Australia’s recent success in winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2013-2014 should be a proud moment for our nation. But sadly, most Australians would not know that Australia was not only a founding member of the UN, but that it played a prominent role in the negotiations of the UN Charter in 1945. This was largely due to the influential leadership of Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, the effective head of the Australian delegation to the UN.
A lawyer, constitutionalist and Australia’s youngest appointed High Court judge, at the time of the conference, Evatt was Australia’s Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs. When he and his Prime Minister, John Curtin, received Australia’s invitation to send a delegation to San Francisco, both recognized that the conference provided one of those rare opportunities for a minor power like Australia to importune the great powers and to hope to have some impact on international society.
The United Nations was an idea that had its origins in the League of Nations, which unfortunately proved ineffective, but which inspired world leaders such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, given the disastrous Second World War, to create a structure that would prevent another World War. Plans to set up the United Nations had already been on the agenda of the war time meetings of the ‘Big Three’ (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) at the Yalta conference. The plan that Roosevelt had in mind was summed up in the Dumbarton Oaks proposal, which bore many characteristics of a mere prolongation, into the years of peace, of the type of Great Power leadership that ‘had’ been found necessary in order to win the war’. The Australian delegation studied this proposal carefully before attending the conference at San Francisco.
Contrary to the great powers’ view, Evatt regarded the Dumbarton Oaks plan as a draft for discussion and it was, therefore, ‘the duty and the opportunity of the conference to pass from general principles to the practical working rules of the proposed organization’. And he saw much work to be done. There were real concerns about the almost unlimited power to be given to a small Security Council, the highly restricted function proposed for the General Assembly, the procedure for the settlement of disputes, and issues relating to social and economic cooperation and territorial trusteeship. Particularly worrying was the extensive veto power to be given to the permanent members in the Security Council, meaning, of course, that the Council would only be effective when there was unanimity among all the great powers. This did not sit well with the Curtin Labor government’s commitment to the principles of liberal internationalism in international relations. The Australian plan was for a more democratic structure that ensured a wider and more binding assumption of obligations and responsibilities by the constituent members’ than that proposed in the Dumbarton Oaks text. An organization directed towards the maintenance of world peace and towards the promotion of economic and social welfare and applying the rule of law to international relations.
While Frank Forde, the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, had been appointed chairman of the Australian delegation, in the days after the opening formalities Evatt soon established himself as the effective head of the Australians and had few qualms about doing so. From this point on, with boundless enthusiasm and extraordinary stamina, he was almost manic in his pursuit of the amendments deemed important to Australian interests.
As Chairman of the Australian delegation Forde was the Australian voting member on the Steering Committee, but he arranged for Evatt to attend as a non-voting adviser ‘when any special matter on which he might like to state his views is being considered’. Evatt, however, was the Australian representative on the Executive Committee of 14 and also managed to get himself elected to 20 other committees and sub-committees. His subsequent schedule was exhausting and the wide range of involvement and attack meant that he was attending meetings of commissions and committees until the end of the day’s session after ten at night. When meetings clashed, he seems to have had the uncanny knack of being able to choose the one that would prove the toughest fight. His seven, thinly stretched aides would then cover the others together with the relevant Australian expert attached to the delegation. If major issues arose, they sent for Evatt who would be briefed on the status of the debate as he hurried along the corridor from one committee room to another. He was able to maintain his effectiveness on that number of committees and in dealing with the many different issues through his ability to grasp significant points quickly and also to ensure he was equipped with the information essential to the arguments he was developing. To keep his edge, at the end of each full day, he and his officials would work until around two in the morning.
In addition to his long-suffering officials, Evatt also saw one other avenue that he could use to advantage. He courted the hundreds of news-hungry journalists covering the conference. With the British and American delegation adopting a policy of diplomatic evasion of the press and the Soviets going incommunicado behind closed hotel doors, Evatt was happy to keep the press informed of proceedings, particularly those in which he was involved. He called regular press conferences and in concise, understandable language, he would explain the points he was trying to establish on the conference floor and in the committees and would always answer questions bluntly with conviction. Not surprisingly, subsequent press coverage of the issues important to Evatt heightened their public profile and rallied other small powers to the Australian side. To the journalists couldn’t get enough of him.
The Yalta Formula giving the right of veto to the permanent members of the Security Council was the most provocative and contentious issue at the conference—and, thanks to Evatt, the most public. Evatt, of course, represented only one of 20 nations concerned about, and trying to restrict, the scope of this great power veto. But engaging the interest of the press from the outset with the plea that there was ‘no reason why one great power should be able to veto an attempt to settle a dispute through negotiation and arbitration, particularly when that dispute might be in an area outside the power’s sphere of influence’, Evatt became the face of the smaller nations’ struggle to decide international issues in concert with the other powers. As he explained it to the press: ‘We don’t mind a veto on a shooting-match, because the big powers have to carry the burden of shooting. What we object to is a veto on a talking-match.’
Although he fought long, hard and tirelessly, Evatt was unsuccessful in obtaining any of the amendments he sought to the veto. At best he got a softening of the terms for amendment finally included in the Charter and, by the end of the conference, Soviet agreement that the veto should not be used to block free discussion of an issue. As the New York Times reported, ‘by fighting head-on with Russia, tying up for days decisions which in more pliable hands might have slipped by silently, Evatt had dramatized the misuse of the veto power’.
The second great issue with which Evatt is associated was his campaign to enlarge the powers of the General Assembly. Here he was more successful. Many of the delegations of the small powers felt as strongly as Evatt about restricting the functions of the Assembly and with their support and sensing that this was a fight that could be won, this time Evatt did not give way. By sheer energy and persistence, he eventually wore down the great power delegations. As a result the small powers successfully enlarged the function of the General Assembly, which now had the right to discuss and make recommendations on anything within the scope of the United Nations Charter or ‘relating to the powers and functions of its organs’. The only exception was under Article 12 of the Charter, which prohibited the Assembly from making recommendations with regard to any dispute or situation that the Security Council was dealing with, unless requested by the Council to do so.
Evatt helped to widen the scope of the United Nations in economic, social and humanitarian areas, as well as strengthen the authority of the Economic and Social Council. With the area of the future of the dependent territories, he had included in the Charter a requirement that colonial powers provide the UN with regular statistical reports on the economic, social and educational development of their dependencies. He also had qualified success in seeking to establish criteria for the election of non-permanent members of the Security Council. Finally Evatt was involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Of the 38 formal Australian amendments on the Dumbarton Oaks draft, 26 were either adopted without material change, adopted in principle or made unnecessary by other alterations. Evatt’s efforts and those of the rest of the overworked Australian delegation were indeed recognized the following year when Australia replaced the initial choice, Canada, as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Evatt himself would be the third President of the General Assembly, the only Australian to have been ever elected to the position.
At the final session of the Steering Committee, every delegate, including the leaders of the Big Five, rose and applauded Evatt, concurring with Edward Stettinius’s statement that he had contributed more to the conference than any other delegate.
Given this legacy, it is tragic indeed that the Gillard government’s hand-picked human rights commissioner, Professor Gillian Trigg felt compelled to tell Fairfax, ”I have made my view really plain to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in saying that to detain people on this remote island, and delaying by at least six months their processing, and where they’re advised that they will be kept there for five years, is an egregious breach of international human rights law,” she said. ”Asylum seekers have a legal right under international law to have their claims assessed in a speedy and appropriate way, and this is at risk of being arbitrary detention.”
How far we have come from the days of Herbert Evatt. The Australian Labour government has clearly lost its moral compass. And, perhaps so has the nation whose votes are won or lost by turning this human rights obligation into a political issue.
(The historical material on Dr. Herbert Evatt’s role in the 1945 United Nations Conference was drawn from Dr. Moreen Dee’s excellent paper, “Dr. H. V. Evatt and the Negotiation of the United Nations Charter.”)