The art of persuasion
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
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
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
©Australian Red Cross
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
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
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
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
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’.”
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
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.”
Australian Red Cross CEO
Humanitarian law professor and adviser Helen Durham.
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross
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.
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
“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.”
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
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.
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
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