Women who would not stand silent

By Chancellor Leneen Forde

My late father-in-law, Frank Forde, was for a short interregnum the Prime Minister of Australia and, with his colleague Dr Bert Evatt, was a strong advocate for the ideals of the UN in Australia and internationally. together they were the original Australian signatories to the UN charter in 1945.

Given this history, I am particularly pleased to be joining you to support this UN International Day of Peace.


Chancellor Ms Leneen Forde AC
Chancellor Ms Leneen Forde AC


In speaking out for peace, I will start with a simple proposition. I acknowledge that it is neither very original nor very profound.

It is that evil prospers when good people do nothing. When peace is the cause, silence is not golden.

Silence gives implicit sanction to those whose belligerence and intolerance, expressed either in words or in actions, leads to discrimination and inevitably to conflict.

In tonight’s speech, I will look at the contributions of several women who have decided that maintaining silence was not the way for them. For some of them striving for peace has involved personal sacrifice and determination, just like a soldier in a field of conflict.

Nearly ten years ago the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, recognising that women bear the brunt of armed conflicts, and so have a part to play in their prevention and resolution.

Since then, the United Nations has involved more local women in peacemaking and peace building, and has recruited more women into its own operations. This is not about gender parity for its own sake, but to draw on the unique and powerful contribution women can make.
Earlier this year I travelled through Europe, and in Poland as elsewhere it is difficult to overlook the number of memorials to the holocaust. How might history have been different had more people not kept their silence, but spoken out then about the clear signals the world had of what was about to happen?

I then thought of the militarists throughout history, including in the present, who perversely believe that warfare and mass destruction is the only way to cleanse the individual soul and the soul of the nation. I thought of the brutality that this kind of thinking unleashes.

Among other paths, it leads to the argument that the only way to prevent war is to be prepared for it, and that means building up defence forces to deter the other side from using theirs first.

Many people will call this just being realistic, describing the world the way it is. There is another name for it, and it is called mutually assured destruction, or MAD. How very appropriate despite, or because of, its perverted logic.
It only works until one or the other side takes a gamble and fires the first shot.

I thought of modern warfare and of the technician sitting calmly at a computer terminal guiding a drone thousands of kilometres away and aiming and firing its weapons, never being entirely sure that the deaths that follow are the enemy or just someone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This reduces the conduct of modern warfare to the level of a terrible computer game, and so I thought of the makers of these games who market their products as entertainment for our children.

I thought of the women of ancient Greece who told their sons to come home from battle carried glorious but dead on their shields, or not to bother coming home at all.

All of these images could apply equally to all sides of all conflicts of all times, so my images do not single out any creed, or nationality, or system of belief.

Life has taught me to be a realist, to see things as they are. But i hope my optimism and my belief in the good of humanity also lets me imagine things as i would like them to be.

John Lennon set this thought to music: “imagine all the people, living life in peace. you may say i’m a dreamer, but i’m not the only one”.

There are many people throughout history who have imagined what John Lennon did, and who did not just imagine, who did not just remain silent and who did something about it.

Some institutions also share dreams and do something about them.

Soon after I started as Chancellor of Griffith University 12 years ago I became aware of a small committee of supporters trying to raise funds to build a Multi-Faith Centre.

One day Rabbi Uri Themal asked if I would come and have morning tea with the venerable Master Chin Kung who was interested in discussing the committee’s endeavours.

Even though we were only able to communicate through an interpreter we hit it off immediately and much to my and the then Vice Chancellor Roy Webb’s surprise and great delight the venerable master presented us with a cheque for $1 million.

And so the centre was constructed and we will always be grateful to the Buddhist community for their support, and of course the support of many people since.

Universities under various titles have been one of the most significant and enduring institutions in many cultures for many hundreds of years, but I have never regarded universities just as places for passing on factual knowledge about the tangible world.

I firmly believe they also have a responsibility to contribute to making a better world, and this includes satisfying the need for fulfilment in all aspects of our lives, including the intangible and the spiritual.

If nothing else, universities exist to promote the exchange of ideas, and this is the antithesis of silence.

Australia is one of the most multicultural places on earth, and every year we welcome many thousands of immigrants. These include refugees from the world’s worst conflicts — individuals and whole families.

Although it is small in international terms, Brisbane is a thriving, multi-cultural, commercially successful city heavily engaged in the Asia-Pacific region and the wider world.

Brisbane, like all of Australia, has a very diverse population drawn from every quarter of the globe.

Twenty seven percent of Australia’s total population were born overseas, the third highest proportion of any country in the world behind only Singapore and Hong Kong. I am myself an immigrant to Australia, having been born in Canada.

The proportion of overseas students at Griffith University is over one quarter of the student body, and they come from over 130 different countries.

When Griffith University opened the Multi-Faith Centre, it was planned as a venue where people from the world’s great and diverse faith, religious and spiritual traditions could come to deepen their understanding of their own faith and actively participate in inter-faith dialogue, education and action promoting peace.

The answer to why a university, which is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge about the discoverable world, to rational thought and to secularism, would seek to cater for religious or spiritual interests, reflects the great diversity and complexity of all humanity.

It is a defining characteristic of being human that many of us contemplate the deeper implications of our existence. Many of us search throughout our lives for that deeper meaning and for the inner peace we hope it brings.

To some of us the answer lies in secular humanism, while others find it in contemplation of a spiritual life.

It is also in our nature that we come to very different conclusions about life and argue about them, but it is critical that the conversation should be a civil one, so that it does not lead to conflict but to greater understanding and respect.

Regardless of how individuals come to their own answers, our research and teaching in schools and universities only makes sense to me if it deepens our understanding of the whole of the human condition so that we might find ways to improve it.

It is a core part of the university tradition that we do not become the advocates or apologists for any particular point of view or path to human happiness, but allow open and free inquiry.
I do not believe this freedom means that schools and universities can avoid the search for peace and human co-existence, because in a very practical sense without mutual respect we cannot have the freedom of inquiry that we say we believe in. This principle must apply to whole societies, and the leaders of our societies must be reminded of it.

Of course the principle of freedom of thought and speech raises its own dilemmas. We are right to be concerned at abuses of these freedoms, but there are other costs if we try to restrict them.

The distinction lies in the damage that can be done by the reckless exercise of freedom regardless of the consequences, and where that balance lies is the subject of endless debate and experimentation.

The university’s support for the Multi-Faith Centre should be seen in this light. Its role is to weave understanding, education, research and advocacy in inter-faith dialogue towards a culture of peace.

In this way, the Multi-Faith Centre joins the efforts of many organisations and individuals worldwide who don’t remain silent, and who are committed to building a world based on principles of peace, compassion, active non-violence, justice, human rights, intercultural respect, sustainability and spirituality.

Since it opened, the Multi-Faith Centre has been host to many events promoting multi-faith dialogue especially through talks and symposia featuring scholars and practitioners from various faiths.

In recent years, several of the university’s honorary doctorates have been awarded to community leaders who are famous for speaking out in the cause of peace — people like kim phuc.

Kim Phuc, you might recall, is the subject of one of the most evocative images of our times. She is that agonised little girl whose photographic image is preserved forever, running naked and screaming from the ruins of her napalmed village in Vietnam. She survived her horrific burns and is now an ambassador for peace.

The message of what is surely the most compelling war photograph ever published is that it personifies all the innocents who suffer because of war. It doesn’t matter whether this suffering is the outcome of strategic targeting or just random indifference.

Griffith University was honoured in 2004 when Ms Phuc agreed to endorse its innovative photojournalism program, in recognition of the power of the arts to shape, influence and change perceptions of our world for the better, a reminder that speech is not the only way to communicate profound ideas. To commemorate the occasion, the Kim Foundation Award for Photojournalism was established.

Many other institutions around the world are engaged in finding their own paths to peace. Rotary International, a service organisation with local clubs and memberships for men and women throughout the world, has a long history of engagement with projects that help to address the causes of conflict — poverty, disease and displacement. There are many such voluntary organisations, both secular and faith-based.

Recently elected as the president of Rotary International for 2012 -13, Mr Sakuji Tanaka said this in his acceptance speech:

“As part of the first generation to grow up in japan after world war ii, i understand the importance of peace and its connection to our well-being.
Peace can mean many things for many people, but however we understand peace, Rotary can help us achieve it. Rotary helps us meet the basic needs of health care, sanitation, food, and education. These can bring peace. In addition, we need peace as well for vaccinators to go into countries such as Afghanistan to prevent children from getting polio. It is through our work that we help to build the foundation for a more peaceful world.

His message is all the more significant because of his Japanese nationality.

Probably the strongest institutional evidence of the search for peace lies in the existence of the United Nations and its many constituent parts.

In a message for the International Day of Peacekeepers in May this year, the Secretary General of the United Nations spoke of the troops, civilians and police numbering almost 120,000 serving in 15 peacekeeping operations.

These personnel serving under the UN flag do so in some of the most difficult and inhospitable areas on earth, where they face instability, disease and violence.

Last year 130 peacekeepers lost their lives in the line of duty — the highest one-year total in the history of UN peacekeeping. Ten of those who died were women.

Women wear the UN’s blue helmets in the front line of conflicts. They have roles as human rights monitors and offer new skills and styles of peacekeeping. Through communicating with local women, they generate a greater sense of security and stand as examples that women do not have to put up with discrimination and violence due to their gender.

These inspiring women in the field also have their counterparts in senior leadership roles in the UN.

Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, is just one of these. Michelle has been Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women since its establishment in early 2011, and has been recognised for her global leadership in the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. She has been at the forefront of progressing justice and equality – whether it be advancing women’s leadership and political participation, increasing women’s economic power, mobilizing to end violence against women and girls, expanding women’s role in peacebuilding, or institutionalizing gender responsive budgeting.

During Michelle Bachelet’s official visit to Australia in August this year, it was very pleasing to hear that the Federal Government would be contributing $6.7 million to the UN trust fund to end violence against women. It was also very satisfying to hear that Australia will play a key role in future developments when it takes up a position on the UN women executive board from 1 January 2013.

There are many institutions with which the UN collaborates such as the International Criminal Court. The ICC not only seeks out the perpetrators of injustice, but acts to deter them.

In June and July this year I watched the events unfold in Libya involving the detention of the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, who was appointed by the ICC to defend the son of the former Libyan dictator. It is a reminder that regardless of what one thinks about the behaviour of the former regime, its members are subject to and entitled to the rule of law, and Melinda Taylor exemplifies this principle.

There are many such women and men who give up their time and sometimes their lives in the search for peace and to help the victims of war. Sometimes this is through organised effort and sometimes alone, and sometimes both — the volunteers of Medicin Sans Frontieres for example.

I like to think it is in our nature as women to be prominent in the search for peace and in mitigating the effects of war.

Among the most inspirational women of our times is the Afghani politician Fawzia Koofi who stands up for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, and risks her own life to do so.

Why does she do it and why do many men of her country support her? Well, she says it is on behalf of her daughters and all the children of Afghanistan that they should not have to endure the suffering and marginalisation that she did as a child.

These are the kinds of women who do not remain silent, who have had to fight hardest in the cause of peace on their own streets and nations, and I perfectly appreciate the irony in the juxtaposition of the terms “fight” and “peace” in this context.

Jessie Street was another such woman, a true Australian pioneer in many ways.

She was one of the first women to graduate from Sydney University, to the great scandal of some traditionalists, whose horror was probably not helped by her strong advocacy and support for the disadvantaged and downtrodden such as Sydney’s prostitutes.

She was the child of wealth and privilege, but that did not deter her from following causes her conscience dictated or to use her privileged position to confront the great issues, and some of the great men, of her times.

Street was an active member of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, whose overriding objective and its affiliates was ‘real equality’ of status and opportunity – an end to discrimination against women in the workplace, in law, or in appointment to public office, as a consequence of marriage or motherhood. The welfare of children and the promotion of international peace were associated aims including through the league of nations.

In Geneva in 1930 street linked up with the British Commonwealth League, and joined a delegation seeking equal nationality rights for married women and confronted the director of the International Labour Organisation. She appealed (unsuccessfully) for the inclusion of an ‘equal rights’ clause in amendments to the Australian Constitution, put forward in 1944. Continuing to work with international feminism, she publicized its work when she was in Australia and renewed contact overseas in 1938, 1945 and later years.
With her husband, later the Chief Justice of New South Wales, she was a foundation member of the NSW branch of the League of Nations Union and drew early attention to the plight of Jews under the Nazi regime in Europe and strongly advocated the rights of refugees.

Emma Miller was another Australian pioneer.

Born in the UK in 1839, she emigrated to Brisbane in 1879 with her family and became very active in the struggle for the recognition of women in the workforce and for peace.

In 1891 she gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Shops, Factories and Workshops and marched with Shearers’ Strike prisoners when released. She was the first woman to travel west organising for the Australian Workers’ Union and was the first woman member and a life member of the Brisbane Workers political organisation.

She had a deep hatred of militarism. She took an energetic part in the anti-conscription campaigns of the First World War and as president of the Queensland branch of the Women’s Peace Army, she was a delegate to the Australian Peace Alliance Conference in Melbourne in 1916.

Emma Miller, Jessie Street, Fawzia Koofi, Melissa Taylor, Michelle Bachelet, Kim Phuc and the women in peace keeping roles do not remain silent. They are all impatient of those who drag their feet on matters of principle.

On this note I end with the proposition with which I began. It is that people of apparent goodwill who think the right things, but who say or do nothing, are at least as culpable as the ones who think and say the wrong things, and then act upon them.

Both of these stand in the way of achieving peace in our world, and we must encourage the silent ones to do something about it.

Shakespeare put this another way, and if i may paraphrase him, the consequences of the evil we do lasts forever, while whatever good we might be able to do in our lifetimes doesn’t always last very long.

The challenge for men and women of goodwill is to ensure that whatever good we can do in our lifetimes in the cause of peace and understanding is stronger than those who would wage war.

We cannot meet this challenge if we remain silent.

Ms Leneen FordeAC is Chancellor of Griffith University and a former Governor of Queensland. She delivered this speech as was the keynote guest at the United Nations Association of Australia inaugural Brisbane Peace Lecture on September 21, 2012, at St John’s Cathedral, Ann Street, Brisbane.