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Farewell Message on Leaving Crisis Group

It is with very mixed feelings that I step down as President of the International Crisis Group to return home to Australia. The nine and a half years I have spent leading this extraordinary organisation have been among the most productive and rewarding of my life, and – as keen as I now am for a saner work-life balance than I have managed to achieve over the last few decades – it will be a real wrench to leave Brussels.

But I do so with the satisfaction of knowing that Crisis Group is now generally regarded as the pre-eminent international NGO working on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. It has certainly been one hell of a ride over the last decade, as indicated partly by the spectacular growth in the size of our staff (from 25 in 2000 to over 130 now), the number of reports we produce (784 since 2000, including CrisisWatch), the number of countries in which we operate in the field (more than 60 across four continents, as compared with just a handful in the Balkans and Central Africa in 2000) and by the remarkable growth in our annual income and expenditure (from just $2million in 2000 to over $15million now). Not to mention the 1,114 separate flights I have taken during that time...

What matters more than all this is the impact I think we can reasonably claim to have made on policy and action. When Crisis Group was first founded in the mid-1990s the hope was that – by the quality of its analysis, policy recommendations and high-level advocacy – governments and international organisations could actually be persuaded to think about issues they did not want to think about, and to do things they really did not want to, across a whole range of peace and security challenges. Little by little, area by area, conflict by conflict, that hope has become a reality.

Our core business remains the production of reports and briefings – scores of them every year – analysing in meticulous detail challenges and opportunities for good policy arising at all stages of the conflict cycle: long term prevention, short term prevention, conflict management, conflict settlement, and post-conflict peacebuilding. Whether it’s been showing the impact of educational institutions on Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Indonesia, or making the national army in the Congo or the police in Haiti behave better, or finding ways of defusing tensions over ethnicity and resource access in Northern Iraq, or securing better control of public revenues in post conflict-Liberia, or addressing literally hundreds of other similarly important problems, we’ve been there, explaining, cajoling and very often succeeding in achieving the necessary policy change.

Beyond that, we have played a widely acknowledged central role in early warning alarm bell ringing, through our monthly CrisisWatch bulletin, now six years old, and in specific cases like Darfur and Ethiopia-Eritrea. We have given important behind the scenes support for conflict mediation processes – offering a flow of information and ideas about both process and substance – in situations like Southern Sudan, Kosovo, Northern Uganda and Aceh. And drawing from our early organisational experience in responding to mass atrocity crimes in the Balkans and Central Africa (and in my case Cambodia), we have played a central role in supporting the emergence and application of the new global norm of ‘the responsibility to protect’, which offers for the first time in centuries the prospect of a reflex, consensual, effective response to future catastrophes of this kind – with the global reaction to the killing and ethnic cleansing in Kenya in early 2008 being in dramatic contrast to the indifference and impotence which greeted the Rwandan genocide fourteen years earlier.

Beyond all that again, I think it is fair to say that Crisis Group has had a major impact on the way in which a number of major, intractable conflict situations have been conceptualised by the international policy community. We have challenged received wisdom, and been way ahead of the curve, on issues such as:

  • the need (spelt out in a long series of reports since 2002) to recognise that the Musharraf military regime in Pakistan was the problem there, not the solution;
  • to recognise that the Israeli-Palestine could only ever be resolved by an endgame-first rather than incremental policy approach (first spelt out in a series of reports in 2002);
  • to acknowledge that the Iran nuclear issue was potentially solvable by an approach which did not seek to reverse Tehran’s fissile material capability but to draw the red-line against weaponisation;
  • to understand the huge differences between different strands of Islamic activism (missionary, essentially democratic, and intractably violent respectively), spelt out in our seminal Understanding Islamism report in 2005;
  • to recognise the impossibility of trying to outlaw or marginalise Hamas, given the reality of its popular support; and
  • to think again about the best ways of achieving hugely necessary policy changes in Burma/Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

In by no means all of these cases has our challenge to the prevailing wisdom been either liked or generally accepted. Nor, where our views have become generally accepted, as with the Pakistan military and Israel-Palestine cases, have they always borne the fruit we all would have liked. But our role in enlivening the policy debate seems to have been more or less universally acknowledged.

I am totally confident that with the fine staff we have, the leadership that we can expect from my superbly qualified successor Louise Arbour when she comes to Brussels to take up the Presidency in July, the quality of our Board members under the co-chairmanship of Chris Patten and Tom Pickering, and the dedicated core of government, foundation and private sector donors we have, Crisis Group can only continue to grow from strength to strength.

In terms of my personal future, I am returning to my family home in Melbourne, and taking up an Honorary Professorial Fellowship at the University of Melbourne, from which bases I will be working more or less full time for the next six to nine months as Co-Chair of the Australian and Japanese government sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (on which see www.icnnd.org). As to whether complete retirement is an option thereafter, time will tell.

In separate messages to staff, Board members, donors, supporters and many other colleagues around the world, drawing on these lines, I have expressed my enormous appreciation for the tremendous, sustained support I have had throughout that period, and I do so again. Working with Crisis Group, and all the wonderful people who sail with it, has been the experience of a lifetime.

Gareth Evans
30 June 2009