Ingeborg van Teeseling

Herbert Vere Evatt: The Australian who led the UN general assembly

As Australians, we often feel left out of the diplomatic process. However, we’ll always have Herbert Vere Evatt, the man colloquially known as “the president of the world”.

 

 

Australia doesn’t have a big voice in the world right now. We are used to following somebody else’s lead: Britain before WWII, America since then. But for a brief, bright moment we did speak. And more to the point, we had something to say and people were listening. For number four in our series about the weird and wonderful in Australian history we go to 1945, to focus on something that was mostly wonderful, and only weird in the sense that we had never done it before. When I say “we”, by the way, I mean Herbert Vere Evatt. 1945 was a turning point, or at least it should have been. After WWI, the international community had set up the League of Nations, but it had failed to prevent WWII. In the last two years of the war, the big powers, the US, USSR and Britain, had met each other on a regular basis to figure out what the new order would be after the guns had fallen silent. In February of 1945, Stalin, Churchill and a very sick Roosevelt met each other at the Yalta conference, where they made some decisions for the future. They not only divided up the world in influence spheres, but also laid the foundations for a new organisation that would be called the United Nations. They drew up its Charter and had it all figured out before they called the next conference, to be held in San Francisco in April of that same year.

But then things changed. First of all, Roosevelt died on the 12th of April and a hastily sworn-in Truman had to take his place. On top of that, it was soon clear that this would not be the tick-and-flick occasion the Big Three (broadened to a Big Five, with France and China added) wanted. There were protests and annoying dissenting voices, arguing that the world didn’t consist of big powers alone and that the smaller nations also needed to be heard. Loudest among the opponents was Herbert Vere Evatt, on behalf of Australia. Hands down, Evatt is one of the most interesting politicians we have ever had. His reputation has been tarnished by a few things that happened in the latter part of his life, but at the time of the San Francisco conference he was at the height of his powers and that showed. He had already had a career that most of us can only dream about. Born in Maitland in 1894 and raised in Sydney by a widowed mother of six boys, he was that enviable combination: smart as a tack and a jock as well. After receiving every medal, prize and scholarship there was to win at high school and university, he became a lawyer and then a High Court justice at a very young age. Then, in the late 1930s, on a sojourn in Europe, he realised that there was a war coming. Evatt was an internationalist, who saw Australia as an integral part of the world, and he thought he needed to do something. So he quit the bench and went into politics. Labor to his bootlaces, he became part of Curtin’s war cabinet in 1941, as both Attorney-General and Minister of External Affairs.


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During the war, Evatt made himself a nuisance in the chambers of the powerful. He was an equal opportunity annoyance, both to Churchill and to Roosevelt, who were “fighting Hitler first” and didn’t want to know about Australia’s problems, or give us the soldiers back we had lent them during the start of the conflict. Although Evatt didn’t get far with the leaders, he did pick up an idea or two. After one of his visits to the US in 1943 he brought back four posters, each made to symbolise Roosevelt’s newly formulated Four Freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech and freedom of worship. They were put up in the dining room of the Evatt household and slowly an idea started to form. Of course, this war would soon be over, the Minister realised. But then what? Peace was great, but history showed it would never last without justice. And justice needed a document about human rights, and an organisation that was powerful enough to not only prevent wars but also protect normal people against the machinations of nations, even their own. So when San Francisco started, Evatt was ready to be, in the words of Truman, an “architect of a better world”. Only not the way Truman wanted.

The Big Five had hoped that the rest of the world would just look at their Charter, decide it was a great idea, sign off and move on. They had put a time limit on it and that was a great trick, because the text was long and complicated and for most delegations getting their heads around it in the short period they had was a problem. Not for Evatt. He had brought with him a crack team, who he divided into smaller committees. He gave each of them a part of the Charter to read in depth and discuss. Whenever they then needed his advice, they could send the runner he had given them to come and get him. This way, as one of the delegates said, it was like there were “ten Evatts”, and the consequences of that became clear straight away. Soon Evatt was the go-to man for dozens of smaller countries, that had also felt pushed aside. Because he was on top of everything, people came to him and within a few days there was an “Evatt-bloc” that the Big Five had to listen to, whether they wanted or not. There were two big, contentious issues that needed to be solved. The first one was the veto right which the Big Five had claimed for themselves. Evatt thought this was unfair, but the Big Five threatened to pull out of the UN altogether if they didn’t get their way. Beaten into submission, most of the smaller countries voted with the Big Five, although Evatt managed to get 10 votes and 15 abstentions on his side (against the 20 on the side of the Big Five). This became a warning sign. When the Big Five also tried to turn the General Assembly into a group of yes-men, Evatt put his foot down and this time he came out on top. In total, Australia put in 38 amendments to the original Charter, 26 of which were adopted.

Peace was great, but history showed it would never last without justice. And justice needed a document about human rights, and an organisation powerful enough to protect people against the machinations of even their own nations.

This had turned Herbert Vere Evatt into an international celebrity. The New York Times thought he was the best thing since sliced bread and at Evatt’s last press conference, 400 journalists turned up. Australia was elected as a member of the first Security Council in 1946, and in 1948 Evatt himself became the third president of the United Nations General Assembly. To him, it felt like he had been chosen as “president of the world”, and one of the ways he used the honour was to help Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the old President of the US, get the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted. It was the first time in the history of humanity that anything this broad and brazen had been suggested, let alone accepted. Roosevelt herself called it “the internal Magna Carta of all mankind”, and Evatt agreed. It was the culmination of what he had been thinking about for decades: no peace without justice. And no justice without human rights. Evatt hoped it would be “a solemn pronouncement by the governments that the power exercised by governments is to be used by them in trust for the benefit of those they govern”, and throughout his life he kept great faith in the UN, even when that was less than deserved.

After his tenure at the UN was up, Evatt went back to domestic politics. When Chifley died, he became Labor leader, something he remained until the end of the 1950s. In the meantime, he fought Menzies’ attempts to make communism, and communists, illegal in Australia every step of the way. More and more paranoid as time went on, Evatt was also, at least partly, responsible for the split in the Labor party and the fact that Menzies could remain in power for far too long. The man with the quicksilver brain, who had always been the smartest person in the room, died of dementia in 1965. Two days later, all the members of the UN General Assembly rose out of their seats to honour his memory. Australians who had been schoolchildren in 1949 dug up the small copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they had received at the time, written on airmail paper, and remembered. Evatt was buried in Canberra, where his presidency of the Assembly is the sole inscription on his tombstone. He was proud of that achievement until the end. And so should we be. It was our moment in the sun, made possible by a flawed genius. Thankfully, we haven’t forgotten about him altogether. Every year 2,000 students in years 9 to 12 compete in the Evatt competition, to become part of a model UN Security Council. With a bit of luck, another brilliant diplomat will come out of this contest one day. We can only hope.

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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