Thalif Deen mentions Vernon Corea’s brother Ernest Corea and uncle Sir Claude Corea in this feature published in the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka:
Sri Lanka and the UN: From ocean depth to outer-space
The United Nations Building in New York.
Sri Lanka’s achievements spanned upper and lower limits of the universe
(Excerpted from a Foreign Ministry publication titled “Sri Lanka and the UN: 50 Years of Partnership,” to be released next week. The publication, to be formally presented to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the opening of the General Assembly sessions on September 18, commemorates Sri Lanka’s 50th anniversary at the United Nations.)
By Thalif Deen
When future historians take stock of Sri Lanka’s enduring contributions during its first 50 years at the United Nations, they may realise that our political legacy spanned both the upper and lower limits of the universe: the sky above and the oceans below.
Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe (who insisted on using “Hamilton” as his first name to assert his gender in a country where “Shirley” was mostly a woman’s name) was not only elected President of the General Assembly back in September 1976, but also chaired the historic Law of the Sea Conference which produced the ultimate treaty governing the ocean sea-bed.
And both in 1982 and 1999, Nandasiri Jasentuliyana, an international expert on space law, was named Executive Secretary of the second and third UN Conferences on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE II & III) that laid down the laws governing the heavenly skies preventing a possible arms race and a futuristic star wars, Hollywood-style.
Still, between the deep blue sea and the wide open skies, there was plenty of room for Sri Lankan success stories in terra firma: Dr Gamani Corea’s two-term (1974-84) appointment as Secretary-General of the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); Andrew Joseph’s stint as Associate Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 1989; Christopher Weeramantry’s election as judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in 1991; and Jayantha Dhanapala’s appointment as Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs in 1998.
An equally creditable achievement was the appointment in early 2006 of Radhika Coomaraswamy as Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Children in Armed Conflict. She became the fourth Sri Lankan to hold the post of a USG — the third highest ranking position in the UN totem pole — after Corea, Joseph, Weeramantry and Dhanapala. She was also the first Sri Lankan woman to rise to the higher echelons of the male-dominated UN Secretariat. If one is to take account of the genetic factor, she is perhaps a product of designer genes: her father Raju Coomaraswamy retired as an Assistant Secretary-General and head of UNDP’s Asian Bureau in the 1980s.
The family success story also had a hereditary parallel in the political field. The Bandaranaikes are perhaps the second family in UN history with a triple crown — with the father (SWRD), mother (Sirimavo) and daughter (Chandrika Kumaratunga) addressing the General Assembly, as heads of government in three different decades. The only other comparison is the appearance before the General Assembly of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv, maintaining a tradition spanning three generations. But at least during the first 60 years of the U.N.’s existence (1945-2005), the Bandaranaikes shared the distinction with the Nehru family of continuing a political dynasty — not only at home but also at the United Nations.
When Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) gained admission to the United Nations back in December 1955, the first-ever mission to the U.N. was literally homeless. As the former Ambassador to the U.S. Neville Kanakaratne would recount, our application for membership was vetoed by the then Soviet Union on the ground that we still had a defence agreement with the United Kingdom (and that Trincomalee was a naval base under the control of the British, despite our independence in February 1948). The charge was that we were NOT a truly independent nation state — but still a British colony. Therefore, the Soviets argued, Sri Lanka did not warrant a seat in the world body. The truth of the matter, however, was that we were caught up in the politics of the Cold War and were made victims of a Soviet ideological battle with the West. The Western powers in turn kept vetoing Soviet allies barring them from UN membership.
As part of a package deal, however, we gained admission in December 1995 in return for the US holding back its veto on Soviet allies such as Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, who eventually made it to the UN the same day as we did. Although we were knocking at the UN door since 1950, it took five long years to gain admission. The swift admission in 1955, however, took the government by mild surprise, with no immediate office space to house the new Sri Lanka Mission to the UN.
The Good Samaritan came in the guise of Lawrence Gunatilaka, a trail-blazing Sri Lankan arriving in the US in the early 1950s, who offered his apartment in the service of his country. Gunatilaka’s apartment in West 73rd street was the first home of the Sri Lankan Mission to the United Nations. The mailing address of the apartment even adorned the first set of letterheads printed by the Mission.
During a later visit to New York as a member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions in the 1980s, Ambassador Kanakaratne said: “Lawrence’s apartment was the headquarters for about two to three months until we found a brownstone in Sutton Place.” Even the first Permanent Representative to the U.N., Sir Senerat (RSS) Gunewardene, had to shuttle between New York and Washington DC because his assignment as ambassador to the U.S. took precedence over the United Nations.
In the mid-1950s, the entire Sri Lankan community in New York could have been comfortably squeezed into a single phone booth on a street corner. As anecdotes go, there was a story of how Sri Lankan diplomats would stand outside the UN building on 42nd street and First Avenue scouting for scarcely-seen Sri Lankans on the New York horizon. And the first Sri Lankan passerby was forcibly enlisted as a member of the delegation — kicking and screaming.
By the late 1970s, the equation was reversed. We had a glut of delegates, with hordes of MPs and politicians arriving in New York, as part of a refresher course in international politics. During a crucial voting, however, most of the MP-delegates were missing from their seats — and were later tracked down to a then-famous discount appliance stores in Canal Street in lower Manhattan, where they were on a shopping spree. Travel not only broadened their minds but also their suitcases.
Coincidentally, it was the same year (1976) when Ambassador Amerasinghe presided over the General Assembly, the highest policy making body at the United Nations. Since there is a tradition that each of the 191 member states will have only one shot at the presidency, Amerasinghe will continue to enjoy the unique honour of being the only Sri Lankan to head the General Assembly — perhaps into the next century.
Amerasinghe was also the first Sri Lankan who made himself available for the post of UN Secretary-General back in 1971. “Strictly speaking”, says Kumar Chitty, a former Special Assistant to the Special Representative at the Law of the Sea secretariat, Amerasinghe was NOT AGAINST (then Secretary-General) Kurt Waldheim, but he had informed Waldheim that he would make himself available “if needed.”
Chitty, who was later to be Registrar of the Law of the Sea Tribunal in Hamburg, said that Amerasinghe was the official candidate of Sri Lanka “to the extent that the Foreign Ministry delegation to the General Assembly sessions (at that time) did go around indicating he was available, and had the support of the Government”. There was no official announcement of candidature. And there wasn’t the type of political lobbying that goes on nowadays, said Chitty.
But according to speculation, Amerasinghe was branded as “too pro-Palestinian” and therefore unable to win the support of the US and other Western powers. When the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was burnt triggering protests against Israel, he was one of the keynote speakers during the Middle East debate in the Security Council. He later became the first chairman of the three-member Israeli Practices Committee (which documented Israeli human rights violations in occupied territories).
That perhaps was one of the deadliest blows that gutted his chances in the run-up to the election for a new Secretary-General in a country where the Israeli lobby reigns supreme. He got pretty close to Waldheim’s total in the first count but was blocked by a veto — possibly cast by the Americans, according to Nandasiri Jasentuliyana, then a staff member of the UN secretariat and later Deputy Director-General, UN Office in Vienna and Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. Jasentuliyana said that most notable in that period was the influence of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representatives (PR), including Sir Senarat (who held the post twice in 1958 and 1963) and later Sir Claude Corea and Shirley Amerasinghe, who had unfettered access to the upper echelons of the UN Secretariat.
When the second UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden died in a mysterious plane crash in the Congo in 1961, Ambassador Kanakaratne was a Legal Adviser in the Secretariat. Hammarskjold’s trouble-shooting UN team to Congo was to have included a Legal Adviser. At the eleventh hour, Kanakaratne decided to back out of the trip because he thought his knowledge of French was relatively poor compared to that of Vladmir Fabri, another UN Legal Adviser. Fabri took Kanakaratne’s place on that fateful plane that crashed in the Congo killing the entire delegation. As Kanakaratne recalled the incident, the ‘Ceylon Observer’ ran a lead story with the headline: “Was Our Man on the Death Plane.”
“Somebody had taken the newspaper to my mother — and she almost collapsed,” Kanakaratne recalled. Within 24 hours, the record was set straight by our Permanent Representative at that time, Ambassador Gunapala Malalasekera (1961-1963).
High profile reporters
Speaking of newspaper headlines, the first reporter to cover the UN back in 1956 was Ernest Corea, onetime editor of both the Daily News and the Observer, and later Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US.
Ed Kerner, a former Sri Lankan Director of Tourism in New York, covered the UN in the early 1970s for a short-lived Hongkong-based newspaper called the “Asian” edited by the legendary Tarzie Vittachi, a longtime editor of the Observer. Vittachi himself later became Chief of Information at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and ended up as an Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) while doubling as a columnist and Contributing Editor to Newsweek International.
One of the most memorable stories about Vittachi apparently relates to an African diplomat who walked into his office seeking advice as to how he could get his Prime Minister’s speech reported in the mainstream media in New York which rarely gave coverage to General Assembly speeches. “Shoot him”, said Vittachi, “and you will get a front page story.”
Perhaps an equally enduring story was the appearance of an interloper in the General Assembly hall just before then Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed was due to address delegates back in 1976. As the President of the Assembly called upon Hameed to speak, he was beaten to the punch by another Sri Lankan, an activist lawyer from London named K. Vaikunthavasam, who pulled off a political stunt rare in the Assembly hall.
Pretending he was the Sri Lankan foreign minister, Vaikunthavasam walked to the podium and unleashed a blistering attack on the Sri Lankan government accusing it of genocide against the Tamils. Within minutes, the microphone was cut off, and two burly UN security guards grabbed him from the stage and whisked him off the hall. As Hameed, the real Foreign Minister, walked up to the podium there was pin drop silence. “I want to thank the previous speaker,” Hameed began, “for keeping his speech short.” A packed Assembly of delegates, known for their long-winded speeches, broke out in laughter.