Wit and wis­dom of a mod­est man

For­tu­nate Voy­ager: The Worlds of Ninian Stephen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ben­jamin Dighton Ben­jamin Dighton

By Philip Ayres Miegun­yah Press, 319pp, $59.99 (HB)

HEM­ING­WAY’S in­dict­ment of the man who does not take ad­van­tage of life as it slips by finds the an­tithe­sis in Ninian Stephen. This bi­og­ra­phy by Philip Ayres con­cen­trates on his ca­reer, a roll­call of dis­tinc­tion that in­cludes ap­point­ment as a Queen’s Coun­sel, High Court judge, mem­ber of the Privy Coun­cil, gov­er­nor-gen­eral, judge of the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice as well as diplo­mat and me­di­a­tor in Ire­land, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Burma. It is a ca­reer that gar­nered him five knight­hoods and the Le­gion d’hon­neur.

Ayres’s ac­count is rig­or­ous in its de­tail and con­veys an over­all im­pres­sion of ad­mi­ra­tion for his sub­ject, with­out de­scend­ing into ha­giog­ra­phy. Stephen’s rise from ju­nior bar­ris­ter to gov­er­nor-gen­eral via the High Court is cov­ered, by ne­ces­sity, within the first half of the book. Th­ese do­mes­tic feats are the in­tro­duc­tion to his weighty con­tri­bu­tions in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, start­ing as chair­man in the North­ern Ire­land peace talks. From there Stephen’s stride does not di­min­ish; a life­long smoker, he ac­cu­rately de­clared, at age 77, his ‘‘ very good health’’ to the doc­tors at the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion be­fore their sec­re­tariat sent him to Burma on a mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate forced labour.

Ayres leav­ens the record with an en­gag­ing pace and amus­ing asides, such as Stephen host­ing the Ro­ma­nian pres­i­dent Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu, known for in­stalling CCTV cam­eras in ho­tel rooms to mon­i­tor his min­is­ters of state. Wait­ing on the tar­mac with Bob Hawke to re­ceive him, Stephen com­mented, ‘‘ Why don’t you try that, Bob?’’ Hawke re­sponded, ‘‘ There wouldn’t be enough film.’’

The irony that per­vades the book is the view of many who know him that Stephen is not the driven in­di­vid­ual of great am­bi­tion usu­ally con­nected with such achieve­ment. He is cer­tainly no ide­o­logue: in read­ing his judg­ments and speeches there is no ten­dency to­wards dog­matic or fash­ion­able ar­gu­ments. In­stead, what dis­tin­guishes him is a great ca­pac­ity for work and a foren­sic yet equable in­tel­li­gence that ac­com­mo­dated the no­tion of rea­son­able minds dif­fer­ing on any given is­sue. It also made him ide­ally suited to the con­sci­en­tious in­de­pen­dence re­quired by pub­lic of­fice.

A Lib­eral ap­pointee to the High Court and gov­er­nor-gen­er­al­ship, his term as the lat­ter was ex­tended by Hawke, who stated his ‘‘ high­est re­gard for Sir Ninian Stephen, his in­tegrity, in­tel­li­gence and com­mit­ment to this coun­try’’. The par­ties to the North­ern Ire­land peace talks may not have agreed on much else at that stage but had con­sen­sus in their warm praise ‘‘ for the qual­i­ties of char­ac­ter and in­tel­lect that Sir Ninian dis­played’’. In the opin­ion of Lord May­hew, sec­re­tary of state for North­ern Ire­land at the time, Stephen’s ‘‘ con­tri­bu­tion pre­pared the ground very sig­nif­i­cantly’’ for the de­vel­op­ment of the Good Fri­day Agree­ment.

Recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally, but per­haps less ac­knowl­edged in Aus­tralia, is the ex­tent of his role as a found­ing judge on the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Tri­bunal for the for­mer Yu­goslavia. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, in adopt­ing Res­o­lu­tion 827 to es­tab­lish an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal for pros­e­cut­ing war crimes, had cre­ated a court that ex­isted in name only. Lack­ing a court­house, staff, pros­e­cu­tors or investigators, there was also no body of ju­rispru­dence or proper le­gal foun­da­tion as to how the tri­bunal should con­duct it­self. In ad­dress­ing this, Stephen was sem­i­nal in the draft­ing and de­vel­op­ment of the rules gov­ern­ing pro­ce­dure and ev­i­dence.

The sys­tem re­mains a model to­day, in an area of law that had lit­tle prece­dent since the Nurem­berg tri­als. He sat on the tri­bunal for its first trial, which lasted for months, with clos­ing sub­mis­sions cov­er­ing 7000 pages.

Ayres has writ­ten a bi­og­ra­phy of de­cep­tively broad ap­peal. While the law is prom­i­nent, in chart­ing the tra­jec­tory and span of such a ca­reer it be­comes by its na­ture an ex­cur­sus on his­tory, pol­i­tics and diplo­macy, along with a dash of roy­alty and celebrity. It is an im­por­tant book on an ex­tra­or­di­nary life, and op­ti­mism is to be found in it. Where too of­ten in the the­atre of law and pol­i­tics the loud­est voice and low­est spin pre­vails, this is a man of wis­dom and hu­mil­ity who ex­er­cised a con­struc­tive global in­flu­ence dur­ing a ca­reer justly re­plete with ac­co­lades.

For­mer gov­er­nor-gen­eral Ninian Stephen, pic­tured in 1995

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