Justice without frontiers
“In the words of the great Justice Cardozo,
‘existing rules and principles can give us our present location, our
bearings, our latitude and longitude. The inn that shelters for the
night is not the journey’s end. The law, like the traveller, must be
ready for the morrow’. When, therefore, we – you and I – devote our
energies to the cause of justice, I invite you to look upon ourselves
not as administrators of a set body of inflexible rules but rather as
privileged participants in the process of development, for we would fail
in our trust should the law in our hands stand still” – Justice C.G.
Weeramantry on his appointment to the Supreme Court Bench, December 1967
Devoting his life to the ‘cause of justice’ has been the mission of
Justice C.G. Weeramantry, former Vice President, International Court of
Justice, on whom the Right Livelihood Award was conferred recently. The
Nation took a closer look at this sage of law, whose hallmark is
By Randima Attygalle
Q: Did you always want to become a legal personality or
was it by accident that you became one?
A: (Smiling) It was purely by accident, I must admit. Initially I
wanted to become a doctor but seriously I’m colour-blind, so I had to
rule that out. Then of course I was very interested in history and after
completing my studies at Royal College, I entered the university with an
Exhibition in History to do a History Honours Degree.
My brother Lucian had a close friend called Sumitta Dahanayake who used
to visit us frequently. Sumitta was a law student three years ahead of
me at that time. One day he asked me what I wanted to do. When I said
‘history’, his response was ‘nonsense, you should do law.’
He spoke to me for several hours, convincing me to do law and pursue
history as a side line. Sumitta was a person who had a sort of uncanny
sixth sense and was capable of predicting many things. He was well known
for that. He ended up as Crown Advocate and President’s Counsel in Galle.
After getting the consent of my father, I finally set about doing law at
the Law College. Whilst I was at the Law College, I continued to do my
history studies as an external student of the University of London and
obtained my History Honours Degree as well.
Q: Do you hail from a legal background?
A: My maternal grandfather was a lawyer and so was my uncle and we
had a few relatives who were lawyers.
Q: Can you recollect your Law College days?
A: Law College life was quite interesting. As law students, we used
to often walk across to the courts and observe cases. We also had the
opportunity of meeting students from all corners of the country and the
long hours in between lectures were quite interesting! Over all, it was
a pleasant stay and I became a lawyer when I was only 21.
Q: Can you tell us about your early days as a lawyer and later as a
judge of the Supreme Court?
A: I practised for 17 years before I was appointed to the Supreme
Court at a very young age. I had some reluctance to take it up because I
had to sacrifice a promising practice, but the seniors of that time
persuaded me to accept it and I had seven years on the bench, which I
spent quite happily. Then of course I had a higher Doctorate in Law from
the University of London. I became the second Sri Lankan to have
obtained it. Sir Lalita Rajapakse was the first.
Q: Can you recollect some of your unforgettable cases?
A: I can refer to two cases in particular – the Thenuwara murder
case and the case of A.W. Peiris. Dr. Thenuwara, who was married to a
British lady, was shot in his bedroom and a captain of the army was
charged with murder and was convicted. It was revealed that this Captain
had an association with the lady.
Dr. Thenuwara was an extensive property owner and there turned out to be
a last will, leaving all his property in favour of his wife. However,
there was a feeling that the lady had something to do with the actual
killing of the doctor. The relations of the deceased sought my advice as
to whether this last will could be contested on that basis because there
is a principle of law that if a person is a party to causing the death
of the testator, that person cannot succeed to the estate.
The hearing took several months and our investigations revealed that the
wife was a party to the conspiracy. A lot of expert evidence was
involved in this case and we succeeded in overturning the will.
The case of A.W. Peiris was also an interesting one. A.W. Peiris, who
was a brilliant student in his time, had won the prestigious University
Scholarship and entered the University of London to study medicine.
However, his hallucinations that one Feltman was persecuting drove him
to the point of barricading himself in Badulla, where he lived for 40
years until he died.
He died leaving all his property to Fr. Basil Jayawardene, who had
helped him during his difficult times. When his will was contested by
his relations on the basis of insanity, the court upheld its validity on
the basis that one eccentricity does not prevent a man from making a
rational will. We had to go through a fascinating range of philosophical
and legal literature to establish our argument.
Q: As an academic who has served many prestigious institutes of
learning around the world, what drawbacks do you identify in our legal
A: I think that legal education all over the world is too narrow and
it had always been my endeavour, wherever I was, to broaden its scope. I
have tried to introduce law students to other legal systems, the wisdom
of other religions and traditional systems.
In one of my books, titled An Invitation to the Law, I have attempted to
introduce law students to Jewish law, Egyptian law, Buddhist law, Hindu
law, Muslim law, etc., to broaden their perspective. I have also
provided documentation from all principal systems including the Greek,
Roman, English, Chinese and ancient Egyptian systems.
Q: What are your views on the decline of tradition in the legal
A: I feel that there isn’t the same degree of adherence to standards
as there used to be. One contributory reason is that the profession has
gotten larger. In the old days, everybody knew everybody else and the
moment someone was stepping out of line and doing something not quite
right, everybody knew it.
We don’t see this trend today. During our times, as juniors, we got much
guidance from our seniors. We absorbed a lot from them about the high
traditions of the profession.
Q: What measures can be adopted to revive it?
A: I would say that there has got to be lot of concentration on
legal ethics, both in law school and in the profession. There should be
regular courses on this matter.
I was the chairman of a committee of Chief Justices and Superior Court
Judges convening internationally to work out a code of judicial ethics
for the judges of the world which is now called the Bangalore Code
(since it was finalised in Bangalore) This has now received acceptance
from international bodies such as ECOSOC and we hope it will be
universally adopted very soon.
Q: Can you elaborate on your landmark judgment on nuclear weapons?
A: The General Assembly sought the opinion of the International
Court of Justice on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons in any
circumstances. All of the 14 judges who heard the case held that many
rules of International Humanitarian Law were violated by the nuclear
weapon but the majority of the judges did not want to express their
opinion on the limited situation where a nation is under an attack and
its very survival is at stake.
I wrote a very long opinion citing precedents from all systems and
holding that the use of nuclear weapons was totally illegal in all
circumstances whatsoever. I even quoted from Ramayana because Rama was
told by his generals that there was a hyper-destructive weapon that
would ravage the countryside of the enemy and kill thousands of people.
However, he was told to consult the sages of law before using this. When
Rama consulted them, he was told that he couldn’t use it.
Likewise, you find lot of tradition in every religion. Islamic Law says
one cannot even use a poisoned arrow and the Christian Church even held
that the crossbow was too cruel an instrument to be used in warfare.
Today, wherever illegality of nuclear weapons is discussed, this
judgment of mine is the reference usually acted upon.
Q: What branches of domestic law do you think should be strengthened?
A: There are many areas where the underprivileged need more
protection and strength. I think we should pay more attention to the
rights of those who are disadvantaged in one way or the other.
There are thousands of starving school children who don’t get their
midday meal. It is a right of every child to have a square mid-day meal.
In fact there are judgments of courts overseas to the effect that it is
a basic human right. Rights of the disabled is another area which is
overlooked. Even the rights of the mentally-handicapped and rights of
prisoners should be strengthened.
Q: What are your views about areas such as public-interest
A: They can be quite effective in areas such as
environmental-related issues. In India, there are so many lawyers who
have made public-interest litigation their career by sponsoring such
schemes. For example, when Delhi was heavily polluted, many such groups
came forward in a national spirit to address this concern.
Q: As far as criminal cases are concerned, what dictum have you
adopted as a judge?
A: My belief has been that the accused should be given every
possible chance, so I have given every benefit of the doubt to the
accused. But still, after all that, if the accused has been convicted, I
have given a fairly strong sentence. The judge has a very important role
to play in ensuring the observance of law and order while protecting the
rights of the accused.
Q: In what light would you look at the Right Livelihood Award which
was recently conferred on you?
A: The Right Livelihood Awards are given in recognition of a
lifetime’s work. My whole lifetime’s work had been to apply law, extend
law and increase its usefulness. I will continue to do so and also to
communicate it to others. Last year I received the UNESCO Award for
Peace Education, which also imposes on me the obligation of continuing
to teach the principles of peace from the schoolroom upwards.
Q: What are your other interests in life?
A: I’m very interested in history and literature and I also enjoy
thumping a tune on the piano whenever time permits.