12 September 2012

God works in mysterious ways

Receiving Honorary Doctorate of Letters, University of Southern Queensland.

Last Saturday, Chancellor Bobbie Brazil awarded me an honorary Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) at the University of Southern Queensland in beautiful Toowoomba. The award was for my work in human rights but as I pointed out in my acceptance speech I also consider it testimony to the importance the USQ places on social justice and recognition of the extraordinary people who make up the proud human rights sector and the global code of conduct called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is their inspiration. Prodded to explain the genesis of this singular distinction, Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas would only comment that ‘God works in mysterious ways’, even if assisted by a committee of rigorous academics.

With my wife Annie at the USQ award.

It was a splendid, colourful occasion, steeped in ancient ritual and symbolism, all undertaken to emphasise the solemn status attached to learning. Robed and hatted like a medieval cardinal, I joined hundreds of students graduating in the arts, sciences, engineering, nursing, education and business and an impressive number of PhD’s. USQ specialises in on-line distance education and many of the graduands travelled from different parts of the world for the occasion.

In the morning session, Andy Gourley, Director of the Red Frogs Chaplaincy Network, gave an entertaining account of his work with schoolies events on the Gold Coast that has now gone national and international.

My theme to the afternoon graduands was achieving against the odds based on the extraordinary contribution of civil society to the liberation of East Timor. The talk is called Achieving Against the Odds (click title to read).

With USQ Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas.

USQ Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Jan Thomas, personally and warmly hosted our visit on top of her many duties. Supported by her wonderful staff, she treated Annie and I like visiting royals. We are both now enthusiastic ambassadors for USQ and Toowoomba.

We were also delighted to meet, amongst others, Deputy Vice-Chancellor John Dornbusch, Professor Peter Terry, the new Bishop of Toowoomba, Mgr Robert McGuckin, Mark Copeland, head of the Diocesan Social Justice Commission and Professor Gerard Fogarty who was made an Honorary Professor Emeritus the same day for his services to USQ and psychology.

26 August 2012

Ode to South Purrumbete

Having lived in diaspora away from South Purrumbete for most of my life, I have regularly had to explain where it is, that it’s not the Burrumbeet near Ballarat and why there is no North, East or West Purrumbete.

Well, here it is in all its glory centred on the volcanic lake from which it takes its name.

Some of the photos were taken from Mt Porndon looking west across Lake Purrumbete (thanks to Sue Seabright for allowing us the privilege to climb her mountain) or on the shore of the lake as the day ended. The silhouetted figure is my brother John. The others were taken in the early morning from Mt Leura in Camperdown looking east across the lake to Mt Porndon.

Though not strictly Purrumbete, also included are a profile of the Benedictine Abbey of St Mark near Camperdown (the landscape calls for hymns of praise) and, a short distance away, my late grandfather Albert Agustus Forster’s derelict milking shed. A former Station Master, Grandpa Forster had a quaint sense of humour and used to tell us kids his full name was Albert Agustus Loftus Smartsteel John Bull Doctor Leeda de Forster. It stuck. My sister and brother can reel it off like parrots at family gatherings. 



15 July 2012

A plastic cup of goodness

The Koran emphasises human solidarity.

Picking my way up Dago Rd during a recent visit to Bandung, I suddenly found myself in a cul-de-sac.  It was just on 6 pm, a busy time with local Muslims breaking their fast. The footpath had been temporarily sealed off with a bench rigged up to serve dinner to hungry customers and the go-around alternative on the side of the road was blocked by a stationary angkot parked tight against the curb.

Noting my predicament, the stall owner suggested I squeeze through a narrow gap between the bench and his mobile stall, but as this would require me to remove my back pack, duck under head-high steel rods holding his make-shift roof and step down over the curbing onto the busy road, I declined. Sensing I was tired and a bit frustrated, he kindly offered me a seat and then served me a syrupy banana drink in a plastic cup.

It’s a sort of red bull, I observed after a sip, just the thing to get you going after fasting all day, like tennis players use at the change of ends. Delighted with my endorsement, he and his two customers then launched into the prying but polite interrogation that customarily opens encounters in Indonesia.  Where had I come from? Where was I going? How old was I? Why on earth was I walking, up hill to boot? Didn’t I have a car? Was I alone? Was I married, how many kids, what was I doing in Bandung?

Things suddenly became serious, however, when I said vaguely that I was in Bandung publishing on human rights. What did I think of human rights in Indonesia post-Suharto, one of the three immediately asked. Sensing a loaded question, I mumbled something about the situation being far improved on paper and vis-à-vis political freedoms but economic rights were seriously lagging. That was all my interlocutor needed. Shifting closer, he launched into a strong, but persuasive, critique of inequity in Indonesia. Chinese dominated the economy, rich people from Jakarta were buying up big in Bandung, corruption was rampant, and poor people like them were not benefiting from democracy. Australia they volunteered politely was, of course, far different.

Digging in my right hip pocket for small rupiah to pay for the drink (I carry big denominations elsewhere to avoid the embarrassment of displaying a wad of notes in public, not least after an exchange like this), I insisted on paying. The owner wouldn’t hear of it. What about something for his kids. No way, it was enough that I had shared their company at an auspicious time.

May the reward for his sedekah be generous and not-long coming.

1 July 2012

Justice after war and dictatorship in Europe

As there is a general tendency to associate gross human rights violations and repression with parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America rather than the West, it was both surprising and sobering to take part in a symposium entitled Transitional Justice after War and Dictatorship: Learning from European Experiences (1945-2000).

The gathering was convened by the Belgian Centre for Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CEGES-SOMA), funded by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and held in Brussels 23-24 May 2012. Its purpose was to get comments from five practitioners with experience of transitional justice in the South, including myself, on a study of ten cases of transition to democracy in the following European countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and The Netherlands after World War II; Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1970s, and Germany, Hungary and Poland in the post-1989 era. The study and seminar also set out to identify lessons learned.

Inter alia, my presentation on East Timor concluded that official policies on justice for historic crimes changed significantly during the first two phases of post-conflict government in the new nation. Under the UN, 1999-2002, East Timor engaged with the issue but since full self-government in 2002 East Timor has chosen not to pursue the issue. Interestingly this finding matches several of the European experiences. My presentation also pointed out that several of the countries in the European case studies, e.g. The Netherlands vis-à-vis Indonesia, were victims at home but perpetrators abroad and suggested that this contradiction should also be examined in the study.

Further information:

30 April 2012

My Big Day Out

On 20 April Annie, Mayra, Trish and I, kitted out in our finery, drove to Government House in Melbourne for my AM investiture by Gov Alex Chernov. Zannah was represented by a long warm sms from northern Spain where she was in the early stages of her Camino de Santiago trek. Taking the toughest route, raked by hail and wind sleeting in from the North Sea, she still had as far as Melbourne to Canberra to go. We missed her greatly but, allowed only three guests, were quietly thankful that she had spared us having to make a Sophie’s choice.

Anxious not to breach protocol on such an important occasion, Annie and our neighbours Rosie and Andrew spent the previous evening poring over maps like military strategists to determine how to beat the worst of the morning traffic between Northcote and Government House (on the other side of the city) and arrive on time. As happens in Melbourne, it was wet and the roads were as full as a Catholic school. Oh that we were in Jakarta and could queue jump by using a bus lane. Relaxed in the back seat Maiz and Trish calmly discussed their finances while Annie and I sat rigid and grim-faced in the front, silently lacerating ourselves for not leaving earlier or taking public transport, certain we were going to be late and locked out, as warned in the invitation advisory. The sight of panicking guests abandoning their vehicles to hot-foot it into the vast park that surrounds Government House added to the tension. Should I bail out too, I wondered, and leave Annie to park the wretched car. Suddenly, however, like Ablett on the wing, we broke through and, tugged by a mystery hand, looked in the rear vision mirror to see Bruce Hartnett and Louise Einfeld in their car behind us, late as well. We could relax. No way would vip Australia Day committee members like them be locked out.

Inside we separated. Annie and the girls found some seats towards the back. I was ushered into a large side room to be seated with the W’s amongst the chosen ones lining both sides of an impressive polished wooden table just short of a cricket pitch in length. Large floor to ceiling windows framed views of a lush lawn and spacious grounds. A painting of Queen Victoria as a teenage princess hung over the door and flattering life size portraits of other royals adorned the walls. Prince Edward is depicted wearing a sword and an ermine cape so long and heavy that he could not have lasted a second in a duel. I commented to Dr Carole Webb, a vet sitting on my right who had earned an AM for animal welfare, that dozens of weasels must have been slaughtered to make the cape.

To my left was Chris Wallace-Crabbe, 77, a soon to-be-anointed distinguished poet and academic, who has retired but is keeping his hand in. He loves Mondays when he goes to Melbourne Uni to tutor post-grads in English literature. We discussed the absence of literature and poetry from public places in Melbourne, unlike Sydney, though I noted that James McAuley is quoted in the water feature at St Pat’s Cathedral. Chris said he used to visit Government House when Davis McCaughey was Governor and held poetry readings.

I told him I had visited once, to accompany Adnan Buyung Nasution, the Indonesian human rights lawyer, to dinner with Governor Richard McGarvie. I recalled my mum being delighted because she knew McGarvie’s around Colac. The Vice-Regal secretary had telephoned me one evening to say the Governor had heard Buyung on the ABC and would like to meet him. Years before he had taken an interest in his case when Buyung had been detained in Jakarta. I recalled the logistics of the dinner vividly, if not the menu.

Chris pointed out a number of eminence grise across from us, amongst them historians and the Jesuit Bill Uren, head of Newman College. Most of the chosen ones were seniors and men outnumbered women, confirming the impression from our imperial surroundings that we had stepped back a century or so. When the MC began to brief us on procedure, he was greeted with loud cries from the far end of the room ‘can’t hear you, can’t hear you’!

The investiture lasted about an hour. It was conducted with the ceremonial dignity one would expect of such an event and considerably faster than the mass baptism in East Timor I recount in The Baptism of Carlos Maria Walsh in my book. Each of the 148 candidates was ushered forward to stand beside a naval officer dressed in crisp white. Then, on hearing one’s name announced, to walk 10 paces along a red carpet to shake hands with the Governor while the respective citation was read to the audience.

My beautifully worded citation read: For service to the international community in the Asia-Pacific region as an advocate for human rights, particularly in Timor-Leste. Governor Chernov congratulated me and placed my medal on a hook that staff had pinned on my jacket earlier. We had our photo taken and as I exited off the red carpet was presented with two white packages and shown my seat. It was all over quickly though, in my excitement, I may have thrown the timing out by taking the Governor’s hand for an unscheduled second handshake before proceeding on my way. I spent the rest of the time vacantly clapping other recipients and gazing at the detailed paintwork of the ballroom ceiling.

The medal hangs off a ribbon, blue with touches of wattle yellow. It is gold in colour, slightly larger than a 50 cent piece, and topped by Her Majesty’s crown which sits above an explosion of dots – fitting, given it’s her 60th anniversary year. One of the packages held a smaller version that could be worn less ostentatiously, plus a button size version for permanent display on one’s jacket to signal membership of the club.

The second box contained a folder in blinding royal blue and inside it The Order of Australia from Governor General Quentin Bryce (a former human rights commissioner). It reads:
To Patrick Ernest Walsh, Greeting. Whereas with the approval of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Second, Queen of Australia and Sovereign of the Order of Australia, I have been pleased to appoint you to be a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia, I do by these Presents appoint you to be a Member in the General Division of the said Order and authorise you to hold and enjoy the dignity of such appointment together with membership in the said Order and all privileges thereunto appertaining. Given at Government House, Canberra, under the seal of the Order of Australia this twenty-sixth day of January 2012. By Her Excellency’s Command, Stephen Brady, Secretary of the Order of Australia.

The ceremony ended on a highly poignant note. The final awards were given posthumously to relatives (elderly sisters, sons, nieces) of ordinary soldiers who had died during World War II trying to escape Japanese prisoner of war camps or executed after being caught escaping.

Governor Chernov spoke briefly (missing an opportunity to inspire, we felt), the navy band stationed high above the ballroom entrance played, light refreshments were served, photos were taken and congratulations flowed like good wine. Caroline Hogg, Bruce and Louise came to say well done. Maiz and Trish had a look around the state apartments, then joined Annie and I to lounge languidly, if not aristocratically, on a blue sofa. We chatted to Bryan Keon-Cohen, posed for pix on the lawn outside and had the professional photographers take some portraits.

Celebrating the moment
We were among the last to leave. The sun was now shining and I was too. Trish and Maiz announced that they’d booked us into The Windsor for high afternoon tea at 2.30 pm, an inspired initiative that allowed us to live the moment a bit longer. Off we motored, free of the anxiety that had gripped us like Tony Abbott’s economic python on our arrival three hours previously.

As if we needed further reminders of empire, an Indian named Shiraz waited on us at The Windsor and served us cucumber sandwiches (amongst other tasty delights heaped on a four level dish) and Darjeeling Tea. Trish decided it was the ‘perfect moment’ to quiz Annie and I about our romance and we rummaged in our memories though Annie’s recollection, as always, was much sharper than mine.

The icing on the cake, however, was the dinner we hosted at Downunder Curry in Northcote that evening. We invited as many friends and colleagues as we could find, particularly those from the 70s and 80s when the going was tough, to con-celebrate what was, as many had commented, overdue recognition for our sector. Annie compered and Bill Armstrong AO invested me all over again. As Major-General Paul Cullen used to say at ACFOA’s annual council one piece of coal can’t make the train run especially when it has to travel uphill.

16 August 2011

Sites of conscience

The Liberation War Museum (Bangladesh) and the Dili-based Post-CAVR Secretariat hosted the 6th annual Asian regional meeting of the Asian sites of conscience in Dili 30-31 July 2011. I assisted with the process.

The conference was held at East Timor’s premier site of conscience, the former Comarca prison in Dili where political prisoners were held during the war with Indonesia and which was used by the CAVR truth commission as its national office. Besides Bangladesh and Timor-Leste, countries represented were South Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and the US. Delegates also used the gathering to brief and seek support from senior Timorese leaders (inter alia President Jose Ramos-Horta, Ambassador for Education, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, and Secretary of State for Culture, Virgilio Simith).

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience was started in 1999, has accredited sites and members in all parts of the world, including Australia, and a Secretariat in New York. It is based on the idea, both obvious and brilliant, that the power that places of memory have to move people, not least young people, can be used to engage the community in understanding and in action to shape a just future.

Further information:
Sites of Conscience Website
Publication: Making Chega! a Reality: Memory and Memorialization in Timor-Leste.

1 April 2011

Canada’s indigenous past

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a conference 1-3 March 2011 on ways of remembering the residential schools which functioned in Canada from the 1870s till the 1990s and were established to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ and ‘civilise’, Christianise and assimilate Aboriginal people into Canadian society.

I shared East Timor’s experience of remembering its recent past through the CAVR process.

Further information:
Canadian TRC Website
TRC Interim Report
TRC webcasts of the conference on creating a Canadian national research centre on residential schools

15 March 2011

The right to the truth

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights convened a seminar on this topic of burning interest to victims and their relatives in Geneva 24-25 February 2011.

The UN says (a) that victims/relatives have a right to seek, receive and impart information on human rights violations they suffered (including the identity of perpetrators) and (b) that States should preserve historic memory of gross human rights violations through the conservation of archives etc in order to facilitate knowledge of such violations, assist with investigations and provide victims with access to remedies.

The issue has obvious relevance to victims in East Timor and Indonesia and the obligations of their respective Governments, both of whom are UN members and subscribers to international law. Has Indonesia, for example, preserved its prison and other records on violations during the Suharto years and will it share this with victims or their relatives?

The seminar was held to assemble practical guidelines on the role of archives in advancing the rights of victims/relatives and accountability for violations. I based my presentation on CAVR’s experience in East Timor.

Further information:
My Seminar presentation
My report on the seminar and recommendations arising