ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 17
Front Page Plus

Champion of Peace

Teach the young and they will teach their parents, says Judge Chris Weeramantry, whose impressive work on creating a better world order, has earned him the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education

By Smriti Daniel

“I’m honoured to be in the company of people like Mother Teresa,” says Judge Christopher Gregory Weeramantry when asked how it feels to be the recipient of this year’s UNESCO Prize for Peace Education. The prize has been awarded in recognition of his unbending stance against the use of nuclear weapons. Not only will he be the first Sri Lankan to be so recognized, he is also the only judge in the history of this award to receive it.

We are in the offices of the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research (WICPER) where hang several pictures on the walls behind me, one of Judge Weeramantry shaking hands with the Pope; in another as a much younger man, serious under his white wig and judge’s robes; in yet another, blending into the grandeur of the International Court in Hague.

As he sips his tea, he tells me that he will soon be on his way to Paris to collect this very prestigious UNESCO award. In between he will have several speaking engagements and much work to do for the centre itself. He has several plans for the future and as one listens it becomes quite clear that the law has as much scope for high drama as any other field. This is one octogenarian who simply refuses to rest on his not inconsiderable laurels.

In an almost impossibly distinguished professional career that has spanned over five decades as a lawyer, legal educator, domestic judge, international judge, author and lecturer, Judge Weeramantry has continuously worked towards a more peaceful world. Manoeuvring within the confines of the law, he has helped shape critical decisions on many things – from the illegality of nuclear weapons to the importance of peace education in schools.

As President of the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms (IALNA), Judge Weeramantry was the author of the famous 1997 decision by the International Court of Justice which declared even the threat to use nuclear weapons illegal. He was nominated by the City Montessori School (CMS) in Lucknow for supporting their appeal, made on behalf of the world’s two billion children, that the International Law Courts take steps to protect their future from the threat of nuclear holocaust and eco-catastrophe. Fortunately, they found their champion in Judge Weeramantry.

In marshalling his arguments on the humanitarian laws of war (of which the ban on nuclear weapons is one), Judge Weeramantry drew extensively from the wisdom of the past. “Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Christian, Islamic and traditional African cultures…have all given expression to a variety of limitations on the extent to which any means can be used for the purposes of fighting one’s enemy,” he wrote when the International Court was still debating the legality of nuclear weapons.

He illustrates this point with a reference to the Ramayana and the war between Rama, prince of Ayodhya in India, and Ravana, ruler of Sri Lanka. Here “Rama gained control of a ‘pasupathastra’ or hyper-destructive weapon, but was told that he could not use it without consulting the sages of law,” he explains, adding that in the end the prince was not allowed to use the weapon, the reasoning being that having subdued the enemy, one was to live in peace with him thereafter.

Such teachings appear in all the world’s religions, says Judge Weeramantry – be it Judaism or Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism, certain core values do not change. Yet people, even entire countries seem ignorant of this. For instance, Islam has been derided by some prominent world leaders as being spread solely by violence but on the opposite side of the coin, it was an Islamic scholar who wrote the first known treatise advocating international law as a restraint upon military forces, reveals Judge Weeramantry, adding that such scholars were initially the first to explore the nature of International Law, the sanctity of treaties, and even the correct way to greet foreign ambassadors.

“Every culture, every religion, every legal system is part of the universal inheritance of humanity and has so much richness to offer to all,” Judge Weeramantry once said. He believes that a better understanding of this shared heritage is critical in bridging the gaps between nations and this is truly the province of International Law. Unfortunately, International Law has been overwhelmingly Euro-central in the past – ignorant for the most part of what other civilizations had to offer.

However, in his time as Vice President of the International Court Judge Weeramantry did much to change that – to broaden and root modern policies and laws in the collective wisdom offered by the world’s religions and philosophies. Today, many others inspired by him continue this work. He himself still continues this work in Sri Lanka. As the founder and chairman of the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research (WICPER), Judge Weeramantry actively pursues the promotion of “peace through intercultural understanding”.

Judge Weeramantry’s writings constitute an impressive body of work. He is the author of 20 books and over 60 book chapters, journal articles, reports and conference papers on such topics as international law, human rights, the third world, legal education and research, Sri Lanka and the United Nations. While some such as ‘International Arbitration under the UNCITRAL Rules’ are likely to stir the interest of only the legally inclined, others such as the ‘Lord’s Prayer: Bridge to a Better World’ are of interest to all. “There are a 100 human rights embedded within the Lord’s Prayer,” he says.

Notably, his interests have more than kept pace with the times. ‘Justice without frontiers’ is a passion with him – and so he works to make it possible that the law may apply across geographical borders. But these days things are not always so cut and dried. For instance, how does one protect human rights in an age of rapid technological advancement? “Science is encroaching on human rights,” he says, explaining that things like xenotransplantation and DNA experimentation have the same potential the atom bomb did – to visit unimaginable suffering on the world without so much as a by our leave.

In most cases, the law is our last defence. And yet for most people, the law is the oppressor, says Judge Weeramantry. It is in order to change this perception that WICPER together with the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is planning a Law Week. Beginning on October 30, 2006, it will bring together judges, lawyers, law students and members of the public in discussions on how the law can serve all.

The Centre is also deeply involved in peace education activities, and has held several cross-cultural camps for both school children and undergraduates drawn from Jaffna, Batticaloa, Peradeniya and Colombo. The results have been heartening, says a smiling Judge Weeramantry, with many participants announcing their desire to stay friends for life. He firmly believes that it is with the young that our hopes of having a peaceful country and ultimately a peaceful world lie. “Teach the young and they will go back and teach their parents,” he says.

In the end, as someone who has lived through some of the most tumultuous and important moments in recent history – World War II for instance – Judge Weeramantry is well able to look at the bigger picture…and he has never suffered from a dearth of hope. He smilingly describes the situation in Sri Lanka as “an aberration on the way,” – one that his country will pull out of soon; and then more seriously adds that “we can be the light of Asia if we want”. The beauty of it is that you find yourself believing him.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.