Australia's Soldier For Peace

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An Australian forward artillery observer, one of the most exposed men on the front lines, lasted just a few days on Gallipoli in April 1915 before a Turkish sniper took aim, fired, and shot him through the hip.

Reported dead, the young lieutenant in fact survived to read his own obituary and become one of the world’s most influential but rarely recalled Australians.

Surgery in Egypt and England resulted in one leg shorter than the other and forced William Roy Hodgson to limp for the rest of his life. He was mentioned in dispatches and received the Croix de Guerre avec palme for heroism, commended by his Commanding Officer for "great gallantry" in a position of "great risk and responsibility" .

But it wasn’t physical bravery in World War I which made "Hoddy" an outstanding international figure. Instead, it was moral courage after World War II as one of the nine people who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The 30 clauses of the UDHR lay down the rights to which people everywhere are intrinsically entitled. It is the world’s "conscience", the foundation of all United Nations-sponsored civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The UN General Assembly adopted it on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

Hodgson was no shrinking violet in tough negotiations over UDHR clauses with the other eight representatives from the USA, UK, the Soviet Union, China, France, Lebanon, Chile and Canada. A US State Department official described him in writing as "peppery and aggressive, with a blustering and provocative approach".

Hodgson was considered very knowledgeable but not particularly diplomatic, very much an Aussie who had seen war up close and had no time for bullshitting bureaucrats who had never faced anything more dangerous than paper clips at 10 paces.

One of his Australian work colleagues at the time, Alan Watt, commented that "his direct, blunt and rather aggressive style was apt to give offence". But Watt also said Hodgson had a "quick mind and a bold spirit" and the "courage and determination which had marked his career never left him".

"Hoddy" stood out among the members of the UDHR drafting committee for arguing strongly for the need to enforce adherence to the rights laid down in the document. He wanted an international tribunal where individuals could file a complaint or, as an alternative, an amendment to the UN Charter to make the UDHR legally enforceable on nations.

He unfortunately won the battle for neither, but Hodgson would probably be astonished in 2012 to see how the UDHR, the other human rights instruments it has spawned and bodies like the European Court of Human Rights are continuing to gradually change the world for the better.

He would be disappointed that there is still a long way to go before the patchwork quilt of liberties is evenly spread across the globe. The straight-speaking ex-soldier would be calling for all nations to have the commitment and courage to abide by the basic rights that are so important in helping powerless people live in freedom with the opportunity to fulfill their personal potential.

The US to this day lionises Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Roosevelt, for her role in chairing the UDHR drafting committee. Since 1992, Canada has honoured its representative on the committee, John Humphrey, with an annual freedom award now worth $25,000 to enable a human rights leader from a usually perilous third world situation to undertake a speaking tour of Canada and the West.

Australia remembers many military heroes, but has forgotten this one Aussie courageous in both war and peace, who gave the world a legacy of civil liberties and human rights principles which continue to guide global society in the 21st century.

Hodgson should be better remembered in Australia, even if only for some of his other firsts. Born in Victoria in 1892, he was a member of the original 1911 officer class at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in Canberra, graduating after three years instead of the planned four due to the outbreak of the Great War. He sailed for the Middle East in October that year as a lieutenant in the 5th Battery, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade.

When the Gallipoli injury ruled out continuing active service, he came back to Australia to join the General Staff at Army HQ in Melbourne until the end of the war. From 1925, he was head of military intelligence, retiring from service life in 1934 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Studying nights in early 1920s, Colonel Hodgson gained accountancy qualifications, and then a law degree at the University of Melbourne in 1929. He began his public service with the Development and Migration Commission, before heading up in 1934 the external affairs branch of the Prime Minister’s Department as assistant secretary. In 1935, when External Affairs became a department in its own right (it’s now called Foreign Affairs and Trade), Hodgson became the first Secretary, remaining head of department until 1945.

1943 onwards was a hectic period for reforming international organisations and treaties and preparing for recovery after World War II. For more than a decade Hodgson guided Australia’s place in the world, heading up Australian delegations at international conferences and commissions. Formally, he was acting High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to France, and Australian delegate to the first General Assembly of the United Nations.

With fellow Australians H.V. Evatt and Jessie Street, he was credited with helping to create the blueprint for the UN itself. He attended the San Francisco conference in April 1945 and led the Australian delegations to both the UN Preparatory Commission on London and to the Paris Peace Conference. He was our representative on the UN Security Council in New York, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Human Rights Commission. He was ambassador to France until November 1949, then head of mission to Japan and the British representative to the Allied Control Council in that country.

Hodgson was High Commissioner in Pretoria, South Africa, until mid-1956. He enjoyed the briefest of retirements after a lifetime of serving Australia; retiring in May 1957, he died in Sydney in January 1958.

This ANZAC Day, as we remember our war dead, we should ask ourselves: Which Australian Defence Force officer serving today will make as great a contribution to human rights and civil liberties as this courageous Australian?

Civil Liberties Australia is petitioning Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to introduce an annual "Hodgson Award" in Australia, similar to the Humphrey Award in Canada.

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New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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