News cycles in the early days of the Trump administration were briefly given over to the contentious phone conversation between the president and Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, during which Trump complained of the Obama administration’s “dumb deal” to consider accepting refugees kept by Australia on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Front-page stories can have important backstories little known or forgotten, at least by those unaffected or far away. Such it is with Nauru, a small dot in the Pacific, the third smallest country by area in the world. But in this case, the story of Nauru, as well as a major figure in that story—Christopher Gregory Weeramantry—may too easily be buried and forgotten. And that would be a shame.
Honored in his own country as Sri Lankabhimanya—“The Pride of Sri Lanka”—Weeramantry was little known in the United States. Although he was highly regarded in the world of law, had served as a judge on the International Court of Justice, and was honored by UNESCO as a tireless educator for peace, American newspapers and other media took no notice of his passing on January 6 of last year. That I knew him at all, through a fraction of his writings, was a pure accident of autobiography. During doctoral studies in the late 1980s, I learned to love the law, in this case international law, and that love eventually led me to Weeramantry. Unrecognized though he may have been on this side of the globe, he was surely one of the great advocates for peace and justice in our time. Even to know him in passing, or after his passing, can count as a blessing in perplexing times. So, it is worth remembering him, if too briefly, to others now.
Catholic by baptism, Weeramantry began a life-long interfaith journey with immersion in the religiously and culturally diverse world that was the Ceylon of his youth. From a mother who loved philosophy, literature, art, and music, and a mathematician father who raised educational standards in Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist schools, young Christopher also inherited a love of learning. While one brother found his calling in teaching, Christopher followed his other brother into law, and, like Gandhi, travelled to England to enhance his legal skills. Back home, he excelled as a lawyer and rose to a seat on the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. Early specialization in the law of contracts no doubt shaped his lifelong zeal for just agreements of every kind.
In 1972, Weeramantry began teaching law at Monash University in Australia, where he would remain for nearly twenty years, with several visiting professorships woven in. He saw his move from court to the academy as a liberating chance better to engage, through travel and intellectual exchange, a vast yet ever-shrinking and rapidly changing world. Most important, perhaps, Weeramantry immersed himself in international law, in part to meet curricular needs but also, it would seem, to advance his cause of moving “towards one world,” which would be the title of his remarkable three-volume memoir. This emergent world would be, among other things, one in which the rule of law and the positive aspects of religion could conspire to further the cause of justice and peace for all.