Love & the Law

C. G. Weeramantry’s View of Catholic Global Justice
Photo by Henning Blatt

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.

We need international norms and institutions fitting for today.

While he would later lament that, “in the twentieth century, international law . . . has so far distanced itself from religion that the latter receives scarcely a mention in the standard texts,” Weeramantry the brilliant lawyer never left religion behind. At Monash he wrote a book on Islamic jurisprudence—partly to counter the lack of knowledge and appreciation for this tradition that he found among his students, but also to stress Islamic contributions to international law. Urged by a colleague to turn to his own tradition, he wrote The Lord’s Prayer: Bridge to a Better World, in which he noted the unfortunate gap between law and religion, and, by contrast, of “the relevance of religion to practical law and order.” Hoping to “harness the power of prayer,” Weeramantry applied the principles he found in this passage from scripture, illumined by other traditions, to the profound challenges of the age: war and violence, economic injustice, racism, and biological advances and their threats (about which he wrote elsewhere at length), to name a few. The value of plumbing multiple faith traditions for their wisdom on matters of importance, especially the fate of future generations, would be more fully evident in a 2005 book, Tread Lightly on the Earth: Religion and the Environment.

The topic of the environment returns us to Nauru—once called Pleasant Island, but long since devastated by aggressive phosphate mining by foreign powers prior to independence in 1968. In 1986, with a view to bringing a case before the World Court, the Nauru government asked Weeramantry to chair a three-person independent commission of inquiry to settle, among other questions, who should “accept responsibility for rehabilitating the areas of phosphate land worked out in the periods covered by the German administration, the League of Nations, the Japanese occupation [of Nauru] and the United Nations Trust.” The wording even of this partial charge to the commission is suggestive of what Weeramantry would say about the Nauru case, that it “presents in microcosm an unusual variety of the great historical currents that have shaped the course of human affairs.” Indeed, those “historical currents” were such that the commission’s findings filled ten volumes. Nauru: Environmental Damage under International Trusteeship, Weeramantry’s 1992 lengthy summary report, not only offers an extraordinary review of the colonial and post-colonial or neo-colonial worlds, but also displays Weeramantry’s distinctive jurisprudence. This included an avid search for evidence of law in a sometimes seemingly lawless world, a search that would range from German mining law to ancient and emerging international legal principles to the non-Eurocentric legal understandings of the Nauruans themselves.

One can also read the Nauru case as a protracted teaching moment. Weeramantry’s hope that the world could learn from the Nauru case is consistent with his conviction that if we ignore good law and what it teaches and asks of us, or if we fail to rectify its flaws and transform it with the times, we risk further turning the world into the human catastrophe that Nauru, now with its resident refugees, represents.

Weeramantry’s great love of the law, the love that a true teacher has for his or her subject, was manifest again during his years with the World Court. It would be a mistake to reduce his contribution there to a single case. But as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight these days, so more than ever does Weeramantry’s remarkable dissent from the ICJ’s 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of the use or threat to use nuclear weapons stand out. I leave to experts to determine just why Weeramantry was able to say, in a little over one-hundred carefully argued pages, what eight of the fifteen ICJ judges could not quite bring themselves to pronounce: that the use or threat to use nuclear weapons would be illegal in any and all circumstances. For my part, I think it had something to do with references in his dissent to “public conscience” and “the conscience of humanity.” That, and the fact that some form of the word “suffering” appears forty times—eight times as often as in the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ The Challenge of Peace a decade or so before. In his ICJ nuclear weapons dissent, but certainly not only there, Weeramantry the erudite legal scholar, the dedicated teacher, and the compassionate humanist were one.

In the 1930s, American jurist James Brown Scott found legal guidance in what he called “the Catholic conception of international law.” He argued that Franciso de Vitoria and others of the sixteenth-century Salamancan school of theology and philosophy, rather than Hugo Grotius, were the true founders of modern international law. Whatever the merits of Scott’s view, we cannot simply return to the world of Vitoria or Grotius, for that world is no more. We need international norms and institutions fitting for today. Happily, Weeramantry leaves as his legacy a revised Catholic—or, better, catholic—conception of international law, a paradigm shift from Salamanca to Sri Lanka, one might say. In this regard, Weeramantry echoes Pope Francis’ plea in Laudato si’ to care for “our common home,” a Catholic cri de coeur that invites, indeed requires, contributions from all fields of knowledge, all levels of action, all faiths, and all cultures. In fact, if the author of Laudato si’ is seeking legal counsel to advance his agenda, he could hardly do better than to consult Weeramantry.

And, perhaps, neither can we. With the chaotic roll-out last January of President Trump’s first selective travel ban, lawyers rushed to major airports to offer pro bono legal assistance to anyone in need. Today, as some seem to be calling for a repeal of our current global order without adequate proposal for replacement, vulnerable people everywhere, including those yet to be born, risk being detained at the ports of the world, barred from entrance to a better life. Weeramantry is in some sense already there and waiting for us, ready to offer to a deeply troubled world his legal counsel, wise and humane, free for the taking, free of charge.

William George is a professor of theology and chair of the Department of Theology at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

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