Obituaries: 1930-1939 Leavers

Sir Ninian Stephen (1937-38), 1923 – 2017

Ninian Stephen spent his boyhood in Europe and the UK, attending St Paul’s in 1937-38, before emigrating to Australia in early 1940 with his Scottish mother, Barbara Stephen (nee Cruickshank) and Australian guardian, Nina Mylne.

His days at St Paul’s followed years at George Watson’s College and the Edinburgh Academy, and were followed by Chillon College (Switzerland) and Scotch College (Melbourne, Australia). It was a peripatetic early life, shaped by two women with strong aspirations for his education and happiness, and also by international affairs. His parents’ WWI marriage did not survive peacetime. Ninian never met his father, and the outbreak of WWII took him to Australia. He embraced, and was formed by, that new world: as part of the Australian Infantry Force (1942-46), posted in the Australian Outback and New Guinea; by his long and loving marriage to Valery (nee Sinclair); and by his career as barrister and judge (Supreme Court of Victoria 1970-72, High Court of Australia 1972-82) and as Governor-General of Australia (1982-1989).

During his time as Governor-General, he and Valery met thousands of Australians. They travelled widely in remote Australia, the Torres Strait Islands and the Pacific, welcomed distinguished visitors to Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations (1988), and met regularly with Queen Elizabeth. In 1985, he effected the formal transfer of Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) to its traditional owners, and described its significance: “To those of us who live far away, in the cities strung out along our continent’s sweep of coastline in a great arc around ‘the Rock’, it beckons insistently – drawing us inland to discover and learn to understand the vastness of our land. ... For many Aboriginal people, this place has still deeper meaning and deep spiritual significance, a significance whose roots go back to time immemorial. And now, today, the Uluru-Katatjuta Aboriginal land trust becomes the custodian of this heartland of Australia.”

For a further 15 years, Ninian Stephen worked across the globe on conflict resolution – as judge, diplomat, advocate and conciliator – for the UN, the ILO, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Australian and British governments.

As Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment he advocated on climate change and the mining ban in Antarctica; as a founding judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, he sat on the first of this generation of war crimes prosecutions and played a leading role in drafting new rules and procedures; and as chair, he steered the 1992 power-sharing talks in Belfast between rival Catholic and Protestant officials. He also advised on South Africa's constitution; investigated forced labour in Burma; mediated between government and opposition in Bangladesh; and helped to set up a tribunal on the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Ninian Stephen received a Knighthood in the Order of the Garter in 1994. At this death, the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull noted: “Australia will remember Sir Ninian for his humility, his intellect, and his lifelong commitment to justice and the rule of law.” Gareth Evans (Australian Foreign Minister 1988-96) said of him: “No Australian in living memory was more widely admired and respected, both here and internationally.”

Ninian Stephen is survived by his wife, Valery, and five daughters, Mary, Ann, Sarah, Jane and Elizabeth.

Written by: Sarah Stephen, daughter

Address: Lonsdale Road, Barnes, London SW13 9JT • Tel: 020 8746 5390 • Email: