The Quest for one world – the odyssey of judge Weeramantry


by Jayantha Dhanapala

The launch of the first volume of Judge Christopher Weeramantry’s memoirs – "Towards One World" – has great significance for the national life of our country at this moment of time. This aspect deserves more focused attention despite the excellent reviews of the book that have already appeared. As the author writes, "These memoirs are in a sense a call to all those who can contribute, not to sleep upon their watch."

Christy Weeramantry is essentially a man of the law and a deeply religious person who draws his wisdom from all the four religions that enrich our culture and history. None of the mischievous lawyer jokes and denigratory definitions of the legal profession fit him. However what Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, said of a lawyer friend comes close – "God works wonders now and then; behold a lawyer, an honest man". But Christy Weeramantry is much more than an honest man being a multi-faceted personality with an astonishing array of versatile talents. To describe them would be to gild the lily.

A recent news item said that Mark Twain’s memoirs have just been published 100 years after his death according to his wishes since he did not wish his family to suffer the consequences of his vitriolic humour. We must be grateful that Judge Weeramantry has published his memoirs in his lifetime and, as one of the most inoffensive gentlemen I have known, not one page of his book contains any harsh criticisms of anyone.

Weeramantry the National Icon

and Role Model

Surveying the social debris in our country after three decades of conflict, it is striking that there are very few who would qualify as national icons and role models for our youth. Many of the heroes acclaimed popularly have been revealed to have feet of clay. Judge Weeramantry is indisputably one of our national icons deeply anchored in the bedrock of the nation.

In our own youth we were encouraged to read the biographies of great men whether it was Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Emil Ludwig’s work on Napoleon and others. I hope our Ministry of Education will be enlightened enough to prescribe the Weeramantry memoirs as recommended reading for our schoolchildren. They will learn not only of the values and influences that shaped an individual who rose to great eminence here and abroad, but they will also get a sense of the milieu of the ‘30s and ‘40s – the colonial era when Weeramantry was growing up in Sri Lanka. It was an era of closely knit family ties and of a sense of community which Weeramantry treasures. In the transition from a British colony to a fully fledged independent democracy we have gained immeasurably from the expansion of participatory democracy, from free education and other social welfare measures so that the indicators of our human development are today very impressive. But we have also lost that "sense of community" that Weeramantry talks of. It is a loss we are well poised to regain in the post conflict period of reconciliation and rehabilitation with inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.

Judge Weeramantry is quintessentially a Sri Lankan. The first volume describing his Sri Lankan years brings this out vividly. The late Lakshman Kadirgamar, reflecting on his own career, once said famously that the cake was baked in Sri Lanka: it was only the icing that came from Oxford. In Christy Weeramantry’s case, the cake was not only baked in Sri Lanka but the icing too came from here. And it was that cake and that icing that earned so many plaudits at home and abroad. At a time when there are many fathers of the successful defeat of the LTTE, not many remember that Christy Weeramantry, as a Sri Lanka expatriate in Australia, led a courageous campaign against the pro LTTE propaganda at the time linking with other Sri Lankan expatriate groups in other countries to stem the tide globally. He has been a patriot in the true sense of the word and not in terms of political platform definitions like the "If you are not for us; you are against us" syndrome.

Weeramantry and the Law

There has never been a time in our post-Independence history, save for the periods when Southern terrorism and Northern terrorism scourged our land, when we needed the Rule of Law more than now. Weeramantry has been steadfast in his faith in the law. He devotes many pages to the landscape of the law in our country describing the system of the law and the courts and his actual experiences as a practitioner. But he is too sensitive a person and too much a man with a social conscience to ignore the sociology of the law.

Thus in Chapter XVI he identifies the neglected aspects of the law in Sri Lanka that caused him concerns. They included the elitism of the profession and its bias towards the rich; the need for research into the causes of crime and debt; the importance of understanding the historical context in the evolution of our law; the need for legal aid to ensure access to the law for the poor and needy; the excessive formalism in the practice of the law so unsuited to our conditions; the need for more attention to International and Comparative Law; the harshness of cross-examination and the division of labour within the profession despite the amalgamation of proctors and advocates as attorneys-at-law.

Weeramantry the Academic

The transition from a being a legal practitioner to becoming an academic was an easy one for Judge Weeramantry. As a scholar he had already published "The Law on Contracts". In his own words the motive to move to the world of academia was the "wide disparity between the purely judicial arena of action to the wider social interest." Indeed this quest to extend the reach of the law was to motivate him later to join the International Court of Justice. He was not content to see the law confined to the Dickensian offices of lawyers or the courts. His approach was not only cross-cultural but also inter-disciplinary. There were the "great illuminated places of the law" which excited him intellectually. But there were also "the many dimly lit corridors and halls of darkness where the light of the law had not penetrated". The range of his publications illustrates his attempts to ensure that the law embraced a wide field of human activity. It is also the quest "Towards One World" in defiance of Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" concept.

Weeramantry the Global Citizen

Finally we have Weeramantry the Global Citizen. The decision to leave Sri Lanka for Australia in 1972 was an agonizing one. He was giving up a senior position as a Judge of the Supreme Court and was leaving his beloved mother behind. But he soon acquired prominence not only as a Professor of Law in Monash but in the whole of Australia. He began to be well-known internationally and I recall meeting him at international conferences in Geneva and The Hague.

He developed an early interest in international affairs listening to the radio as a boy and hearing the conversations of his father and his friends. Modestly he ascribes his interest in human rights and international humanitarian law to the work of his brother Lucian in the International Commission of Jurists. His best work in building international norms was as a judge in the International Court where he was Vice-President. His contribution to the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the Court on the illegality of the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons remains a landmark. I have, as a fellow Sri Lankan, had the good fortune to bask in his reflected glory quoting from his famous opinion. I was in Hiroshima just last week where his name remains highly respected.



So we have Weeramantry the patriot juxtaposed with the internationalist; the legal practitioner with the academic – an evolution that is described so fascinatingly in the book. In many ways, Christy Weeramantry followed in the footsteps of his father, the famous educationist who founded Alexandra College, as he mentored many men and women throughout his life - a task which he continues today with so much dedication.

William Butler Yeats, the famous Irish poet, once wrote that "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." Christy Weeramantry has lit many fires in his lifetime. May he continue to do so illuminating our land and banishing the darkness of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination to usher in an era of peace, rule of law and equality for all our citizens.

(Based on remarks made at the Book Launch on 24 November at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo.)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...