WHEN Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan speaks to schoolgirls she encourages them to be part of a world that is bigger than themselves and gives everybody a fair go.
Living in Cambodia and internationally recognised for her efforts to ban landmines and cluster bombs, Sr Coghlan is back in her hometown Brisbane, attending a chapter meeting of the Sisters of Mercy, Brisbane congregation.
She’s always in demand as an inspirational speaker, and on this trip has attended a past-students’ reunion at her old school All Hallows’, spoken to girls at St Mary’s College, Ipswich, and attended a fundraising dinner at the school, sharing her story of accompanying the displaced of Cambodia over the past three decades.
“I try to get them to see the world through the eyes of God. And the dream of God is to have a world of justice, a world of mercy and peace,” she said.
In the late 1980s, Sr Coghlan left Australia to work in the Thai-Cambodian refugee camps, where many Cambodians sought refuge during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
Moving to Cambodia in 1990, she continued an energetic pursuit of social justice, refugee rights, poverty alleviation, and the banning of landmines and cluster bombs.
Sr Coghlan played a key role with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that led to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and in the same year the group shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
“You could cry for those with missing legs and see what might have been for them,” she said. “The landmine campaign is now almost 21 years old, and we’ve got most of the stockpiles destroyed.
“The slogan now is to finish the job by 2025 – to have all the landmines that are possible to be cleared by that date.
“We’ve got 161 countries and states party to it, we’ve got lots of land cleared, but some still to go.”
Sr Coghlan is equally concerned about the clearing of cluster bombs, and for nuclear disarmament, and is turning her attention to what she describes as “automatic killer robots” – military hardware that can independently search and engage targets.
Now a diverse range of projects occupy her attention inside Cambodia.
As long-time director of the country’s Jesuit Refugee Service, Sr Coghlan advocates for rights of arriving refugees and asylum seekers – Uighur refugees from China, Rohingyas from Myanmar and boat people from Syria.
Among those seeking safe refuge and a permanent home are three people who Australia put in offshore detention in Nauru and were then sent to Cambodia, where they face little prospect of reunification with their families.
Sr Coghlan also runs the Metta Karuna Reflection Centre, in Siem Reap, north-west Cambodia, helping visitors reflect on the challenges in Cambodia “seeing them through the eyes of the poor and through the lens of interfaith co-operation”.
“We do a lot of advocacy for refugees and for disarmament and for the things that cause refugees there,” she said.
From the centre, Sr Coghlan works directly with Cambodia’s war disabled, many of them survivors of landmines – sending out teams of people to help and encourage others who have lost limbs or eyes and live largely unassisted in rural areas.