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The art of persuasion


The Australian Red Cross’ humanitarian diplomacy team balances bold public campaigning with behind-the-scenes persuasion on issues ranging from asylum and migration to nuclear weapons, aboriginal issues and more.

YAmi Lester is nearly 70, but being an Aboriginal baby from the South Australia bush, his exact birth date is unknown. His first language was and still is Yakuytjatjara — English came much later — so, even if he had heard them, he would not have understood the patrol officers who came in 1953 to tell the elders at his Walatina homeland that the British would be carrying out nuclear tests at Emu Junction, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) south as the crow flies.

What Lester, as a “wee high” child of 10, heard on the morning of 15 October was a big bang. He felt the ground shake and saw a shiny black plume of smoke heading his way from the south across the mulga bushes. He thought he was witnessing a mamu, an evil spirit. His ‘mob’, or tribe, fell sick: vomiting, diarrhoea and skin rashes. Lester had “really sore” eyes. Four years later, he was totally blind.

The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing in Australia in 1985 proved there was radiation fallout, but Lester, now white-haired, shows no rancour as he sits, with his female carer and walking frame nearby, in the backyard of a private Alice Springs home in central Australia, to which he travels for medical care.

This soft-spoken elder has himself become a quiet diplomat of sorts on the issue of nuclear weapons. He wants to tell his story and help the Australian Red Cross to ‘Make Nuclear Weapons the Target’, a campaign embarked upon following a meeting in Oslo in May 2011 co-sponsored by the Australian, Japanese and Norwegian Red Cross societies that began a fresh push for further laws to confirm the illegality of using nuclear weapons.

“When they told me the big boss was Robert,” says Lester, rubbing his hands and smiling generously, “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll talk’.”

Robert is Robert Tickner, the Melbourne-based chief executive of the Australian Red Cross since 2005. He was also the longest-serving minister in the nation’s Aboriginal affairs portfolio and a member of the federal Labor Ministry from 1990 to 1996. He is thus well placed not only to lead the Australian Red Cross’ ambitious push to put an end to nuclear warfare but also to draw attention to another Red Cross priority area: improving the poor health of many of Australia’s often marginalized indigenous people, whose life expectancy at birth is on average 20 years shorter than other Australians.

70-year-old Yami Lester went blind after fallout from British nuclear tests blew through his Australian outback community in the 1950s. Photo: ©Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association

The responsibility to persuade

As the humanitarian landscape grows more complex — with more actors, more frequent disasters, greater competition for resources and growing dangers facing humanitarians and beneficiaries — there has been rising awareness of the need to enhance humanitarian diplomacy.

When the General Assembly of the IFRC adopted Strategy 2020 in 2009, it identified humanitarian diplomacy as one of three enabling actions central to the strategy’s success. The subsequent adoption of the IFRC’s Humanitarian Diplomacy Policy  reflects “a new institutional commitment to practise humanitarian diplomacy with greater consistency across the membership”.

Meanwhile, more National Societies are investing in humanitarian diplomacy: adopting plans and policies, as well as hiring humanitarian diplomacy focal points. “National Societies are best placed to persuade decision-makers and opinion-leaders to act in the interests of the vulnerable,” says Goli Ameri, IFRC’s under-secretary general for humanitarian values and diplomacy. “As auxiliaries to public authorities, they have the access to national and local governments.”

But National Societies also face many challenges, according to a recent IFRC survey of National Society diplomatic readiness.  The external obstacles include lack of government transparency and misunderstandings about, or lack of interest in, the work of the National Society.

The internal challenges include retaining trained staff, making effective use of the auxiliary role, lack of resources, defining areas of focus, inconsistent evidence-gathering and reporting systems, and a need to improve networking, lobbying and communications skills. The IFRC is developing tools to help, some of which can now be found on FedNet, where National Societies are sharing diplomatic successes and frustrations.

In addition to high-level humanitarian diplomacy, the Australian Red Cross takes its message to the streets. These life-sized posters, along with full-sized cut-outs, were placed in public squares as part of its ‘Even Wars Have Rules’ campaign.
©Australian Red Cross

Speak softly, with a loud voice
That evening in the Alice Springs township, Tickner addresses one of dozens of public meetings the Australian Red Cross is holding around the country to highlight the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and encourage people to raise their voice on this issue via social media such as Facebook.

It will be a long campaign. Tickner, however, is hopeful that the Movement can agree upon a strong position on these weapons at the upcoming Council of Delegates. He notes that the Movement has often spoken out on this topic since 1945. Like much of the Australian Red Cross’ work, particularly over the past decade, this is more than a public campaign. It’s part of a broad approach to humanitarian diplomacy that involves persuading all sectors of society — from the general public to parliamentarians and decision-makers — to put into action the society’s humanitarian concerns.

Undeniably, Tickner and Brisbane-based lawyer Greg Vickery, who was elected chairman of the Australian Red Cross in 2003 (the title changed to president in 2010), have worked hard to invigorate their national society, developing a nationally cohesive organization under the authority of a national board while remaining mindful of the talent at the grass-roots level.

Some of the bold work in pursuing a new level of humanitarian diplomacy has occasionally included graphic visual statements to highlight significant humanitarian concerns, such as the prohibition on torture or the illegality of using child soldiers. For instance, in the streets of Australia’s state capitals, the Red Cross has placed cardboard cut-outs of children holding machine guns to draw attention to child soldiers, and blood-red-splattered white chairs and dummies with hooded heads and rope nooses to highlight torture.

Thin red line
But such campaigns, say Tickner and Vickery, are staged at carefully chosen times to avoid being seen as partisan responses to debates in parliament. Helen Durham, the Australian Red Cross’ head of international law and principles, says the aim is to focus the public discourse and analysis on the implications for international humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian issues — not on political considerations.

She’s the first to admit it’s only human to want to speak first with the heart. “Every now and then I think, ‘Imagine the freedom to go out there and say what I feel’,” she says. “I’m passionate and committed to the work we do, but I deeply understand the need to have a line in the Red Cross. We can be as creative, innovative and exciting as we can, but always within the fundamental principles followed by the Red Cross and Red Crescent everywhere in the world.”

The pay-off for keeping within those principles is that the Australian Red Cross can — and does — get to make more specific private suggestions and express concerns, and gains access to areas of government where other organizations that are publicly critical find the door closed. Working this way, these humanitarian diplomats argue, means the Red Cross is best placed to assert and protect the needs of the vulnerable.

Tickner lists as Red Cross successes the Australian government’s support for ratifying the ban on landmines and the release of some women and child asylum seekers into community detention. The Red Cross recently mobilized to provide housing and support for these refugee applicants in several Australian cities, complementing its long-standing oversight role and unlimited access to detention centres. That role includes making confidential quarterly reports on conditions.

Tickner predicts the Australian government will also support a ban on cluster munitions, a project the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has worked hard on with strong humanitarian diplomacy efforts. After a number of submissions to government committees and letters to relevant ministers from the Australian Red Cross, it appears that legislation on this topic will come before the federal parliament this year.

How far can you go?
Despite Australia having a robust liberal democracy, there is always a “sensitive value judgement about how far you can go in publicly articulating a case for change, based on humanitarian principles, without taking sides, without becoming a partisan political player”, says Tickner. Conversely, there are “also some times when Red Cross’ commitment to particular principles may be so core, we have a duty to articulate the case and can perhaps push the boundaries of what is possible further in those particular cases”.

Notably, while the Australian Red Cross has trained without controversy some 140 indigenous people to work in communities and deal with issues of Aboriginal violence, health and diet, the former government led by John Howard also asked the Red Cross to join its ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory, a policy under which the army was sent into remote indigenous communities to combat child abuse, banning alcohol and pornography and restricting how Aboriginal people spend their social service payments.

The present government has continued the intervention. But the prospect of hitching the Red Cross’ wagon to the army and accepting money that would otherwise have been destined for indigenous people’s personal bank accounts were both clear deal-breakers for the Australian Red Cross.

“We thought that was a very polarized space,” states Tickner. “Essentially, we were offered funds that had been quarantined [taken directly from Aboriginal people’s bank accounts] as a result of the intervention, from individuals, and we took the view that was not the space that we could properly go into, consistent with our principles.”

In Brisbane, Greg Vickery elaborates: “We did not want to be seen as playing a part in a compulsory intervention into communities. We thought the purpose was worthy but the method was inappropriate. So we didn’t get directly involved… we basically said, ‘No look, we’ll work in the community ourselves, but we’re not going to work as part of the intervention, we don’t want to be working as part of the government on this matter’.”

Growing recognition
The Australian Red Cross’ steadily growing profile in the humanitarian field has meant federal, state and territory governments are increasingly recognizing and calling upon the auxiliary role to public authorities that the society has always possessed. The National Society, for example, made its presence felt strongly and swiftly during this year’s Queensland floods, undertaking the large logistical exercise of running the shelters for the people whose homes were inundated.






The Australian Red Cross humanitarian diplomacy team: CEO Robert Tickner and President Greg Vickery.
Photo: ©Sebastien Calmus/IFRC












“Sometimes when the
Red Cross’ commitment
to particular principles
may be so core, we have
a duty to articulate the
case and can perhaps
push the boundaries
of what is possible.”

Robert Tickner,
Australian Red Cross CEO












Humanitarian law professor and adviser Helen Durham.
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Persuasion amid the realpolitik of parliament requires players of all political stripes. Although Tickner left the Australian Labor Party 15 years ago and Vickery, a former vice-president of Queensland’s Liberal Party, has not been active in politics for 20 years, the national board includes Kate Carnell, a former Australian Capital Territory chief minister, who maintains a strong Liberal Party network, and David Hammill, a former Queensland Labor state treasurer, who still has Labor Party ties.

Sometimes, it’s about persuading the government to act in a difficult international political environment. Geoff Skillen, a former senior lawyer with the federal Attorney-General’s department and long-term member of the Red Cross IHL committee — he was appointed chairman last year — recalls that in 2001 and 2002 it looked as though the Australian government might not support the ratification of the International Criminal Court (ICC) given the staunch opposition of the US administration under former president George W. Bush.

The work ahead

Just as Dunant’s real work began after Solferino, the successes of the Movement’s diplomatic efforts from 2011’s statutory meetings will be measured in the months and years that follow.

Effective diplomacy, many say, is not just about our ability to persuade, the access granted by the Movement’s unique status or our connections to people with power and money. It’s about follow-up.

The pledges made and resolutions adopted will require consistent monitoring and shepherding, both to ensure full implementation and to lay the groundwork for future refinements and strengthening.

A key part of that follow-up involves building the capacity of the Movement players to effectively gather, analyse and report on evidence from the field. The Movement message, many note, is only as good as its ability both to deliver and to convincingly show that it’s making a concrete difference.

“We need to develop tools that go beyond the key messages and position papers,” says Mirwan Jilani, who heads IFRC’s delegation to the United Nations. “We need to provide governments with serious documentation that will support National Societies in doing this kind of diplomacy.”

That means improving systems for getting quality information quickly to and from the field — and then to governments, the media and international and regional bodies.

Others interviewed about humanitarian diplomacy also said there is a need for better Movement cooperation and coordination, a disciplined, Movement-wide focus on key issues and better integration of humanitarian diplomacy into emergency response.

“Humanitarian diplomacy needs to be better integrated into initial emergency assessments,” Jilani adds, “so that we can start tackling issues [such as customs, access, land use] from the beginning all the way through to recovery.”

Australia did eventually ratify the ICC, after the Australian Red Cross’ comprehensive submission and appearance before a parliamentary committee. “I believe the Red Cross’ attitude was instrumental in persuading [the parliamentary committee] to favour ratification,” says Skillen.

Informal channels
Often, diplomacy depends on fundamental relationship skills — building trust, keeping your word, respecting confidentiality. Having connections doesn’t hurt either and phoning a friend is often part of the equation.

The co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of the Red Cross, federal Queensland Labor parliamentarian Graham Perrett, says informal channels are key: he can readily call Attorney-General Rob McClelland or Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to discuss pressing Red Cross concerns. “Kevin’s my next-door neighbour and he’s a big influence on my being in parliament in the first place,” says Perrett of Rudd, who is also a former prime minister.

Those networks will continue to be crucial, as new challenges arise. For several months until the end of August, the Australian government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard was indicating it intended to press ahead with the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ to send 800 new asylum seekers to Malaysia, in exchange for 4,000 already processed refugees, in a bid to deter people smugglers and new arrivals by boat.

“We’ve done our private advocacy on that,” says Vickery. “We’ve let [the Australian government] know what we think. But nonetheless we will work with that… our humanitarian imperative is to help because they [the asylum seekers] are in need and someone needs to be looking after them.”

That offer derives from Australian Red Cross work programmes with asylum seekers in Australia, and will be available in future for whatever other arrangements might be made for offshore processing in the wake of a six-to-one ruling of the High Court of Australia on 31 August which restrained the Australian government from sending the 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia. The Australian Red Cross will maintain its role as a strong persuader, a humanitarian diplomat, on behalf of these vulnerable voyagers.

By Steve Dow
Steve Dow is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia.






Humanitarian diplomacy can boost a National Society’s role as auxiliary in emergencies while ensuring independence. Here, Australian Red Cross first-aiders treat a fire fighter in an area affected by bushfires that claimed the lives of 210 people, in 2009.
Photo: ©Rodney Dekker/Australian Red Cross





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