the country's regional neighbours to apply pressure on the military junta to make a transition towards democracy.

'It's the trade and the investment and the political acceptability in the neighbourhood that is the thing that the regime leaders most want, and if that acceptability is able to be bought at too cheap a price as it rather has been until now, there is simply no pressure on them to change.'

According to Mr Evans, Asean nations should take advantage of Burma's chairing of Asean in 2006, to put the heat on the country's leadership.

'It's clearly going to be profoundly embarrassing for Asean to be chaired by a country which is an international pariah, and its very much in Asean's interest to get it out of that state... I think the time for backing off is well and truly over _ Asean will have some presentational problems with the rest of the world if it doesn't see major progress on this front by the time Myanmar (Burma) picks up that baton.' DAN HARRISON