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.

2 Responses to “The Amazing Grace of  Judge Christy Weeramantry”

  1. Christie Says:

    Professor Weeramanthri was a great man and a great Sinhales. RIP.

    Thanks Mahinda.

  2. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    Dear HLDM !!
    Your article with reference to Prof.C.J.Eliezer, brings me nostalgic memories of my teen age days, when I travelled with Mrs Eliezer and Mrs Balasingham, (Dr. Balasingham’s wife), in the back of a lorry, loaded with Clothes and Dry Rations, to Killinochchi, to be given away to Flood Victims. WE were members of the Red Cross. What prompted me to write this note was when I saw Ronny Leach singing SANGATHI SONAALE CARDEL SANGITHI SONAALE, at one of his appearences, vide;-Ronnie Leach @ Gypsies Live in Concert at LA-HD. The two ladies were singing this song for entertainment, as we travelled on.

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