Sri Lanka at the United Nations
By Sugeeswara Senadhira
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is scheduled to address the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. It will be the President’s first address to the UNGA.
Senior Adviser to the President, Lalith Weeratunga said the President would focus on the need for coordinated actions to overcome the challenges of the post-COVID era by reaching agreements for the economic and social development of the countries. The President is expected to use the UN forum to spell out progress made by Sri Lanka and clarify position regarding various misconceptions among the international community regarding Sri Lanka.
President Rajapaksa’s address will be another important milestone in the glorious path of Sri Lanka’s relationship with the United Nations since the country became a member of the UN on 14th December 1955. Although Sri Lanka applied for membership immediately after attaining independence in 1948, some permanent members blocked the move as they considered Sri Lanka to be a puppet of the Western bloc. Eminent politician and diplomat Sir Senerat Gunewardene was Sri Lanka’s first Permanent Representative to the UN.
After serving in Italy he became Ambassador to the United States, a position he occupied concurrently with his post at the United Nations. He served as the Government’s observer to the 1955 session of the UNGA. After obtaining UN membership, Prime Minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was the first Sri Lankan Head of Government to address the UNGA.
The articulate speech of the erudite leader at the 11th General Assembly earned him the sobriquet ‘Silver tongue of Asia’. “My country is a small one, a weak one and a poor one, but I venture to think that today, particularly in an organisation such as this, the service that a country can render – that a member can render – is not to be measured alone by the size of that country, its population, its power or its strength.
This is an organisation which expresses itself most effectively by bringing to bear a certain moral force, the collective moral force and decency of human beings,” SWRD said amidst thundering ovation. Two decades after joining the World Body, Sri Lanka received its coveted position. In 1976, Shirley Amerasinghe, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was appointed as the President of the UNGA. A position voted for by the representatives of the UNGA on a yearly basis. Amerasinghe is the only Sri Lankan to have achieved this feat.
Prior to that in 1974, Shirley Amarasinghe was appointed as the President of the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. This conference resulted in the Law of the Sea Convention, an important document that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in using the world’s oceans.
Another Sri Lankan diplomat who served the UN with distinction was Neville Kanakaratne, who became UN Secretary General’s Adviser and Special Representative in the Congo in 1961-62. He later served as UN Legal and Political Adviser to UN Emergency Force in Gaza in 1962-64. Following year he became Legal Adviser to UN Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus.
Zone of Peace
In 1967, The United Nations Compound in Colombo was opened on 10 April 1967 by the UN Secretary General U Thant during his visit to Sri Lanka. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world’s first female Prime Minister on 21 July 1960, addressed the 26th session of the UNGA in 1971, calling for international support for her proposal for the establishment of a Peace Zone in the Indian Ocean. Subsequently, the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace was adopted and the Indian Ocean was designated as a Zone of Peace, with airspace and ocean floor limits to be determined. Sri Lanka’s keen interest in peace and nonviolence was evident as Sri Lanka not only proposed the Indian Ocean Peace Zone proposal, but also played a major role in disarmament efforts of the UN.
Sri Lanka, proposed the first ever UNGA Special Session on Disarmament, which was against nuclear weapons, small arms and the arms race in outer space. After serving in China, India and US, Sri Lanka’s top diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala became the UnderSecretary-General on re-establishing the Department of Disarmament.
During his tenure he steered the United Nations’ role in arresting the proliferation of small arms, landmines, and weapons of mass destruction. Sri Lanka has continuously emphasised the importance of the elimination of nuclear weapons and remains fully committed to the Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation.
Dhanapala also served as a member of the UN disbarment team to Iraq. Sri Lanka got into the world heritage map, when in 1982; three cultural sites in the island were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, the Ancient City of Sigiriya, and the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. Today, Sri Lanka has six cultural sites inscribed on the UNESCO Heritage List, including the Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991), the Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications (1988), and the Sacred City of Kandy (1988).
UNESCO has also listed two Sri Lankan natural sites on the World Heritage List: the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010) and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988). President Ranasinghe Premadasa, before becoming the Head of State, proposed at the United Nations, to declare an International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The proposal made when he was the Prime Minister in 1987, was unanimously accepted at the 37th session of the UNGA and the year 1987 was declared as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.
Sri Lankan legal luminary, C. G. Weeramantry presided as VicePresident over several important cases before the International Court of Justice, including a case on the illegality of the use and threatened use of nuclear weapons. Dr Rohan Perera chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism. Under his chairmanship, the Committee adopted, by consensus, the text of a draft international convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism.
Vesak UN Observance Day
Late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar made relentless efforts to get global recognition to Vesak Day and in 1999 the UNGA unanimously adopted Resolution 554/115 to declare Vesak as internationally accorded UN Observance Day. On 26 December 2004, Sri Lanka became a victim of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and the UN played a major role in rebuilding work.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Sri Lanka in January 2005 and together with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the families that were displaced by the tsunami. President J R Jayewardene and President R Premadasa did not address UNGA as heads of state, while the last 3 Presidents, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena addressed the UNGA several times.