In 2017, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategies (LKI) in Colombo organised a landmark conference titled, ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy: Choices in a Changing World’. During one of its panel discussions, former United Nations Under Secretary-General Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, commenting on Sri Lanka’s historical relationship with global citizenship, remarked that “In the late 60s to the 1970s, there was a rule of thumb that, if you wanted to get a difficult job done, you always looked to a Sri Lankan or a Ghanaian.”
This view, she explained, stemmed from the fact that big powers were confident of Sri Lanka‘s neutrality and non-alignment, and that Sri Lanka had a talented and disciplined cadre of international civil servants with a mastery of the English language and the ability to untangle even the most intricate diplomatic knots. No one embodied these qualities more than Jayantha Dhanapala, whose stellar career as a diplomat and international civil servant stretched over 40 years. He exemplified what could be achieved by diplomats hailing from countries with limited “hard power” resources in the intricate, delicate dance of international relations and geopolitics. Having begun his diplomatic career in 1965, Jayantha Dhanapala hailed from an era that produced other illustrious Sri Lankan diplomats such as Dr. Gamini Corea and Mr. Shirley Amerasinghe, each of whom left an indelible mark on a multitude of multilateral institutions, treaties, and global norms.
The legacy that Jayantha Dhanapala left behind is vast and touches many areas of international relations and governance. However, he is best remembered for two signature achievements; firstly, for having served as the President of the 1995 NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) Review Conference, and, secondly, for having served with distinction as the UN Under Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs. Of these two achievements, it is worth dwelling on the wider impact of his role as President of the 1995 NPT Review Conference. The NPT is arguably the most important instrument in the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime today. However, when it first entered into force in 1970, the treaty was meant to be in force for 25 years, leaving its future to be decided at the 1995 Review Conference. This meant that the 1995 Review Conference would serve as a referendum among state parties on whether it would be indefinitely extended, extended for another 25 years, or abandoned in favour of a new arrangement.
A vote in favour of indefinitely extending the NPT, while appearing to be a highly desirable outcome in hindsight, was by no means a foregone conclusion or axiomatic choice for many states in the political and diplomatic climate of 1995. The treaty itself is an unusual construct in terms of its treatment of state parties. Dhanapala correctly identified the treaty’s “two status categories: those who have nuclear weapons and those who do not” as its ‘Achilles Heel’. Under such conditions, the world was broadly divided into those who wanted to extend the treaty with no preconditions, such as a majority of the five NPT-recognised Nuclear Weapons States (US, Russia, China, the UK, and France), and others who were determined to introduce more stringent commitments to make significant progress on the path to nuclear disarmament, expanding on Article VI of the treaty. This effort included a contentious resolution by fourteen Arab states to establish a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Middle East.
Jayantha Dhanapala thus had the unenviable task of forging consensus among a divided group of state parties that held different strategic objectives. The achievement of a final agreement to permanently extend the treaty was prodigious and even miraculous. Exemplifying this point, Joe Cirincione, former President of the Ploughshares Fund, praised the diplomatic skills of Ambassador Dhanapala in the New York Times following the conference:“He (Dhanapala) managed the conference brilliantly… When the conference started, there were very few people who thought you could get a consensus on the treaty’s indefinite extension”. This achievement is even more remarkable, given the history of many preceding and subsequent NPT Review Conferences that ended up without a consensus document.
Following his retirement from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, Jayantha Dhanapala took time to advance global peace and security initiatives both in Sri Lanka and internationally. He was an active member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) and encouraged its activities, which included chairing a lively discussion in 2018 on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In addition, he served as President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from 2007-2017, and as the Deputy Chairman of the Governing Board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In Sri Lanka, he served as a patron to a grassroots organisation named the Forum on Disarmament and Development (FDD), which helped numerous disarmament and arms control-related treaties to be translated into the local languages (Sinhala and Tamil). He was also a critical voice in calling for a pre-emptive ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS).
Even though his aspiration to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations did not materialise, his legacy provides important lessons on what can be achieved by all global citizens even if they are on the periphery of global power centres. As human civilization seems to sleepwalk its way to the brink of two potentially existential catastrophes in the form of climate change and nuclear war, and now confronts the multiplying hazards of artificial intelligence, we should be reminded that effective and tactful global citizenship can solve seemingly insurmountable challenges. Jayantha Dhanpala’s legacy of consensus-building and managing relationships of diverging interests should provide ample inspiration for those of us who value the importance of responsible and conscientious global citizenship.
About the Author
This obituary was prepared by Malinda Meegoda, former research fellow at Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategies in Colombo, Sri Lanka. APLN also expresses its appreciation for the kind assistance of APLN members Dr. Dinusha Panditaratne and Ambassador HMGS Palihakkara in the preparation of this obituary.
Image: Jayantha Dhanapala (fourth from left) with other non-proliferation experts at an event organised by the CTBTO in July 2013 (CTBTO, Wikimedia).