home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Reconciliation In The Asia Pacific

Address by the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, President of the International Crisis Group and former Foreign Minister of Australia, to the Conference on Reconciliation in the Asia Pacific, Tokyo, 16 February 2001

The current Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, is a very determined man. And one of the things he is most determined about is never, as Prime Minister, to say ‘sorry’ to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the many, many wrongs done to them by those generations of later-arriving Australians who stole their land, tore apart their culture, denied them acknowledgment as citizens, stole their children, and humiliated and distressed them in ways that non-Aboriginal Australians are even now only just beginning to understand.

He won’t say sorry in any formal way, on behalf of the nation – though 200,000 Australians might march across Sydney Harbour Bridge in an afternoon urging him to do just that - because today’s Australians cannot be blamed for the sins of past generations. He won’t say sorry on behalf of government officials doing what was lawful then but unlawful now, because it wasn’t unlawful then. He won’t say sorry now because that might be taken by some court somewhere as an admission that would expose the government to financial liability. He won’t say sorry because the real priority in Aboriginal affairs should be to get on with building a better future, not agonizing endlessly about what might have gone wrong in the past.

Whenever I hear our national leader talking about this, I can’t help but think about a young man I once knew - a long time ago now, but the memory has never left me.

The young man's name was Brian Kamara Willis. He was born early in the 1950s somewhere in northern Australia -he never knew quite where-of an Aboriginal mother and a white father. He was, as the full bloods called him and as he called himself, a `yella fella'. That in-between status haunted him all his life. He was, like so many of his generation and the generations before him, a stolen child. As a very young kid, he was snatched from the arms of his mother, taken to Adelaide to a childhood of institutions and foster homes, to an environment in which he really never settled down.

In 1967, when Brian was in his mid-teens, a constitutional amendment was passed by referendum, a watershed in Australian history, recognizing for the first time the full citizenship status of Aboriginal Australians. Encouraged and stimulated by it, he went back to the north , proud now of his Aboriginality, to try to rediscover his roots. When he did discover them he was shattered. The exhilaration of finding his mother came with despair at the way he found her, living out a desperately unhappy, alcoholic existence in fringe dwellers camps around Darwin.

He was a very bright and personable kid, but this knocked the stuffing out of him. He drifted into labouring and knockabout jobs around the towns and the bush, and he seemed to be eventually heading down a similar path. But then, in the early 1970s, someone sensed the talent in him and gave him a job as a field officer for the new Aboriginal Legal Service in Alice Springs, funded by the national government under its new constitutional powers.

He blossomed in a dozen different ways. His potential was recognised and nurtured by those around him, and he formed what would have before then seemed an absolutely unachievable and unreachable objective-the idea of himself becoming a lawyer. With the help of Aboriginal study grants he came to Melbourne to do his final year's school as university preparation. That is where I and my family came to know him, and we became very close friends.

A year or so later he was admitted to Melbourne University Law School, where I was then teaching. And things for a while went very well. But eventually he began to be oppressed by the environment pressing in around him. Partly, it was physical- he and his young family felt hemmed in by the city and longed for space; they were desperate to get out into a countryside without fences where he could feel again some attachment, some relationship, to the land. It was with Brian and his family that I think I first really actually understood how much the land mattered to Aboriginal people: the sense of belonging, the spiritual attachment, the sense of despair at the dispossession.

But it was other psychological pressures getting to him most. Despite the change of atmosphere that was associated with the referendum, he and his family were still experiencing put-downs and humiliation. There was a constant sense that he did not really belong. He had to be constantly proving more about himself, about his abilities and about his character than anyone else had to. So, in the event, he deferred the completion of his degree and went back to the north.

His talents and his new education were such that he in fact became, in quite a short time, the Director of the Aboriginal Legal Service. He became an outspoken champion of his people in Central Australia, speaking and writing about a whole range of policy issues-and, in particular, speaking and writing in very fierce and moving terms about the lost souls of the stolen children. In a newspaper article in 1980 he spoke of his fellow victims in these terms:

They had no sense of where they could call their home, no sense of being wanted, all traces of their families had disappeared.

Every human being has to have these basic elements: A sense of belonging to someone, some identifiable area you can call home.

Once you have got these essential things you know that love is there. They make life for a human being worth living.

So Brian Kamara Willis's life until then, although it had had its awful moments, was one of extraordinary achievement and brilliant promise. But the story does not have a happy ending. When it came to it, this young man just could not fight the pressures, shrug off the prejudices and sustain the struggle for long enough. One night in March

1980 he went to a political gathering -as he often did- and the people there remembered him getting very distressed at one stage during the evening and saying something like, `The urban black, the part-Aboriginal, is the man in between. He has nothing.' He went home and, at the age of 26 or 27, in front of his wife and his two young children, he took up a shotgun and blew out his brains.

I’ve told this story twice before in the Australian Parliament - in 1980 when it all happened, and again in 1997, on the anniversary of the constitutional referendum – and on neither occasion was it easy. The memory of that young man and his family and what happened to them haunts me still.

I can’t be sure that it would have saved this young man’s life if the Prime Minister of the day, speaking for all the people of Australia, had said ‘sorry’ to all the Aboriginal children stolen from their parents, and said ‘sorry’ to all Aboriginal Australians for all the annihilation, dispossession, forced assimilation, prejudice and humiliation suffered by them and their ancestors. But I think it just might have.

And I think that if the present Prime Minister of Australia had even one personal experience of how it might feel to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment, he might just have been prepared to take the risk of saying ‘sorry’ - to take the risk of getting serious about reconciliation.

Of course there are risks involved in reconciliation, whether it’s between groups within countries, or between countries themselves. There are risks of rebuff; of creating expectations you can’t satisfy; of humiliation if you later have to back down; of opening up a Pandora’s box of domestic or international legal liability; of creating complacency when what may be more needed is vigilance; of appearing to show weakness to an opponent who understands only strength; of losing support from third countries who may disapprove of the reconciliation effort; of raising questions, if amnesties are offered, about the equal, impartial and inevitable administration of justice.

Above all, for politicians, there is the risk of alienating political support - from those who can’t or won’t forget or forgive; from those who will never accept a common responsibility for what they see as the sins of others; from those who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that there were any sins.

But we know deep in our hearts, from our own personal life experience, that those risks are worth taking. And we now know it too from the accumulating research literature, be it theoretical, empirical or anecdotal:

We know that future violence is less likely to occur, and that societal order is more likely to be restored, if the parties to a conflict engage in a formal, public process of reconciliation.

We know that a reconciliation event after a war leads to a measurable improvement in subsequent bilateral relations.

We know that the best strategy for breaking a pattern of hostile interactions is through the sending of signals that provide a measure of commitment to the pursuit of improved relations.

We know that factors that increase the cost of initiating a reconciliation event – eg. strong domestic opposition – enhance the chances for subsequent improvement in bilateral relations, because they send a stronger signal to the former adversary.

We also know – or at least can reasonably believe from repeated observation – that the most vengeful opponents of reconciliation after a war tend to be those who have personally suffered least, perhaps as a result of guilt over not having sacrificed enough. Those who have suffered most tend to be too numb to be aggressively hostile.i

Knowing all this kind of thing, and being committed to improving relations with former adversaries, does not necessarily make it easier in practice for full-scale reconciliation to be brought about. No country in the Asia Pacific region knows this more acutely than Japan, which is still wrestling with the question of how to achieve reconciliation with its neighours in East and South East Asia 55 years after the end of the war which created the problem.

As Australia’s Foreign Minister for nearly eight years, between 1988 and 1996, travelling constantly in the region as I did, I became acutely aware just how neuralgic this issue continued to be in Korea, China and throughout the formerly occupied countries of South East Asia.

I formed, for better or worse, a clear view that the reluctance of successive Japanese governments to confront the issue of guilt for wartime atrocities, to acknowledge the intensity of the feelings still held in the region, and to offer full and unequivocal apologies – using full-throated ‘sorry’ rather than half-way-house ‘regret’ language (and the Japanese language is eminently capable of these nuances) – was significantly inhibiting the effectiveness of Japan’s foreign policy.

It seemed to me that it was inhibiting the development of really substantial regional cooperation, particularly on security matters; inhibiting Japan’s capacity to play a major role in resolving regional problems like Cambodia, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula; inhibiting its case for permanent membership of the Security Council; and generally inhibiting Japan’s capacity to win the respect and credibility that the country’s economic stature and many other achievements so obviously deserved.

I didn’t make these points publicly, because I thought it would be counterproductive. But I certainly made them privately, and on a number of different occasions to a number of different ministerial colleagues. So I was absolutely delighted - along with many, many others in the region - when Prime Minister Obuchi made the breakthrough he did on this issue in October 1998, expresssing his “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” to Kim Dae-Jung for Japan’s colonisation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. It seemed that there was a willingness at last to wipe the slate clean, and to begin the new century with a wholly different emotional atmosphere between the two countries than that which had previously prevailed. And in terms of bilateral relations since, all the signs have continued to be positive.

Unfortunately, as we all now know, it proved impossible to maintain the momentum with China on the occasion of President Jiang Zemin’s historic visit just two months later. Many explanations have been given for the debacle of the demanded-and-not-received apology, including poor diplomatic preparation particularly on the Chinese side, and the difference in historical circumstances between China and Korea, in that China was never colonised. None of those explanations, I have to say with respect, seem to be very compelling to an outside observer: it all looks unhappily like a major lost opportunity, and an unhappy reversion to old, very cautious habits of mind, in which perhaps undue weight continues to be given to certain internal political currents, and insufficient weight to the great body of international opinion.

The whole question of attitudes to reconciliation – and the risks we are prepared to take to advance it – ultimately comes back, for each of us, to the question of what kind of country we want to be.

For Australia, with its major reconciliation problem the internal one of its own Aboriginal people, the question is how we want to think of ourselves and present ourselves to the world: as a modern, innovative, socially and economically advanced, united, multicultural society, sensitive to the currents of our time and our region - or as something much less than that, isolated, parochial and off the pace.

For Japan, with its rather bigger role in the world, the question comes down to how it wants to engage the world: cautiously, defensively, nervously and one-dimensionally - or openly, imaginatively, more actively, and above all with more confidence about the quality of its relationships with more of the countries that matter. To apply a phrase President Clinton used of China a few years ago, what will matter is how Japan chooses to define its greatness in the 21st century.

In thinking about that question, I do think it would be helpful for Japan’s leaders – as uncomfortable as they continue to find the issue, for very understandable reasons – to try once more to rule off the ledger on the past by addressing the apology issue across-the-board and in a way that could leave no reasonable East or South East Asian leader unsatisfied.

The most generous and moving reconciliation statement that I know of is that of Turkey’s leader Kemal Ataturk, in a tribute to the young Australians and New Zealanders – the ANZACs – who fell to Turkish guns in the horrific fighting at Gallipoli in 1915. Carved in stone at Anzac Cove are these words:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country…There is no difference between the

Johnnies and Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours …You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears …After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

The context of course is different. Turkey and Australia are far away from each other, and maybe reconciliation between us – despite the carnage of the war - was easier than it could ever be between Japan and its Asian neighbours. But the resonance of this statement - with the emotion and the respect that it conveys - binds the two countries together still today in a way that is extraordinary, and quite genuine.

I live in hope that it might be possible one day to hear statesmen speak, looking back at the wartime horrors of the past, not just of Johnnies and Mehmets lying side by side, sons of a common soil – but of Yukios, Kims and Changs as well.