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Wars, Laws & Humanity: 100 years of Australian Red Cross Action

Lecture delivered at The Hawke Centre, University of South Australia, by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross, Wednesday 21 May 2014. 

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on today and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

It is a great honour and privilege to be asked to deliver this lecture for the Hawke Centre, which is named in honour of a Prime Minister in whose Government I served as a former Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the Australian Government from April 1990 until Bob Hawke left office at the end of 1991.

I rarely ever mention my former life when I am talking as the CEO of Red Cross as these days I am far removed from the combative and political war zone of the national parliament. However, I share with Jim Carlton, one of my predecessors in this role as CEO of Red Cross, the experience of holding Ministerial office in the Government of Australia as he did as Minister for Health in the Fraser Government and like him I am forever grateful for the privilege I was given to serve in that role. I was deeply aware of the enormity of the challenge but also the sense of obligation and responsibility I had on assuming that role.

History records that this was a time of significant cross party progress in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and we were able to get legislation unanimously passed through the parliament to establish a decade long Process of Reconciliation between the first peoples of the land, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community. I pay tribute to the then Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Affairs Michael Wooldridge for his work in bringing the coalition on side. That process of Reconciliation has not finished of course and Red Cross is proud to be part of the huge cross section of the Australian community who is supporting both constitutional recognition of the first Australians and also continuing work to address disadvantage and injustice so necessary if we are to have a true and just reconciliation in this country.

But I have reminded you a little bit of this history of the fight for indigenous rights because it shows something powerful and relevant to the issues associated with international humanitarian law evolution which I want to highlight in this lecture. The lesson is that history shows that great gains in social progress can be made when people of good will take a stand and sometimes put aside party political differences to work for the common good and a better world. Sadly we see all too little of this in our body politic in current times but I am an optimist and believe that the campaign to render the use of nuclear weapons contrary to international law is just such a campaign to bring people together.

First let me set the context for the work of Red Cross on this globally critical issue of international humanitarian law. Australian Red Cross was formed in 1914 just 9 days after the outbreak of World War I and has been a part of the fabric of the Australian community for 100 years, and later this year we will launch the centenary history of our Red Cross.

During the course of this year there will be great celebrations as we applaud the wonderful work of our members and volunteers in war and peace over that 100 years.

We are also using this centenary year to drive innovation and renewal across the organisation because to do otherwise would be a betrayal of our founders and we need new generations of humanitarians to carry on the work. After 95 years operating as relatively siloed state and territory Red Cross organisations with separate state boards and CEOs we now operate in a cohesive national framework with only one national board with Governance Authority and with the CEO responsible to the national board. It is so powerfully significant that these changes were unanimously approved back in 2009 where people gave up state based authority for the common good of the organisation. We then conducted a total comprehensive review of all our services and resolved to focus our work on 7 priority areas in addition to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. Red Cross also focused on how we work and that is why we have adopted our Ways of Working, setting the ethical framework for the delivery of our services and our commitment to such things as empowerment, community development, respecting issues of gender and diversity, meeting the challenges of climate change, focussing on monitoring and evaluation of our work and always the ongoing commitment to impartially and neutrality. These and other key principles shape the way we work.

The 7 priority areas of our programs in addition to our Blood Service, that are underpinned by our Ways of Working are: International work with a priority but not excusive focus in the Asia Pacific area; international and domestic disasters and emergencies; work with asylum seekers and refugees and we currently have approximately 12,000 clients; working in programs in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; tackling the social exclusion faced by so many marginalised groups ranging from older vulnerable people living in the community to young offenders or former offenders and the families; and an increasingly place based focus on shifting our work to the most vulnerable communities where social problems have proven so intractable over time. Here we need to maximise our collective impact on these issues with others in the sector, with Government and those who are prepared to fund our work. Finally there is our work in International humanitarian law where Australian Red Cross has become one of the global leaders among the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies of the world and I will now focus the remainder of my lecture on this area of our work.

Globally we are part of a Federation which proudly stands for a peaceful world and promotes non violence in our communities. Our work in IHL can be traced back to the Movement's creation 150 years ago and global mandate to alleviate suffering during times of conflict.

Many members of the public in Australia are surprised when they hear about our mandate in international humanitarian law (IHL, often known as the laws of war) which is found in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols and aims to reduce suffering during times of armed conflict.

They are often lucky individuals - never having survived on a Red Cross relief parcel or finding desperately sought after news about their loved ones from a Red Cross tracing message. Yet our work in raising awareness that 'Even Wars have Laws', is one of our very longstanding areas of work in Australia and we champion the ideas that: civilians should be spared during conflict; that the red cross and red crescent emblems should be protected and medical and humanitarian aid provided safe access during war; that war criminals should be prosecuted and that there are methods and means of warfare (including specific weapons) that are illegal or should be illegal under international law.

We leverage our unique auxiliary status with the public authorities in the humanitarian field to provide technical advice on how to reduce suffering during times of armed conflict and we train key groups in this regard across Australia. Our work in IHL is an area which we are proudly promoting during our centenary year - celebrating our past successes and looking to our hopes in this area. One of our deepest and significant hopes for the future centres around the most critical humanitarian issue facing the world today - the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

It is important at the start to place on record our specific way of raising our issues of humanitarian concern - via humanitarian diplomacy - using our Fundamental Principles. Our principle of Humanity as the basis for the pressing need to speak out and urge for action; our principle of impartiality to cut through the idea that nuclear weapons fail to distinguish between race, nationality, class, and religious belief in the utter devastation they deliver; our principle of neutrality to demonstrate that our concerns don't lie in controversies of a political or ideological nature but rather rest with the survival of the human race; our principle of independence which urges us to continue to engage with government and authorities (even if they disagree with us) in a respectful but consistent manner with the aim of achieving policies and decisions that are humane; our principle of voluntary service to harness the goodwill and commitment and desire for action of thousands of people who are sick of living in a world which is threated by these weapons and our principles of unity and universality which now sees this global Movement (found in almost every nation on earth) with a strong and unanimous policy to end the era of nuclear weapons.

But as a Movement we do not exclusively locate our work to rid nuclear weapons within our IHL mandate and the Fundamental Principles that States have granted us. Our commitment to this topic is also found in our experience - including in particular that of our colleagues in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Japanese Red Cross.

As you know, on 6 August 1945, a white flash appeared over Hiroshima. Seconds later, the city was flattened. Tens of thousands of people were immediately dead and hundreds of thousands eventually died. In the midst of this appalling devastation, one hospital could be seen - the Hiroshima Red Cross hospital. Over the next few days it struggled to treat the many thousands who sought assistance. On top of this the first non-military doctor to assist was Dr Marcel Junod, a health delegate for the ICRC and if you visit Hiroshima today you will see a very moving tribute to Dr Junod and the International Red Cross in the magnificent peace park. Today the Japanese Red Cross still runs the hospitals dealing with the horrors of this use of nuclear weapons, in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thus since their first use the Red Cross has been raising its voice against these weapons - weapons that should be unambiguously and conclusively recognised as violating the principles of IHL and the principle of humanity.

In more recent times our work on this issue has intensified and I believe we are now all at a cross roads - a decision point on whether we push forward to create a legally binding instrument to deal with clarity and precision on these weapons or pass them on as an inheritance of horror to our future generations.

As I will emphasise again later, the central tenant of my plea tonight is namely that the time has come for the nations of the world to unite to declare the use of nuclear weapons, in any circumstances, as contrary to international humanitarian law. As a global community we have acted against chemical and biological weapons; anti-personal landmines; and cluster munitions, but the most barbaric weapon ever invented by humankind is not outlawed by a specific international legal convention.

I will spend some time explaining the current status of the work we are doing, but first I wanted to flag some of the great examples of how Australia has influenced these and wider international debates in the past.

Australia has a long history of making a significant contribution to modern international law. Australian High Court judge and Foreign Minister Dr Evatt, appointed in 1948 as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations (the only Australian to hold this post), is in many ways the founding parent of this contribution - which began with the United Nations Charter.

Future Australian Governments from all political parties, have, to a greater or lesser extent, built on this contribution. I don't have time to refer to them all today, yet it is indisputable that all sides of politics over time have provided important contributions.

For example the Hawke government championed the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone treaty. In 1986 it also enacted implementing legislation effectively ruling out the nuclear weapons option for Australia. I feel that it is one of my modest life achievements to have taken up the debate within the government to argue for the passing of this legislation - an act of the Australian Parliament which would not have been embraced by nuclear weapons states at the time, many of whom were our closest and respected allies.

In the late 1990s Australia Chaired the 'like minded group' of States who were pushing for a strong and fair International Criminal Court and under the Howard government we were amongst the first nations to sign and ratify this significant treaty and to incorporate the changes required into domestic law.

At other times Australia has shown willingness to take the tough stance on nuclear issues and indeed Gareth Evans did this when giving Australia's submission to the International Court of Justice in their Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. His statement argued the case 'that nuclear weapons are by their nature illegal under customary international law, by virtue of fundamental general principles of humanity. It is illegal not only to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons, but to acquire, develop, test, or possess them. The right of States to self-defence cannot be invoked to justify such actions'. The then Minister Evans also noted that 'the use by a State of a nuclear weapon against a particular group may constitute the crime of genocide'.

Other Australian leaders have also taken steps towards action on this issue. On the reasons for the establishment the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in 1995, Paul Keating stated 'the issue of nuclear weapons worries me more than any other when I think about the sort of world young Australians will inherit.' Kevin Rudd, having been moved by a visit to Hiroshima, also established a commission, headed by former Foreign Affairs minister Gareth Evans, to boost nuclear disarmament efforts.

It is important to remember that no political party has a monopoly on leadership of IHL issues, and over the years all sides of politics have demonstrated at times great courage and done the right thing in relation to critical IHL issues. For example in 1996, following a change of government the new Foreign Minister Downer and Defence Minister McLaughlan announced that Australia would be changing its policy and supporting a global ban on the use, transfer, production and stockpile of anti-personnel landmines. This was a magnificent example of foreign policy that took humanitarian issues into account.

I have spoken of the early work of the Red Cross Movement and Australian Government on this issue but of course Red Cross is not alone in being vocal in Australia. The Australian public has showed its strong collective voice in response to French Nuclear Testing in the Pacific in a variety of ways - and long before I joined Red Cross I remember carrying my 2 year old son Jack on my shoulders through the streets of Sydney in a march opposing French testing.

Above and beyond our IHL mandate, Australian Red Cross also sees the need to raise the unacceptable humanitarian consequences within the context of our inability to adequately respond to these weapons, should they be used.

As part of a Movement globally recognised for its role and capacity to respond to disasters, we have an obligation to speak up on this issue. We are part of the world's largest and oldest humanitarian Movement - a Movement which has a permanent presence in almost every country in the world and the capacity to mount a global response to address humanitarian needs in response to disasters, such as we have seen with the earthquake in Haiti and floods and earthquakes in Pakistan and so many others. But even large, expert organisations such as the Movement, and actors such as the United Nations, for all their vast resources and expertise, have seen that humanitarian responders can be overwhelmed after a natural disaster. The 2004 tsunami which killed over 230,000 people pushed the world's humanitarian responders to their coping capacity.

The humanitarian consequences of the blast, heat, electromagnetic pulse and radiation associated with nuclear explosions are insurmountable for medical and humanitarian responders and are not reasonably comparable to experiences with natural disasters in the past.

The total destruction of not just the impact site but extensive areas surrounding the impact site are forgone conclusions, making the ability of those left to respond almost non-existent.

The loss of life and incapacity of trained medical and humanitarian response personnel, and damage to property and stocks of resources used for emergency response, would significantly impact on any possible response. Inability to safely access the affected area would also hamper the response. Caring for survivors is always difficult in natural disasters, but in the case of a nuclear war, and not even being able to access those affected, it would be impossible.

Furthermore, the longer term response would clearly be beyond any organisation's capacity to respond.

The effects of flooding, fires, cyclones and earthquakes provide enough challenges with respect to the restoration of livelihoods. Nuclear fallout from a nuclear war and its long term destructive nature would have catastrophic environmental consequences and would mean that vast tracts of land would be unable to be used by humans for an indefinite period of time. The spread of radiation would not just affect the current generation but generations to come. The displacement of people would be an insurmountable global issue. Global mass starvation would be a very real possibility.

The global community has been told by many sources, including the British and American Medical Associations and the World Health Organisation that there is no possibility of an adequate medical response to the use of a nuclear weapon.

Today, however, we are not talking about the possibility of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrendous as they were. We are facing the prospect of something much, much worse. Today the destructive force of the world's nuclear arsenal is equivalent to approximately 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. A 'small' nuclear warhead by today's standards has the explosive yield of around 20 times the Hiroshima bomb. Humanity has no response to such brutality. The destruction caused by nuclear weapons is beyond a humanitarian response.

What is extremely disturbing, and not highlighted enough, is the high chance of the accidental use of nuclear weapons. The respected author Eric Schlosser in his book 'Command and Control' raises this point with chilling clarity, giving example after example of the 'near misses' that have occurred with potential devastating consequences. As Schlosser concludes:

"Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, literally out of sight, topped with warheads and ready to go…they are a collective death wish, barely suppressed…They are out there, waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial - and they work."

Despite the absence of a specific convention, our position is clear that we as a Movement find it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of IHL. As I explained, IHL is known as 'the laws of war.' However neither the Geneva Conventions nor their 1977 Additional Protocols - the cornerstones of IHL - specifically mention weapons of any kind - rather they provide principles to guide these debates.

These general, and fundamental, principles of IHL govern the use of all weapons during times of conflict, including nuclear weapons. These rules include the following:

  • A prohibition on attacks directed at civilians or civilian objects;
  • A prohibition on attacks that cannot distinguish between civilian and military people or objects;
  • A rule that any damage caused must be proportionate to the military objective;
  • A rule that weapons cannot be used if they cause unnecessary or superfluous injury;
  • And a rule relating to the protection of the natural environment.

I would contend that after hearing the absolute devastation these weapons cause that it would be difficult for anyone to argue that those effects are compatible with the rules I've just explained. However despite all this the International Court of Justice in a 1996 Advisory Opinion failed by a slim majority to unambiguously conclude that the use of nuclear weapons was in all times and circumstances contrary to international law.

With all the issues I have raised to date in mind, there was an historic turning point when the Movement raised it's voice with strong certainty and in a defining moment in 2011, adopting a resolution at the 'Council of Delegates' - the highest decision making body of the Movement.

The resolution is carefully crafted; it builds upon many of the promising legal and political developments that have occurred in recent years from a variety of fora including NPT processes, the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and from resolutions from International Conferences of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement which are adopted by the Movement and all signatories to the Geneva Conventions.

The resolution sets out our clear aims in this area which are simple:

  • That these weapons are never used again and
  • That States create a legally binding international agreement (using existing international legal obligations) to ban their use and to eliminate their existence

This resolution was built upon last year when the Movement gathered in Sydney and adopted a follow up resolution, setting out in more detail the sort of activities to be implemented by Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in order to influence their governments and public opinion globally. First and foremost, these documents guide our work which ensures we approach this critical issue in a consistent and credible way - no mean feat when dealing with a Movement made up of 189 different National Societies, an International Federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The value of these resolutions is clear - with their consistent messaging and legal analysis, the resolutions provide National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies the tools and give them the role to engage with authorities, other decision makers and key groups in society with confidence. The resolution also clearly envisages communication by the National Societies with the people of their country through wide ranging means including the use of social media.

Many and diverse governments, including the government of New Zealand as well as civil society actors embraced the resolution. The resolution has been recognised and read out in parliaments around the world.

The resolution was also noted in significant statements of many governments in wider settings, such as the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly and Non Proliferation Treaty meetings. Signatories to these joint statements have grown from 16 states in May 2012 to 125 by October 2013.

Our work on this issue has been critical in shifting the debate from military doctrine and strategy concerns to one of humanitarian imperatives.

In March 2013 the Norwegian Government hosted the first ever conference dedicated solely to the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons - over 120 states attended and the ICRC was accorded a respected status as one of the leading key note speakers at the Conference and the importance of the Movement resolution was unambiguously recognised.

A follow up conference in February 2014 in Mexico saw 146 States attend and on this occasion the ICRC together with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent delivered a landmark joint statement which recognised its need for the Movement to continue to speak with one voice on this critical humanitarian issue. At the conclusion of the conference the Chair announced that he believed the time had come for a diplomatic process to begin to eliminate these weapons calling the Mexico Conference 'the point of no return'.

However, our work in Australian Red Cross is not solely limited to engaging with decision makers - and this is perhaps where we have continued to evolve very dramatically both within and beyond its first 100 years. The ability to engage with all Australians - whilst maintaining our absolute neutrality - is crucial. I believe our work on this is really leading the way and I pay tribute to the initiative demonstrated by our young humanitarians on this issue.

Using social media, regular media, holding seminars events and a range of creative activities, like the Flash Mobs of our young humanitarians, have been a significant part of our work in this area.

However, as well as strong support from all age groups who care about our future, we need our Australian politicians to listen and respond to these deep humanitarian concerns and to see Australia work closely with 'like minded states' (such as New Zealand) on this issue.

Red Cross has a long and proud history of working closely and independently with successive governments here on a range of critical IHL issues - we work cross party and in a strongly neutral and impartial manner. We are transparent with authorities here in Australia, and have provided all sides of politics with our resolutions and plans of activities. It is a matter of public record that until early last year, we had received very positive responses from the major political parties which we believed supported the efforts of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Our first engagement with government on this issue was in late 2010 when we spelled out the work both Australian Red Cross and the ICRC was doing to raise the issue of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons with a strong voice. This was followed by further letters after the adoption of the 2011 and 2013 resolutions as well as regular updates of the work of the Movement during this period.

The former Labor government initially sent letters of support and encouragement for our activities - however we were rather concerned when we learnt (via a Freedom of Information request by another organisation) that political factors got in the way of the humanitarian debate.

Similarly, when the current government was in opposition, we received a strongly worded letter of support from the then Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs. More recently we are aware that the sentiment in the letters is not reflective of either the government's nor the opposition's current foreign policies - neither of which yet appear to support the goal of a 'legally binding international agreement' prohibiting the use of and complete elimination of nuclear weapons as adopted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The support for this sort of policy is hardly a radical proposition as the Prime Minister of the conservative government of New Zealand has demonstrated.

We continue to maintain good relations with all the political parties in Australia and as our principles of humanity and independence require, will continue to raise the issues in an open and frank manner at all occasions.

Tonight I reaffirm the intention of Red Cross to champion this issue throughout the Australian community in line with our Movement's Principles.

On a personal level, I am lucky to have left public life with the absence of any bitterness in my heart and with my belief in the capacity of people of good will to take a stand on issues which will help build a better world as I foreshadowed at the beginning of this lecture.

My dear friend Tom Uren always told me and I believe this - that there is no progress in hate and we have seen those principles lived out as we find common ground with the Japanese Red Cross on the global campaign on nuclear weapons.

We need our political leaders in this country to come together on the nuclear weapons issue and to take a principled humanitarian stand, even if that is contrary to the wishes of the current nuclear weapons states whoever they may be.

With the lack of any available humanitarian response we passionately believe that the people of the world are strongly behind the need for further regulation, such as a Convention, and we are committed to mobilising the power of humanity to achieve that outcome which may well help change the course of human history.

In the grand sweep of human history there are great land marks of humanitarian progress which have taken us to a better place. This occurred with the founding of the Red Cross Movement by Henry Dunant and soon afterwards the first of the Geneva Conventions. More recently we have seen the achievement of conventions on Biological and Chemical weapons and then the successful efforts to ban the use of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, as well as the regulation of the transfer of small arms.

For the last 100 years Australian Red Cross has been a strong part of this humanitarian journey to build a more compassionate, safer and peaceful world. It is now time that we as a global community, deal decisively with nuclear weapons and we call for leadership from all our parliamentarians on this issue.

This is clearly an idea whose time has come and I call on all people of good will and who share our humanitarian values to get behind our Movement.

Thank you again so very much for the privilege of addressing you tonight.