The Amazing Grace of Judge Christy Weeramantry
Posted on February 3rd, 2017
H. L. D. Mahindapala
By a set of fortuitous circumstances Judge C. G. Weeramantry, his bubbly wife Rosemary and children had become a part of our little circle in Melbourne ever since he was appointed to a chair in law at the Monash University in the seventies. Like all migrants we invariably gravitated to little circles of our own trying to recreate and relive that part of the culture and society we left behind. Withdrawing into little identity islands of our own culture, surrounded by alien waves lashing us daily, was a prime necessity to create a sense of togetherness and security. Being with our own kind rekindled our faith in our selves when we were trying find our feet in a foreign land. So bumping into a fellow-Sri Lankan in Melbourne in the seventies was like Robinson Crusoe discovering Man Friday. Creating a little bit of Sri Lanka and living in it became one of the great achievements of the expatriates. And discovering ourselves in the company of Judge Weeramantry was more than a status symbol. It was like rediscovering Sri Lanka all over again.
In time, particularly in the critical times of post-1983, he became a tower of strength to the community which will be discussed later. And everyone who met him felt his comforting, calming, almost priestly presence. He rose in stature by being the unwavering moral man who, in the Kiplingnesque sense, never lost his head when everyone else was losing theirs. He carried within him an unshakeable religiosity that influenced his thoughts and actions. His soothing quietude and “natural piety” (Wordsworth) was endearing, almost hypnotic, and I used to tease him saying that in his previous birth he must have been a Buddhist monk meditating in the forest on the eternal laws of samsara (dharma) and the higher values of life that went with it. That is one aspect that was unmissable in Judge Weeramantry’s life : his amazing grace which, incidentally, was one of his favourites hymns he played on the piano for all of us at parties that sometimes went on till break of dawn in Melbourne.
Judge Weeramantry could be in it without being of it – again another quality of his religiosity. He would, for instance, come to parties carrying a whole bundle of papers and while we were belting out “Ka-pal-la, bee-pal-la, jolly kara-pal-la” at the top of our voices, gathered round the pianist, (who else but his gifted wife, Rosemary!), he would slip into a secluded room and write the next chapter of his latest book, or correct exam papers of his law students at Monash University. There was a fine balance in all his actions as there was in his judgements. Above all, he was a glutton for work.
He was an indefatigable explorer of paths to peace. He had an inexhaustible and indomitable will to go with it. Combined together he produced volume after volume dealing critically with the many challenges that threaten modern civilisation and mankind. His dissenting judgment at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declaring the use of nuclear weapons “illegal in any circumstances” is a landmark judgment embraced by the global peace movement. It also confirms his moral courage and concern for the future of humanity. It is inconceivable that learned judges who huff and puff about human rights violations in small countries should take the side of Big Powers armed with nuclear weapons – the most destructive force that can wipe out the human rights of all mankind in one flash. The ICJ was divided evenly on this issue with seven judges for and seven judges against it. The decisive vote of Court President, Mohammed Bedjaoui, tilted the judgment in favour of the Big Powers. Judge Weeramantry was the leading judge of the ICJ who stood up for mankind and their right to live in a world without WMDs. His dissenting judgment was a big blow to the Big Powers who expected the judges to legalise their WMDs, while dictating human rights to the smaller nations. It takes enormous courage to be a dissenting judge under these international pressures in the highest court of the world while the majority was bending over backwards to appease the criminal cravings and ambitions of the Big Powers.
The moral essence of Judge Weeramantry is enshrined in his dissenting judgment. There is no other legal force in the international arena that can stand up for the powerless defying the Big Powers. His dissenting judgment is his everlasting contribution to the future of mankind. Considering the potential to wipe out humanity with WMDs stored in the silos of Big Powers and considering the unforgiveable scale of crimes committed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what moral right did the judges of the ICJ have to legalise nuclear weapons? The Court President, Mohammed Bedjaoui, stated categorically : “Nuclear weapons, the ultimate evil, destabilize humanitarian law, which is the law of the lesser evil. The existence of nuclear weapons is therefore a challenge to the very existence of humanitarian law, not to mention their long-term effects of damage to the human environment, in respect to which the right to life can be exercised.” Having said that he cast his decisive vote to legalise the use of nuclear weapons. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” (T. S. Eliot – Gerontion )
In some of his conversations with me Judge Weeramantry expressed his utter dismay about his fellow judges who were ignorant of some of the fundamentals of the global culture. One judge, for instance, had thought that Buddhism was some voodoo cult! Though the ICJ was supposed to be a universal court of justice for all mankind it was primarily dominated, like all other UN organisations, by Western, or Western-oriented legal eagles whose limited knowledge on the diverse global culture was deplorable. He was, perhaps, the pre-eminent polymath with a 20-20 vision in the land of blind. In his biography he was critical about international justice system in which the Western lawyers dominated every department of the international law. The best of specialists in international law came from Western universities and legal agencies, the prosecutors came from Western legal systems, the majority of judges too were drawn from Western or pro-Western countries. Since the West dominates the international judicial system what chances have the rest in seeking justice at the ICJ?
If the majority of the learned judges of the ICJ lacked the moral conscience to ban the most destructive weapons facing humanity – particularly with nervous and unpredictable leaders like Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump having the keys to launch WMDs at will – what faith can we have in the high-sounding instrumentalities of peace and human rights, all of which are financed, directed and run according to a prepared Western agenda ? WMDs are the anti-thesis of human rights. It is in this context that the minority vote of Judge Weeramantry speaks louder than the majority vote of misguided missiles in the ICJ. Though he lost it was great day for humanity who had no one to speak on their behalf in the highest court of the world. The anti-nuclear movement has found in him an enlightened moral leader who could, hopefully, pave the way for a world without WMDs some time in the distant future.
His dissenting judgment was in keeping with his religious beliefs which elevate the sanctity of human life – the greatest and the glorious manifestation that illuminates an infinitesimal corner of the immeasurable universe. Besides, it reflected his innate tendency to stand up for the highest values. It was also an affirmation of his moral conviction that no one should bow down to foreigners of the West simply because they have the power, wealth and the institutions of international law under their thumb. He had nothing but disdain for those who cringe before their superiors or those who were fawning before foreigners for a fistful of dollars. He dealt with these two aspects in his book A Call For National Reawakening. In it he expressed his dismay at the direction in which the nation was heading.
His list of national weaknesses is worth repeating as a reminder to the citizens as well as the powers that pompously pontificate to us so glibly. He wrote: “Here are some of our national weaknesses which we take for granted and tend to gloss over. I shall enumerate some of them, expanding on them in the next chapter : i) Inability to run our institutions without factionalism ; (ii) Envy of success of others; (iii) Lack of respect for law and order; (iv) Lack of a sense of discipline; v) Widespread bribery and corruption; (vi) Lack of transparency in public decision-making, appointment, contract, disbursements; (vii) Multiple division of society; (viii) Using politics as a road to personal advancement; ix) Making extravagant election promises; x) Over indulgence in political rhetoric; xi) Sweeping past wrong doings under the carpet; xii) Waste of resources on political tamashas; xiii) Cringing before superiors; xiv) Fawning on foreigners; xv) Flaunting of wealth, possession and power; xvi) Lack of concern for the environment; xvii) Outsourcing crime through contract killers. (pp. 15 – 16).
“A noticeable national weakness is the tendency at many levels of society to show excessive deference to foreigners, particularly from the west” (p.49). His judgements were drawn from his rich experiences that span the colonial and the post-colonial periods. He wrote nostalgically : ”We all have memories of the days of friendship and happiness before these communal problems erupted and have a longing for the restoration of that happy society.” (p.102). Then he goes down memory lane and recalls : “One of my earliest childhood memories was that my father’s friend from his student days in England was Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam, a regular visitor to our home who used to take me with him n horse back when I was five or six.(p.99).
He was most saddened by the communal violence that consolidated divisive politics. He refused to accept that the break-up of the nation in any form as the solution to communal harmony. In his chapter on Ensuring A Single Sovereign Sri Lankan State he stated quite categorically : “The fourth essential – and this is perhaps the most important – is the acceptance by all of the basic principle that any solution whatsoever must be in the context of a single Sri Lankan sovereign state.” (p.101). It was on this principle that he came forward to give leadership to the patriotic Sri Lankan community faced with the aggressive anti-Sri Lankan lobby, led by Prof. C. J. Eliezer, in Melbourne. When the “1983” explosion dominated prime time TV the Tamil propagandists, as usual, played up, quite effectively, the role of being victims of the majority Sinhalese persecuting the minority Tamils. It was a political ploy manipulated by them to win the sympathy of the shocked Western audiences.
The Tamil lobbyists, at all levels, excelled in dramatizing the theme of victimology to nail the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in the eyes of the world. To them “1983” was a blessing in disguise. It gave them the visual and marketable images of “Paradise Burning” to demonise the Sinhala-Buddhists as the evil force that discriminated against the Tamils of the North – the most privileged community in Sri Lanka. Prof. Eliezer, who was a lay preacher in the Uniting Church, did not hesitate to grab this opportunity to campaign for a separate state. He was an established figure leading the anti-Sri Lankan propaganda campaigns.
Non-Tamil Sri Lankans, however, were paralysed not knowing how to counter the sudden wave of sympathy that was sweeping the Western world in the immediate aftermath of “1983”. Prof. Weeramantry stepped into this vacuum to give leadership to the rudderless Sri Lankans. He formed a multi-ethnic front, the Overseas Sri Lankans Organisation for National Unity (OSLONU) which presented the alternative narrative. His stature, his vast knowledge of the law and history, his commanding personality, his persuasive presentations were invaluable assets in combatting anti-national propaganda. Our confidence was strengthened by the fact that a judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka was willing to walk with us in the streets of Melbourne, carrying placards.
For his part, Prof. Eliezer manoeuvred, in overt and covert tactics, to pursue separatist politics as a Mosessian commandment. He was committed to keep the divided expatriate community apart. Prof. Weeramantry, on the contrary, was stretching every nerve to bring unity and harmony. He even led a delegation of Sri Lankans to meet the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, hoping to get the blessings of the Church for communal harmony. The Archbishop agreed to hold a prayer meeting of all communities for peace and amity. Prof. Eliezer boycotted it at the last minute and stuck stubbornly to his divisive politics. In a move to reach out to the Tamils, Prof. Weeramantry reserved a place for the Tamils in OSLONU at the presidential level and invited them to join the other Sri Lankans in setting an example for communal harmony. But Tamil separatist politics forced them to abandon peaceful co-existence and communal harmony.
Finally, he achieved his dream when he brought undergraduates from the northern, eastern and southern universities under one roof at the Subodhi Institute at Piliyandala. In this experiment he discovered that the undergraduates who were at first reluctant to even smile with each other were crying and hugging each other when the time came for parting at the end of a fortnight’s communal living. He was quite elated that his experiment had succeeded. He saw great possibilities in it for the future of communal harmony.
In his legal career he rose way above the chrematistic, coconut-cracking, black-coated pettifoggers at Hulftsdorp. He went through all the stages that a lawyer could go through. He was a lawyer, a dedicated scholar of the law, a judge, a teacher of the law, ending up finally as the Vice-President of the ICJ. We have had eminent Sri Lankans shining in various realms of international law and institutions. Shirley Amerasinghe presided over the UN law-making body of the sea. Jayantha Dhanapala headed the UN Atomic Energy Commission probing deep into the center of atomic particles. Nandasiri Jasentuliyana soared high into outer space to write the future laws of the new world opening up in the Milky Way. Judge Weeramantry occupied the highest seat of all in the ICJ – the highest court in the world.
His career path to that seat was foretold by one of his lawyer friends when he was appointed as the youngest judge of the Supreme Court. He was told that he would go abroad, be a teacher of the law and at the age of sixty or so he would win the Nobel Prize if he was a scientist. But as lawyer the equivalent of the Nobel Prize was a seat in the ICJ. However, there were many obstacles in his path to Hague. In the first round, Harry Jayewardene, the brother of President Jayewardene, who promised to help him, undercut him and presented himself as the rival to Prof. Weeramantry. The Foreign Ministry went round the world capitals canvassing for Harry Jayewardene. But he lost. His CV was limited to one line : an article in the Daily News. Judge Weeramantry’s impressive CV ran into pages with Ph D’s from international universities.
In the second round, it was Asia’s turn but the Jayewardene government had pledged its support to the Pakistani candidate. Zia al-Huq was the head of Pakistan. There was no way that Prof. Weeramantry could win the backing of the Sri Lankan government. There were only a few days left for the closing of applications. By this time the Jayewardene’s were no longer in power. President Ranasinghe Premadasa was in command. But Jayewardene’s commitment to support to Zia’s nominee was in force. Then, as predicted, even world events turned dramatically in favour of Prof. Weeramantry. Zia went up in helicopter which exploded and killed him instantly. The new government of Pakistan said that they were not interested in Zia’s nominee. And so the doors opened for Judge Weeramantry to win his “Nobel Peace prize”.
In all respects his was a legendary career. In the words of Lakshman Kadiragamar, his achievements abroad were merely the icing on the cake. It was baked wholly in Sri Lanka which, he said, broadened his perspectives with its blend of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural tolerance. Though a staunch Catholic he was proud of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture in which he grew up. He even wrote lines picked from the Mahavamsa into the texts of international law in his judgment on the Danube contested by Hungary and Slovakia. The following extract reveals the extent to which he was influenced by Buddhism. He wrote : “The teachings of Buddhism go even further, for they require a compassion for all living things even to the extent of recognising the rights of animals to freedom form fear. The sermon of the Arahat Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa at the time when Buddhism was brought to this country spoke in terms of these rights. The concept of freedom from fear is an advanced human rights concept. Yet more than 2000 years ago the king was told “Remember that these animals are also as much inhabitants of this island as you are”. The king was also told that he was only a trustee of this land, and not the owner of it. Trusteeship is one of the basic principles of modern environmental law. Yet, it was anticipated over two thousand years ago. This basic concept of environmental law is thus deeply ingrained in our traditions having been incorporated in the very first sermon that was preached at the time when Buddhism was brought into this country.” (Sustainable Development : Ancient concept recently developed).
If there is one single strand that dominated his thinking it was religion. He believed in the brotherhood of mankind and, in keeping with this philosophy, he titled his three-volumed biography Towards a One World. His faith in humanity was as great as his faith in religion. He saw in all religions the common principles that bind humanity together. He viewed the UN Charter, particularly its “commandments” on human rights, as a secular translation of the humane principles enshrined in all religions. Not surprisingly, the last text he wrote, lying on his back at the hospital, was titled, Praying the Hail Mary.
He was, by any known standards, a great son of Sri Lanka who never forgot to pay his dues to his homeland.