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GARETH EVANS INTERVIEW - Friday 2nd May, 2008

When Dateline was reporting from Oslo, it caught up with the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. These days, he's the CEO of the European-based International Crisis Group, whose board of political luminaries was meeting in the Norwegian capital. When we sat down to talk, 'garrulous Gareth', as we affectionately used to call him, certainly lived up to that description.

GEORGE NEGUS: Can we start by my quoting to you something from Kofi Annan, the former UN chief. He said, "Where are the Africans," talking about Zimbabwe - "Where are the leaders in the countries in the region. What are they doing?" You could say, in fact, where has the world been, where Zimbabwe's concerned?

GARETH EVANS, PRESIDENT, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: Yeah, but Kofi Annan is spot on on putting the immediate finger on the African leadership and in particular the southern African leadership and in particular Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, which has frankly been a very, very disappointing performance from day one. It's clear that the only kind of pressure that is ever likely to make any impact on Mugabe is peer group pressure from those who he counts as his liberation allies and their voice should have been heard much louder and clearer than it has been.

GEORGE NEGUS: How did you react when he, in fact, said there was no crisis in Zimbabwe? I mean, he talks about 'soft diplomacy'. I mean, it's soft to the point of being marshmallow.

GARETH EVANS: Yeah, this was just grotesque and I think it generated an immediate reaction not only worldwide but also within South Africa itself. It's been a very, very disappointing role. For a long time we kept our voice mute as an organisation, International Crisis Group, because we believed that that kind of regional diplomacy was probably the most productive way forward, in fact, probably the only game in town given Robert Mugabe's indifference to the views of the Western world and his imperviousness to sort of the impact of sanctions or any other kind of rational response.

GEORGE NEGUS: You, in fact, expressed some optimism that the people of Zimbabwe had had a taste of democracy and things would probably work out, but no sign of that. I mean, you actually also said you didn't think we could bludgeon Mugabe out of power.

GARETH EVANS: Well, the people of Zimbabwe have been very intimidated by the security forces, by the environment in which they have been in. And it is very difficult for us from outside to argue that we should be fighting to the last drop of someone else's blood. And I never want us in the West or my organisation…

GEORGE NEGUS: You have mentioned military forces as a last resort.

GARETH EVANS: In other contexts, but I mean, and if it came to really sort of genocidal burst of violence, which is not inconceivable in Zimbabwe - it's remote but it's not inconceivable - then I think the rest of the world does have to look very quickly at some kind of coercive military intervention. But we're not there yet and I think diplomacy, mediation is still the way forward. Giving Mugabe some kind of soft landing - as little as he deserves one - is the way through this. And the opposition has to be listened to, Morgan Tsvangirai and the others, when they look for a solution in those terms.

GEORGE NEGUS: How would you describe Zimbabwe? We know what a failed state is these days. It strikes me that Zimbabwe is a ruined state, almost a non-country. Is it almost the case - such a crisis of such enormous human proportions have to start all over again?

GARETH EVANS: Well, Zimbabwe is in a very, very ugly position. It is going to be a long haul back. But I think with very, very concerted, consistent international support, focus, attention, the situation can be turned around really pretty rapidly, pretty dramatically in Zimbabwe. It's always been one of the African good news stories

GEORGE NEGUS: True, ironically.

GARETH EVANS: and this is one of the biggest tragedies of Zimbabwe because it just had so much infrastructure, so much sort of depth in its economy. That is going to be hard to do, to fix, but it can be done.

GEORGE NEGUS: What would your word be to Thabo Mbeki? If the finger of blame has to be pointed at anybody would you point it at him?

GARETH EVANS: I don't want to talk in terms of blame but I wish to God that he would recognise the gravity of the situation, the degree of influence that he and South Africa have - if they choose to exercise it - and get on with applying all the pressures, the peer-group pressures, including the threats of further economic isolation and so on that would actually make a difference.

GEORGE NEGUS: I'm glad you didn't blame him. Can we move on to China, because that's another area that's not actually a crisis point but could become a crisis point. Do you think the turmoil is so great, maybe the whole thing could unravel and we could find ourselves in an international crisis situation because of the torch, because of China's record on human rights, because of the protest against the situation in Tibet?

GARETH EVANS: No, that is a very considerable overstatement. That is not going to happen. The Chinese are too committed to making these Games work. There is too much national commitment to this and I think too much international willingness for the whole show to go ahead for it to be disrupted in that kind of way. What they need to appreciate is that the Dalai Lama is the best thing they are ever likely to have going for them, in terms of someone that is not arguing for independence, is only arguing only for cultural autonomy, is capable of carrying the Tibetan people with him both inside and outside the country. The trouble is - I mean, for the Chinese as with the Taiwan issue, this is a really emotional, existential issue in a way that, I think from outside we don't fully appreciate. People with whom you're having an otherwise perfectly balanced, ordinary kind of conversation get very, very excited when this subject comes up.

GEORGE NEGUS: But have we underestimated the extent to which the Chinese have not learnt much over the last decade or so? We thought they were becoming more and more sophisticated about Western politics, about human rights - all sorts of protestations on the Human Rights front and now we are not seeing it at all, that we can tell.

GARETH EVANS: Well, they are getting much more sophisticated they are getting more appreciative of the responsibilities that come with really exercising global power. And I think we saw that, to be very fair, in the time of the Burma-Myanmar crackdown last year, where the Chinese played a very significant role behind the scenes in pressuring the generals not to go on with the kind of full-blooded massacre which was almost certainly - they were willing to do. Similarly, I think it is very fair to say that the Chinese behind the scenes in Darfur have been playing a reasonably constructive role - much more so than has been acknowledged internationally.

GEORGE NEGUS: In the current situation, with the wisdom of hindsight, should they really have gotten the Games without rock-solid guarantees where things like human rights and Tibet are concerned?

GARETH EVANS: No, because this was always going to be a country in transition so far as human rights and democracy of course is concerned and Tibet

GEORGE NEGUS: Did we give them the Games too soon?

GARETH EVANS: No, I don't think that is a fair comment. China is one of the biggest - the biggest country in the world, potentially one of the most powerful, it has a great and fantastic history, huge amount of national pride and it was, I think, if anything, overdue to give them this of recognition. But with that comes responsibility. And I for one, the Australian Government very effectively, I think, has been communicating this, and every major leader in the world has been communicating to them, "For God's sake, try to respond a little more you know, in a more balanced way to the Dalai Lama and stop using this language of the cultural revolution which is just so contradictory to everything we are hoping in terms of the country's advancement."

GEORGE NEGUS: Are you confident that they will change? I mean, you could say that the immense power that they're developing economically, that we know they've got militarily, coming with that is an arrogance that says, "Well, you can bleat all you like in the West, we're not going to change."

GARETH EVANS: I wouldn't put it in those terms at all. I mean, when we look at the way other powers in the West, other emerging powers, have behaved in the past, there is always an element of chest-beating, there is always an element of national pride perhaps carried a bridge too far. And we're going to see a bit of that bumping and grinding in the years ahead, but basically I see, frankly, China as a very potentially very constructive player indeed on the world scene and one capable of playing a really very useful role in dealing with a lot of these other conflicts around the place where they do have some potentially great influence.

GEORGE NEGUS: You have been watching from afar Kevin Rudd's performance as Prime Minister. Do you think maybe he could have been a little tougher with the Chinese in his comments?

GARETH EVANS: From everything I have heard I think he did remarkably well in communicating to the Chinese that we weren't just friends in the kowtow sense but friends capable of communicating to the Chinese very real concern in a spirit of friendship, but nonetheless in quite a tough-minded spirit in terms of conveying what needed to be done. I think Kevin has done very well indeed and Australia's reputation is already standing pretty high internationally in terms of the stances we have taken and the role we have played. Not only in the obvious external things like Kyoto and so on but the Sorry day. The speech - I can't tell you the number of people around the world - literally dozens of them - who said that was fantastic what you guys did and that was a very moving speech that your guy made. So this stuff does have an impact.

GEORGE NEGUS: You have been involved in the ongoing negotiations and discussions over Iran and nuclear power, etc. So how did you react when a prospective and aspiring US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, used the word 'obliterate' in referring to Iran and nuclear weapons?

GARETH EVANS: Well, she said it in the specific context of Iran actually acquiring and using a nuclear weapon against Israel, and in that context, that is an entirely reasonable thing to say. And the rest of the world should not be in the slightest bit hesitant in making clear to the Iranians that if they step across all those red lines they have to face horrendous consequences. To be fair, I think the Iranians fully appreciate that, and that is one of the reasons I, for one, don't think they're in the bomb making business. I think they are in the business

GEORGE NEGUS: You are convinced of that?

GARETH EVANS: Yeah, I am, and I don't think that is naive. I think they understand that not only if they use a bomb but if they acquire one, given the tensions in the region, given their own past form, give the anxiety about what they might do, I think they know they would get zapped very early on. But that's very different from what they are determined to do, and that is to acquire a fuel making capability and the perceived capability at some stage, should they want to, to make a bomb. In other words, they want to play themselves up into the league of Japans and maybe 12 or 13 countries around the world with that perceived technological capability and they want to have a big political win over the West, which has tried to deny them that, although they are technically entitled to that under the treaty. So I think that there is where the Iranians are at, I think there is a doable deal there to recognise that, but to constrain them with a whole variety of safeguards, guarantees, inspection regimes, which I think can be negotiated.

GEORGE NEGUS: Good to talk to you.

GARETH EVANS: Thank you.