Justice Weeramantry and the Bridges of Understanding

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

International law is still in that formative stage wherein it must continually draw upon equity, ethics and the moral sense of mankind to nourish its developing principles. ~ C. G. Weeramantry, The Lord’s Prayer: Bridge to a Better World

( February 9, 2017, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) On 5 January the most illustrious international jurist of Sri Lanka, Christopher Gregory Weeramantry passed away. He served as a Judge of the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1972. Justice Weeramantry proceeded to become Sir Hayden Starke Professor of Law at Monash University where he became much published and deeply respected by the legal intelligentsia of Australia. He was, during his academic tenure in Melbourne, the pride of the Sri Lankan community, being a beacon that shone the community’s dignity and cultural and educational heritage in a society that was shrugging off the bigotry of the white Australian policy of immigration.

The author of this article was a graduate student at that time in the Faculty of Law at Monash and basked in the radiance of one of the most eminent legal scholars in the law school. Professor Weeramantry’s book The Law in Crisis: Bridges of Understanding published in 1975 was the talk of David Derham School of Law at Monash at the time. The book was hailed by another distinguished judge A.R.B. Amerasinghe as “apocalyptic and revealing”. Lord Denning, who wrote the Foreword to the book commented: “This book appears at a critical moment in the history of mankind. Civilized societies seem to be disintegrating…”

We not only had a brilliant scholar from our country at the helm of academia at our law school but also a mentor and friend. For many of us Sri Lankan students at Monash from the law, engineering, science and educational faculties as well as the school of humanities, uncle Christie’s home was always open. He was gracious, accommodating and patient with us. Despite his impressive legal stature, the equality with which he treated us students, with the utmost dignity and unobtrusive conviviality, was indeed an inspiration.

Professor Weeramantry went from Monash to become a Judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 1991 to 2000 and served as its Vice-President from 1997 to 2000. He permeated his judgments in that august assembly of justice with his deep legal and classical knowledge and his enduring belief in international humanitarian law. He brought with him the unique heritage of his country of birth which is home to four major religions and infused the law with the tenets of those religions to bring to bear the moral imperative of the sanctity of human life. Judge Weeramantry coalesced the forgiveness of Christianity; the tolerance and kindness of Buddhism; the wisdom of the Hindu religion; and the humanity professed by the Islamic faith into the majesty of his judgments and the profundity of his writings. His steadfast stance against any use of nuclear force by any State, under any circumstances, where other judges of the International Court of Justice reserved their position when it came to self-defense, was uncompromising. In his dissenting opinion in the Nuclear Arms Case Judge Weeramantry said: “My considered opinion is that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is illegal in any circumstances whatsoever. It violates the fundamental principles of international law, and represents the very negation of the humanitarian concerns which underlie the structure of humanitarian law. It offends conventional law and, in particular, the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, and Article 23(a) of The Hague Regulations of 1907. It contradicts the fundamental principle of the dignity and worth of the human person on which all law depends. It endangers the human environment in a manner which threatens the entirety of life on the planet.

I regret that the Court has not held directly and categorically that the use or threat of use of the weapon is unlawful in all circumstances without exception. The Court should have so stated in a vigorous and forthright manner which would have settled this legal question now and forever”.

The acute awareness of the harm caused by environmental damage was another aspect reflected in his judgment: “Nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy the entire eco-system of the planet. Those already in the world’s arsenals have the potential of destroying life on the planet several times over. Another special feature of the nuclear weapon, referred to at the hearings, is the damage caused by ionizing radiation to coniferous forests, crops, the food chain, livestock and the marine eco-system”.

When two Libyan men were accused of causing the explosion of a bomb in the Pan Am Flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, on 21 December 1988, which killed all 259 passengers and crew, as well as eleven residents of the town of Lockerbie, The UK and US Governments requested Libya to extradite the accused so that they could be prosecuted in Scotland or in The United States. The matter came up before The International Court of Justice where Judge Weeramantry was one of the Bench hearing the case. One of the issues in the case was whether the Court had jurisdiction to issue provisional measures as applied for by Libya, in the face of Article 25 of the United Nations Charter which obligated member States to carry out decisions of the Security Council, which impliedly precluded the members from being obligated to carry out measures prescribed by the ICJ. Judge Weeramantry opined that both the Security Council and the Court were created by the Charter and therefore were complimentary to each other, ascribing to the court much needed credibility and jurisdiction.

As part of his judgment, Justice Weeramnatry said: “A great judge once said that the laws are not silent amidst the clash of arms. In our age we need also to assert that the laws are not powerless to prevent the clash of arms. The entire law of the United Nations has been built up around the notion of peace and the prevention of conflict… the Court, in an appropriate instance where possible conflict threatens rights that are being litigated before it is not powerless to issue provisional measures conserving those rights by restraining an escalation of the dispute and the possible resort to force”.

In his book The Lord’s Prayer: Bridge to a Better World, published in 1998 Judge Weeramantry avers to the problem of refugees (boat people) and his description fits to a tee what is happening in Europe nearly twenty years later: “Today’s wars and internal persecutions result in streams of refugees turning up at national boundaries with their pitiful possessions, their infants in arms and their memories of loved ones lost in the violence or during their arduous journey. They arrive in other countries in such great numbers that the host countries are quite often unequal to the task of handling them. Many of them, such as “boat people” lose their lives at sea in their bid for freedom…Moreover, a new species of environmental refugees is expected to present new problems in the next century”. Judge Weeramantry refers to rising water levels, earthquakes, nuclear plant disasters, all causing droves of refugees to seek shelter from environmental disasters.

His was a theory of justice focused on human needs and aspirations: one of categorical imperatives which attenuate the fairness of ethics and the purity of religious thought. In the Foreword written in the author’s book Aviation Trends in the New Millennium, Justice Weeramantry observes that legal practice in the future will be transformed in a manner requiring a knowledge of domestic and international law. Judge Weeramantry epitomised what Lord Atkin said in Ambard v. Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago: “ Justice is not a cloistered virtue. She must be allowed to suffer the respectful, even though honest, comments of ordinary men”.

He will be remembered not only for his insightful analyses of complex legal issued which he broke down to their simplest forms but also for his erudition and for a lasting legacy of a visionary interpretation of the law and the theory of justice.

The author was awarded the degree of master of laws by Monash University in 1982; the degree of doctor of philosophy by the University of Colombo in 1992; and the degree of doctor of civil laws by McGill University in 1996. He is former Head of International Relations and Insurance at Airlanka and former Senior Legal Officer at The International Civil Aviation Organization. He is currently a Senior Associate at Aviation Strategies International, headquartered in Montreal.

[featured image credits — Right livelihood award foundation]


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