Sir Ninian Stephen obituary

Judge who pipped Prince Charles to become governor general of Australia in the 1980s, then sat on the UN international criminal court’s first trial

Among the many signal achievements of the British-born Australian judge Sir Ninian Stephen, who has died aged 94, two stand out. As governor general of Australia in the 1980s he dispelled the suspicion that the office could not work harmoniously with a Labor government. Then, as a judge at the first trial in a new court in The Hague, of a Serbian war criminal, he did much to demonstrate that international criminal law, 50 years after Nuremberg, could deliver justice fairly and authoritatively.

When Sir Zelman Cowen’s term as governor general ended in 1982, Buckingham Palace scented an opportunity to find a job for Prince Charles, and lobbied hard for his appointment. The Labor party blocked this colonialist initiative, and Malcolm Fraser, Australia’s conservative prime minister since his predecessor Gough Whitlam’s controversial dismissal by the then governor general, Sir John Kerr, in 1975, elevated Stephen from the high court instead.

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