Sri Lanka and the UN: From
ocean depth to outer-space
Sri Lanka's achievements spanned upper
and lower limits of the universe
(Excerpted from a Foreign Ministry publication
titled "Sri Lanka and the UN: 50 Years of Partnership,"
to be released next week. The publication, to be formally presented
to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the opening of the General
Assembly sessions on September 18, commemorates Sri Lanka's 50th
anniversary at the United Nations.)
Flags of the 16 new member nations fly at headquarters. A brief
ceremony took place at U.N. Headquarters, in New York, on the
occasion of the first raising of the flags of the sixteen new
Member States of the United Nations. The flags were raised one
at a time. This picture dated 09/03/1956 shows a U.N. Guard
raising the flag of Ceylon. U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold
and Mr. Basnayake (foot of the pole) look on.
Ceylon is one of the 16 countries which were admitted to membership
of the United Nations on December 14, 1955. This picture,
taken on the morning of December 15, 1955, before a plenary
meeting of the General Assembly, shows Mr. R.S.S. Gunewardene,
representative of Ceylon, seated at his country's desk in
the Assembly Hall.
Inset: Shirley Amerasinghe
The Security Council on November 20, 1961 debatedthe situation
in the Republic of the Congo. Dr. G. P. Malalasekera, Permanent
Representative of Ceylon is seen adressing the meeting.
The Security Council, continuing the debate on the situation
in Angola, (June 7, 1961) heard statements by the representatives
of Ceylon, India, Congo (Brazzaville) and Portugal. Here is
a view of a section of the Council chamber as H. O. Wijegoonawardena
(2nd from left, at desk), of Ceylon, addressed the meeting.
At the desk with him are (L to R) Ambassadors Charles Woodruff
Yost (United States), Daniel Schweitzer (Chile), U.N. Secretary-General
Dag Hammarskjold and Ambassador Tingfu F. Tsiang (China),
this month's President of the Council.
When future historians take stock of Sri Lanka's enduring contributions
during its first 50 years at the United Nations, they may realise
that our political legacy spanned both the upper and lower limits
of the universe: the sky above and the oceans below.
Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe (who insisted on
using "Hamilton" as his first name to assert his gender
in a country where "Shirley" was mostly a woman's name)
was not only elected President of the General Assembly back in September
1976, but also chaired the historic Law of the Sea Conference which
produced the ultimate treaty governing the ocean sea-bed.
And both in 1982 and 1999, Nandasiri Jasentuliyana,
an international expert on space law, was named Executive Secretary
of the second and third UN Conferences on the Exploration and Peaceful
Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE II & III) that laid down the laws
governing the heavenly skies preventing a possible arms race and
a futuristic star wars, Hollywood-style.
Still, between the deep blue sea and the wide open
skies, there was plenty of room for Sri Lankan success stories in
terra firma: Dr Gamani Corea's two-term (1974-84) appointment as
Secretary-General of the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and
Development (UNCTAD); Andrew Joseph's stint as Associate Administrator
of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1989; Christopher Weeramantry's
election as judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in
the Hague in 1991; and Jayantha Dhanapala's appointment as Under-Secretary-General
for Disarmament Affairs in 1998.
An equally creditable achievement was the appointment
in early 2006 of Radhika Coomaraswamy as Under-Secretary-General
(USG) for Children in Armed Conflict. She became the fourth Sri
Lankan to hold the post of a USG -- the third highest ranking position
in the UN totem pole -- after Corea, Joseph, Weeramantry and Dhanapala.
She was also the first Sri Lankan woman to rise to the higher echelons
of the male-dominated UN Secretariat. If one is to take account
of the genetic factor, she is perhaps a product of designer genes:
her father Raju Coomaraswamy retired as an Assistant Secretary-General
and head of UNDP's Asian Bureau in the 1980s.
The family success story also had a hereditary
parallel in the political field. The Bandaranaikes are perhaps the
second family in UN history with a triple crown -- with the father
(SWRD), mother (Sirimavo) and daughter (Chandrika Kumaratunga) addressing
the General Assembly, as heads of government in three different
decades. The only other comparison is the appearance before the
General Assembly of India's Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira
Gandhi, and her son Rajiv, maintaining a tradition spanning three
generations. But at least during the first 60 years of the U.N.'s
existence (1945-2005), the Bandaranaikes shared the distinction
with the Nehru family of continuing a political dynasty -- not only
at home but also at the United Nations.
When Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) gained admission
to the United Nations back in December 1955, the first-ever mission
to the U.N. was literally homeless. As the former Ambassador to
the U.S. Neville Kanakaratne would recount, our application for
membership was vetoed by the then Soviet Union on the ground that
we still had a defence agreement with the United Kingdom (and that
Trincomalee was a naval base under the control of the British, despite
our independence in February 1948). The charge was that we were
NOT a truly independent nation state -- but still a British colony.
Therefore, the Soviets argued, Sri Lanka did not warrant a seat
in the world body. The truth of the matter, however, was that we
were caught up in the politics of the Cold War and were made victims
of a Soviet ideological battle with the West. The Western powers
in turn kept vetoing Soviet allies barring them from UN membership.
As part of a package deal, however, we gained admission
in December 1995 in return for the US holding back its veto on Soviet
allies such as Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, who eventually
made it to the UN the same day as we did. Although we were knocking
at the UN door since 1950, it took five long years to gain admission.
The swift admission in 1955, however, took the government by mild
surprise, with no immediate office space to house the new Sri Lanka
Mission to the UN.
The Good Samaritan came in the guise of Lawrence
Gunatilaka, a trail-blazing Sri Lankan arriving in the US in the
early 1950s, who offered his apartment in the service of his country.
Gunatilaka's apartment in West 73rd street was the first home of
the Sri Lankan Mission to the United Nations. The mailing address
of the apartment even adorned the first set of letterheads printed
by the Mission.
During a later visit to New York as a member of the Sri Lanka delegation
to the General Assembly sessions in the 1980s, Ambassador Kanakaratne
said: "Lawrence's apartment was the headquarters for about
two to three months until we found a brownstone in Sutton Place."
Even the first Permanent Representative to the U.N., Sir Senerat
(RSS) Gunewardene, had to shuttle between New York and Washington
DC because his assignment as ambassador to the U.S. took precedence
over the United Nations.
In the mid-1950s, the entire Sri Lankan community
in New York could have been comfortably squeezed into a single phone
booth on a street corner. As anecdotes go, there was a story of
how Sri Lankan diplomats would stand outside the UN building on
42nd street and First Avenue scouting for scarcely-seen Sri Lankans
on the New York horizon. And the first Sri Lankan passerby was forcibly
enlisted as a member of the delegation -- kicking and screaming.
By the late 1970s, the equation was reversed. We had a glut of delegates,
with hordes of MPs and politicians arriving in New York, as part
of a refresher course in international politics. During a crucial
voting, however, most of the MP-delegates were missing from their
seats -- and were later tracked down to a then-famous discount appliance
stores in Canal Street in lower Manhattan, where they were on a
shopping spree. Travel not only broadened their minds but also their
Coincidentally, it was the same year (1976) when
Ambassador Amerasinghe presided over the General Assembly, the highest
policy making body at the United Nations. Since there is a tradition
that each of the 191 member states will have only one shot at the
presidency, Amerasinghe will continue to enjoy the unique honour
of being the only Sri Lankan to head the General Assembly -- perhaps
into the next century.
Amerasinghe was also the first Sri Lankan who made
himself available for the post of UN Secretary-General back in 1971.
"Strictly speaking", says Kumar Chitty, a former Special
Assistant to the Special Representative at the Law of the Sea secretariat,
Amerasinghe was NOT AGAINST (then Secretary-General) Kurt Waldheim,
but he had informed Waldheim that he would make himself available
Chitty, who was later to be Registrar of the Law
of the Sea Tribunal in Hamburg, said that Amerasinghe was the official
candidate of Sri Lanka "to the extent that the Foreign Ministry
delegation to the General Assembly sessions (at that time) did go
around indicating he was available, and had the support of the Government".
There was no official announcement of candidature. And there wasn't
the type of political lobbying that goes on nowadays, said Chitty.
But according to speculation, Amerasinghe was branded as "too
pro-Palestinian" and therefore unable to win the support of
the US and other Western powers. When the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem
was burnt triggering protests against Israel, he was one of the
keynote speakers during the Middle East debate in the Security Council.
He later became the first chairman of the three-member Israeli Practices
Committee (which documented Israeli human rights violations in occupied
That perhaps was one of the deadliest blows that
gutted his chances in the run-up to the election for a new Secretary-General
in a country where the Israeli lobby reigns supreme. He got pretty
close to Waldheim's total in the first count but was blocked by
a veto -- possibly cast by the Americans, according to Nandasiri
Jasentuliyana, then a staff member of the UN secretariat and later
Deputy Director-General, UN Office in Vienna and Director of the
UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. Jasentuliyana said that most
notable in that period was the influence of Sri Lanka's Permanent
Representatives (PR), including Sir Senarat (who held the post twice
in 1958 and 1963) and later Sir Claude Corea and Shirley Amerasinghe,
who had unfettered access to the upper echelons of the UN Secretariat.
When the second UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold
of Sweden died in a mysterious plane crash in the Congo in 1961,
Ambassador Kanakaratne was a Legal Adviser in the Secretariat. Hammarskjold's
trouble-shooting UN team to Congo was to have included a Legal Adviser.
At the eleventh hour, Kanakaratne decided to back out of the trip
because he thought his knowledge of French was relatively poor compared
to that of Vladmir Fabri, another UN Legal Adviser. Fabri took Kanakaratne's
place on that fateful plane that crashed in the Congo killing the
entire delegation. As Kanakaratne recalled the incident, the 'Ceylon
Observer' ran a lead story with the headline: "Was Our Man
on the Death Plane."
"Somebody had taken the newspaper to my mother
-- and she almost collapsed," Kanakaratne recalled. Within
24 hours, the record was set straight by our Permanent Representative
at that time, Ambassador Gunapala Malalasekera (1961-1963).
High profile reporters
Speaking of newspaper headlines, the first reporter to cover the
UN back in 1956 was Ernest Corea, onetime editor of both the Daily
News and the Observer, and later Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the US.
Ed Kerner, a former Sri Lankan Director of Tourism
in New York, covered the UN in the early 1970s for a short-lived
Hongkong-based newspaper called the "Asian" edited by
the legendary Tarzie Vittachi, a longtime editor of the Observer.
Vittachi himself later became Chief of Information at the UN Population
Fund (UNFPA) and ended up as an Assistant Secretary-General of the
UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) while doubling as a columnist and Contributing
Editor to Newsweek International.
One of the most memorable stories about Vittachi
apparently relates to an African diplomat who walked into his office
seeking advice as to how he could get his Prime Minister's speech
reported in the mainstream media in New York which rarely gave coverage
to General Assembly speeches. "Shoot him", said Vittachi,
"and you will get a front page story."
Perhaps an equally enduring story was the appearance
of an interloper in the General Assembly hall just before then Foreign
Minister A.C.S. Hameed was due to address delegates back in 1976.
As the President of the Assembly called upon Hameed to speak, he
was beaten to the punch by another Sri Lankan, an activist lawyer
from London named K. Vaikunthavasam, who pulled off a political
stunt rare in the Assembly hall.
Pretending he was the Sri Lankan foreign minister,
Vaikunthavasam walked to the podium and unleashed a blistering attack
on the Sri Lankan government accusing it of genocide against the
Tamils. Within minutes, the microphone was cut off, and two burly
UN security guards grabbed him from the stage and whisked him off
the hall. As Hameed, the real Foreign Minister, walked up to the
podium there was pin drop silence. "I want to thank the previous
speaker," Hameed began, "for keeping his speech short."
A packed Assembly of delegates, known for their long-winded speeches,
broke out in laughter.