After leaving politics, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009. On returning to Australia he was appointed in 2009 honorary professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. He has served on a number of major international commissions and panels, including as co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2000–01) and International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (2008–10). Evans has written extensively on international relations and legal, constitutional and political affairs, and has been internationally recognised for his contributions to the theory and practice of mass atrocity and conflict prevention, arms control and disarmament.
Since 2010, Evans has been the Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU). He was appointed an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the ANU in 2012. He currently is a member of the Board of Sponsors for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Evans was born in Melbourne, Victoria. His father was a tram driver, and his mother, who had been a wartime Woolworths store manager, ran a small baby-wear business from home. He was educated at Hawthorn West Central School (1950–57); Melbourne High School, where he was school captain (1958–61); the University of Melbourne (1962–67) where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws with First-Class Honours, sharing the Supreme Court Prize, was a Member of the Melbourne University Law Review and was President of the Students Representative Council from 1964 to 1966; and Magdalen College, Oxford (1968–70), where he attended on a Shell scholarship and graduated with a Master of Arts with First-Class Honours in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).
In 2004, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College, his alma mater at Oxford.
From 1971 to 1976, he was law academic at the University of Melbourne, teaching crime, torts, civil liberties law and federal constitutional law, and becoming a prominent commentator on legal issues, especially at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. In 1977 he edited Labor and the Constitution 1972–75, a collection of essays on constitutional issues arising during the life of the Whitlam Government, and later co-authored Australia's Constitution, arguing for major constitutional reforms. From 1976 to his entry into the Parliament he practised full-time as a barrister, specialising in industrial law, and appellate argument, and became a Queen's Counsel (in Victoria and the ACT) in 1983.
Evans was active in civil liberties issues from his student days on, campaigning on issues such as censorship, capital punishment, the White Australia policy, apartheid and abortion law reform. He was a long-serving vice-president of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty Victoria), and an active executive member of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.
During the Whitlam Labor Government, he acted as a consultant to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gordon Bryant, advising on Indigenous land rights and legal services issues, and Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, where he was closely involved in drafting the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the (unsuccessful) Human Rights Bill 1973. He was appointed by Murphy as a foundation member of the Australian Law Reform Commission, chaired by Justice Michael Kirby, and was primarily responsible for the Commission's 1975 report on Criminal Investigation.
Evans joined the Australian Labor Party while at University of Melbourne and became actively involved after his return from Oxford in 1975, joining the centrist Labor Unity faction and working closely with its leaders including Clyde Holding, Peter Redlich and Ian Turner – and Bob Hawke, whose ambition to lead the party he strongly supported. He was an unsuccessful Labor candidate for the Senate in 1975, but was elected in 1977 and took his seat in 1978.
As a young backbencher, Evans was one of the two parliamentarians chosen to sit – along with international architects I. M. Pei and John Andrews – on the Parliament House Competition Assessment Panel which in 1979 chose the winning design for the new Australian Parliament House.
In his first years in the Senate, Evans focused strongly on legal and constitutional reform issues, attracting early attention with his series of attacks on Sir Garfield Barwick, for potential conflict of interest between his role as the Chief Justice of the High Court and his involvement in his family company Mundroola. After the October 1980 election he was elected to the Opposition front bench in 1980, becoming Shadow Attorney-General.
Evans played an active part in ALP National Conferences during this period seeking to modernize the Party's Platform, in particular the language of the 'socialist objective', and within the Parliamentary Party in developing a detailed 'transition to government' strategy. He supported Bob Hawke's leadership challenge against Bill Hayden in 1982 which led ultimately to Hayden resigning just hours before Malcolm Fraser announced the March 1983 election and Hawke leading Labor to victory.
As Attorney-General, Evans undertook a large agenda for law reform on a range of issues. He immediately ran into controversy, arranging for the Royal Australian Air Force to take surveillance photos of the Franklin Dam project in Tasmania. The Hawke government was pledged to (and ultimately did) stop the project, over the objections of the Tasmanian Liberal government, on the ground that it endangered a World Heritage listed area. The Hawke government was accused of misusing the RAAF for domestic political purposes, and Evans's use of RAAF planes led to his earning the nickname "Biggles", after Captain W. E. Johns's fictional aviation hero – a self-inflicted wound, following his remark to journalists at the time 'whatever you do, don't call me Biggles'. This incident also led to Evans coining the expression 'streaker's defence' (i.e. 'it seemed like a good idea at the time), which has entered the Australian vocabulary. More serious controversy surrounded the Government's handling of national security issues including the Combe-Ivanov affair and the attempted suppression of publication of leaked documents by journalist Brian Toohey, and the allegations of impropriety made against High Court Justice Lionel Murphy, all of which created stress for Evans as an avowed civil libertarian. He achieved a number of reforms, including the establishment of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and the National Crime Authority, the strengthening of the Family Law and Freedom of Information Act, and some business regulation changes, but failed in his attempts to achieve uniform national defamation law, a legislative bill of rights, and constitutional reform. In a demotion following this mixed record, Hawke moved him to the less sensitive portfolio of Resources and Energy after the 1984 election.
In the two major industry portfolios he held over the next five years, Evans was generally perceived as playing himself back into the government mainstream. As Minister for Resources and Energy from 1984 to 1987 he won industry support for his role in rescuing from possible collapse of the huge North West Shelf gas project, managing the Australian fallout from the crash in world oil prices in 1986, and seeking to strike a workable balance, between resource sector and competing interests, on uranium mining, the environment and Aboriginal land rights.
As Transport and Communications minister in 1987–88, he was involved in some controversy with the Australian Broadcasting Commission over funding guarantees and charter reform, but primarily concerned with issues at the heart of the government's micro-economic strategy: major airline deregulation, and the reform of government business enterprises in the telecommunications and other sectors, designed to corporatize their commercial practices, as a necessary prelude to the privatisation that later followed.
Evans was appointed Foreign Minister in September 1988, after his predecessor Bill Hayden retired to become Governor-General. He held the position for seven years and six months, the longest-serving Labor minister in that portfolio. He became a well-known Foreign Minister and highly regarded internationally, and continues to be regarded as one of Australia's most successful. The Hawke and Keating governments were committed to shifting emphasis from Australia's traditional relationships with the United States and the United Kingdom to increased involvement with Asian neighbours, particularly Indonesia and China, and were strongly committed to multilateral diplomacy both globally and regionally.
Evans brought a strongly structured and analytical approach to foreign policymaking and is credited with significant innovative thinking in his articulation, in particular, of the concepts of middle power and niche diplomacy, 'good international citizenship' as a national interest, and cooperative security (see 'Contributions to international relations thinking', below).
His most widely acknowledged successes as foreign minister were his initiation of the UN peace plan for Cambodia, and the roles that he and Australia played in bringing to fruition the International Chemical Weapons Convention and establishing both the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Major contributions to international agenda setting, though not bearing much immediate fruit, were his book on UN reform launched in New York City in 1993, and his initiation with Paul Keating of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
Evans famously became the first person to drop the f-bomb in the Australian Parliament, interjecting "for fuck's sake" during a speech by Senator Robert Hill. Despite his reputation as a negotiator he was widely reputed to be in possession of a short-temper with a particular intolerance for elected representatives of the Australian Greens.
Evans ran into significant controversy on two major issues: relations with Indonesia over East Timor and French Nuclear Tests in the Pacific. Evans continues to be strongly criticised by many commentators – most prominently Noam Chomsky and John Pilger – for supporting Australia's recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor following its military invasion in 1975, negotiating (and celebrating 'replete with champagne') with then Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas the Timor Gap Treaty, and describing the 1991 Dili massacre as 'an aberration, not an act of state policy'. Evans has replied at length to these charges in various forums, acknowledging that the Indonesian military's behaviour had been appalling and conceding that Australia had been too optimistic about its capacity for redemption, but arguing, that de jure recognition by Australian (and other) governments had never denied the continuing right of the East Timorese to self-determination; that he personally had worked hard (as subsequently acknowledged by José Ramos-Horta) to achieve real autonomy for East Timor as the only realistic option before the events of 1997; and that independent East Timor had fully inherited the benefits of the Timor Gap Treaty.
When in June 1995 the resumption of French underground nuclear tests at Moruroa Atoll was announced, Evans generated a storm of press and public criticism for remarking that while Australia deplored the decision 'it could have been worse'. This was strictly accurate as the test series was limited in number, and France promised to then permanently close the test facility and join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiations, but it politically damaged Evans and his party.
In 1993, as a member of the Keating government, Senator Evans became Leader of the Government in the Senate, replacing the retiring John Button, whose Deputy he had been since 1987. In this position he led the government's domestic legislative agenda in the upper house, where the government did not have a majority, and every bill had to be negotiated with the minor parties. In what was described at the time as 'perhaps the finest moment in his political career', he played the leading role in getting the government's Native Title Act 1993 through the Senate in one of the Parliament's longest-ever debates following the High Court of Australia's decision in Mabo v Queensland.
Evans had long desired to move from the Senate to the House of Representatives, where he hoped to pursue leadership ambitions. His first attempt to do so, in 1984, had been thwarted by the Socialist Left faction, but in 1996 he gained endorsement for the seat of Holt, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, and was elected at the 1996 election. He was elected Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, defeating Simon Crean, and appointed Shadow Treasurer by Leader Kim Beazley. As Deputy Leader Evans led a major policy review in every shadow portfolio area, and during 1997 orchestrated in secret the defection to the Labor Party of the popular leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Cheryl Kernot, who resigned from the Senate in October and became a Labor House of Representatives candidate at the 1998 election. The political triumph of the defection was, however, soured by the later revelation – by Laurie Oakes in his column in The Bulletin in 2002 – that Evans and Kernot had been having an affair at the time.
Evans, after eighteen years in the Senate, found the transition to the very different lower house environment not easy to manage, and – with Australia sailing comfortably through the 1997 Asian financial crisis – also found it difficult to get traction with his own economic policy brief. He also did not enjoy the move to opposition after thirteen years in government, coining the expression 'relevance deprivation syndrome', which – while he was criticised more than applauded for his honesty at the time – is now entrenched in the national vocabulary. His biographer, Keith Scott, commented that 'Overwhelmingly, Evans's period as deputy leader and shadow treasurer – from March 1996 to October 1998 – was his least successful in federal parliament'. Labor's defeat at the 1998 election led to Evans's resignation from the opposition front bench, and in September 1999 he resigned from Parliament causing a by-election, which was later won by Labor candidate Anthony Byrne.
From 2000–2009 Evans was President and CEO of the Brussels-based conflict prevention and resolution organisation, the International Crisis Group, which during his tenure grew in staff from 25 to over 130, in budget from $US2 million to over $15 million, and in operating area from a handful of countries in the Balkans and Central Africa to over 60 across four continents, and published 784 worldwide-distributed reports.
Crisis Group made important contributions during this period in early-warning bellringing in cases like Darfur and Ethiopia-Eritrea, supporting conflict mediation in situations like Southern Sudan, Kosovo and Aceh, making path-breaking recommendations on Israel-Palestine, Iran and Burma/Myanmar, analysing the different strands of Islamism, and generally providing timely and detailed field-based analysis and recommendations to policymakers on hundreds of separate conflict-related issues.
Although subject to occasional attack for the positions it has taken, Crisis Group was firmly established by the time of Evans's departure, and has remained, the preeminent international NGO working on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict, praised by leaders across the spectrum from Condoleezza Rice to Hillary Clinton, and regularly being identified as one of the world's most influential think tanks.
In 2000–2001 Evans co-chaired, with Mohamed Sahnoun, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), appointed by the government of Canada to address the issue of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, which published its report, The Responsibility to Protect, in December 2001. He was a member of the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, whose report A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, addressing mass atrocity crimes and many other UN reform issues, was published in December 2004.
On nuclear issues, he was a member of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction sponsored by Sweden and chaired by Hans Blix which reported in June 2006; and the Commission of Eminent Persons on The Role of the IAEA to 2020 and Beyond, chaired by Ernesto Zedillo, whose report Reinforcing the Global Nuclear Order for Peace and Prosperity was launched in June 2008. From 2008 to 2010 he co-chaired (with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi) the Australia and Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament: its report Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers was published in December 2009.
Evans had previously served as a member of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict (1994–97), co-chaired by Cyrus Vance and David Hamburg. He was also a member of the International Task Force on Global Public Goods, sponsored by Sweden and France and chaired by Ernesto Zedillo, which reported in September 2006.
Evans is presently Co-chair (with Mohamed Sahnoun) of the International Advisory Board of the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Canberra-based Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and Convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN).
His other recorded affiliations with internationally focused organisations include Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs; Member of the Global Leadership Foundation (chaired by F. W. de Klerk), the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Committee on Genocide Prevention, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons, the Supervisory Council of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Moscow, the Global Council of the Asia Society, the Advisory Council of Independent Diplomat, the Jury of the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award, the Aspen Ministers Forum (chaired by Madeleine Albright) and the International Advisory Board of the Institute for Economics and Peace.
Evans is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Global Panel Foundation-Australasia-a respected NGO that works behind the scenes in crisis areas around the world. The current Australasia Chair is the Rt. Hon. Don McKinnon, former Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand and Commonwealth Secretary General, and the Vice Chair is Hon. Phillip Ruddock, Majority Whip of the Australian Parliament and former Australian Attorney General. Senator Arthur Sinodinos, the Australian Assistant Treasurer and former Chief of Staff of Prime Minister John Howard, is also a Member of the Board as is former ALP Defense Minister and Senator John Faulkner, Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, Hon. Laurie Ferguson and former New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff. The Global Panel Foundation has offices and satellites in Berlin, Copenhagen, New York, Prague, Sydney and Toronto.
Before entering Australian politics Evans was a Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, in Law at the University of Melbourne, teaching constitutional and civil liberties law, crime and torts, from 1971 to 1976. In 2009, after his retirement from politics and his subsequent career as head of the International Crisis Group, he returned to academic life as an honorary professorial fellow (later professorial fellow) in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, teaching a graduate course on International Policymaking in Practice in 2011 and 2012.
He was elected as Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1 January 2010, replacing Kim Beazley following his appointment as Australian Ambassador to the United States, and was installed by Governor-General Quentin Bryce at a ceremony in Canberra on 18 February 2010.
He is also an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford; a Distinguished Fellow of the Australia India Institute; Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; and Member of the Advisory Boards of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy and Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, and the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.
Evans has written or edited eleven books, most recently "Inside the Hawke-Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary" (Melbourne University Press, 2014). His other major works include The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Brookings Institution Press, September 2008, paperback edition 2009), which was awarded an Honorable Mention in the US Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award 2009 as one of the best three books on international relations published in the previous year, as well as Australia's Foreign Relations (with Bruce Grant, Melbourne University Press 1991, 2nd ed 1995), Cooperating for Peace: The Global Agenda for the 1990s (Allen & Unwin,1993), Australia's Constitution (with John McMillan and Haddon Storey, Allen & Unwin, 1983) and the edited collection, Labor and the Constitution, 1972–1975 (Heinemann, 1977). He co-edited the annual Labor Essays series from 1980 to 1982.
Evans has also published around 120 chapters in books, monographs and articles in refereed and other journals – and many more newspaper and magazine articles – on foreign relations, politics, human rights and legal reform.
The core idea of the responsibility to protect (often abbreviated as 'R2P' or 'RtoP'), as endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit, is that every state has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide and other mass atrocity crimes; the international community has a responsibility to assist the state if it is unable to protect its population on its own; and that if the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene with appropriate measures, with coercive military intervention, approved by the UN Security Council, available as a last resort. The concept was expressly designed to supersede the idea of 'humanitarian intervention', which had failed to generate any international consensus about how to respond to the 1990s catastrophes of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Evans has been widely acknowledged as playing a crucial role in initiating, and advocating the international acceptance of, the concept, first as Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which introduced the expression in its 2001 report of that name, and subsequently as a member of the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of the Global Centre on the Responsibility to Protect, and as the author of the Brookings Institution-published The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All and many other published works. He has made innumerable speeches and presentations on the issue, including in July 2009 participating at the United Nations General Assembly in an interactive dialogue with Noam Chomsky.
Evans introduced the idea of 'good international citizenship' in his first major speeches as Australian foreign minister, and repeated and refined it in subsequent writing. The core notion was that 'being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen' should be seen not as the 'foreign policy equivalent of boy-scout good deeds', but as a distinct component of any country's national interest, 'quite distinct from the familiar duo of security and economic interests':
The interest in question here is more than just the pleasure of basking in approbation. There are many direct reciprocal benefits to be gained in a world where no country can solve all its own problems: my assistance for you today in solving your drugs and terrorism problem might reasonably lead you to be more willing to help solve my environmental problem tomorrow. But the reputational benefit does also count. The perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all – as the Scandinavians in particular seem to have well understood – when it comes to advancing one's own commercial or political agendas.
The concept of 'good international citizenship' has been specifically attributed to Evans in academic writing; its 'idealistic pragmatism' has been seen as a way of bridging or transcending rival doctrines of realism and idealism in international relations theory; and the idea has been advanced as mapping a possible 'third way for British foreign policy'.
'Niche diplomacy' was identified by Evans as one of the characteristic methods of the larger and more familiar concept of middle power diplomacy which has traditionally characterized the approach to international relations of Canada (especially during the Pearson years) and Australia (especially under the Labor governments of Hawke, Keating and Rudd). He defined it as 'concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having, rather than trying to cover the field. By definition, middle powers are not powerful enough in most circumstances to impose their will, but they may be persuasive enough to have likeminded others see their point of view, and to act accordingly'. The concept is now familiar in academic discourse, and has been specifically attributed to Evans.
Evans won the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order (following Mikhail Gorbachev the year before ) for his Fall 1994 Foreign Policy article, 'Cooperative Security and Intra-State Conflict', which was cited as presenting ideas that, following the end of the Cold War 'could quicken the process … to help maintain a new world order'. He described 'cooperative security' as being a single conceptual theme that effectively captured the essence of three more familiar concepts in international security discourse, viz. comprehensive security, common security and collective security. Its defining – and attractive – characteristics were that 'the term tends to connote consultation rather than confrontation, reassurance rather than deterrence, transparency rather than secrecy, prevention rather than correction, and interdependence rather than unilateralism'.
On 11 June 2012, Evans was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for "eminent service to international relations, particularly in the Asia Pacific Region as an adviser to governments on a range of global policy matters, to conflict prevention and resolution, and to arms control and disarmament." He had previously been made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2001 for "service to the Australian Parliament, particularly through advancing Australia's foreign policy and trade interests, especially in Asia and through the United Nations", and has been awarded Honorary Doctorates of Laws by the University of Melbourne in 2002, Carleton University in 2005, the University of Sydney in 2008 and Queen's University Ontario in 2010. In October 2005 he and the International Crisis Group were named European and Asian 'Heroes of 2005'. In July 2008, he was selected as an inaugural fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in recognition of his 'outstanding contribution to Australian international relations'. In May 2010 he was awarded the 2010 Roosevelt Institute Four Freedoms Award for Freedom from Fear for his pioneering work on the responsibility to protect concept and his contributions to conflict prevention and resolution, arms control and disarmament. In October 2011, he was presented by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, led by Sam Nunn and Ted Turner, the Amartya Sen Award 'for intrepid and creative leadership in creating momentum toward a world free of nuclear weapons'. In December 2011 Foreign Policy magazine cited him, along with Francis Deng, as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers for 2011 "for making 'the responsibility to protect' more than academic".
Earlier in his career he was designated Australian Humanist of the Year in 1990 by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, won the ANZAC Peace Prize in 1994 for his 'leadership role in the Cambodian Peace Process, was awarded in 1995 the prestigious University of Louisville $150 000 Grawemeyer Prize for Ideas Improving World Order for his 1994 Foreign Policy article "Cooperative Security and Intrastate Conflict", and in 1999 received the Chilean Order of Merit (Grand Officer) for his work in initiating APEC.
In April 2007, Evans gave a lecture entitled "Preventing Mass Atrocities: Making 'Never Again' a Reality" at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series.
Evans has been married since 1969 to Professor Merran Evans, of Monash University, with whom he has two adult children. They have four grandchildren.
In 2002, Evans admitted to having an extramarital relationship with Cheryl Kernot.
He has been a lifelong supporter, and was during his time in Australian government a Special Patron, of the Hawthorn Football Club. His other stated leisure interests are reading and writing, travel, architecture, opera and golf.