Image credit: The Island, Sri Lanka

By Randy Rydell

Remembering Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala, at the UN First Committee’s Side Event hosted on 7 November by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) at the United Nations.

UNITED NATIONS | 9 November 2023 (IDN) — I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak today and to meet once again with several of my former colleagues in the then-Department for Disarmament Affairs.

My own roles there included speechwriter, policy advisor, sounding board, mentor to interns, information and analysis of key current events, and monitoring work of the NGOs and the literature on disarmament.

I met Jayantha in the early 1990s while preparations were starting to get underway for the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference.  There were several roundtables and symposia involving diplomats, scholars, and NGOs on this issue.

I was impressed with his eloquence and substantive knowledge about the NPT, a treaty that was highly valued by my boss at the time, US Senator John Glenn on the Senate’s Committee on Governmental Affairs, where I worked for 11 years as his non-proliferation advisor.

I attended the NPTREC as a congressional observer and got an interesting behind-the-scenes view of the multilateral diplomatic process that ultimately led to the indefinite extension of the treaty. I saw Jayantha’s international statesmanship in action, as he performed the diverse roles of bridge builder, global interest advocate, a cultivator of common ground, a fire fighter, and an architect of compromises that were not achieved at the sacrifice of principle.

When my senator retired in 1998, I wrote Jayantha and asked if he had any openings on his staff. After reading my resume, he invited me to New York for an interview and shortly thereafter he offered me a position in his office —I would serve as a Senior Political Affairs Officer on an 11-month non-renewable contract.

After several subsequent non-renewable contracts, the office eventually succeeded in getting a permanent post in the office of the Under-Secretary-General; and after another interview, I was offered and accepted that post.  Hence began my 16-year UN disarmament career and my weekly long-distance commutes to my patient wife-to-be and home in Virginia.


Some anecdotes from my years working with Jayantha.

One day, he told me I’ve been relying too much on quotations taken from the “western canon”—including people like Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde—and need to adopt a more international approach.  At the time, we had both offices and bookshelves at the UN—shocking to imagine now—and I had one entire bookshelf devoted to quotation books. I was shocked to realize the extent that these references featured western sources. 

Soon his speeches contained references to Chinese history, philosophy and poetry; I learned that the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” combined the notions of “danger” and “opportunity”. He introduced me to the 2000-year old Sanskrit epic, The Ramayana, where at one point Prince Rama’s advisors urged him to use a devastating weapon of mass destruction, and the Prince refused, saying that any such use would violate what were even then the “ancient laws of war”.

It is interesting to see that the humanitarian laws of war are once again being cited as a compelling case for nuclear disarmament.  His speeches soon contained African proverbs and adages. Before coming to the UN, he wrote a long essay paying tribute to the poetry of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

In 2002, we traveled together to Central Asia to promote the negotiation of a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (treaty), which would be the first such zone north of the Equator. We met three presidents and five foreign ministers and a few years later, the treaty establishing this zone was concluded, due in large part not just to this visit but more importantly to a series of private and informal meetings involving regional representatives and Jayantha and members of his staff.

Throughout his tenure, he included in his statements repeated references to the close relationship between disarmament and development and he tried, through an interagency process, to make development offices more aware of the many ways that progress in disarmament can help to advance their own goals. (Since not all member states share this view, especially the wealthier ones, this is still very much a work in progress.)

He had a subtle but disarming sense of humor. Once, at a staff retreat, he proposed that his personal office should perform an amusing skit. As his speechwriter, I was to explain to him how to craft a good speech. 

He instructed me to use the most obscure, incomprehensible academic jargon I could find—or invent—and he would be my audience. I began by saying that the essence of good speech writing is clarity, and then proceeded to give the lengthiest string of hopelessly unintelligible jibberish that I could manage—all the while, he performed his role by watching me with a deadpan expression.

I found that he held his temper well even when others were losing theirs.

After he left DDA, he invited me to Sri Lanka for a month to assist in writing a book about his experiences as president of the NPTREC. For four weeks, I stayed in a hotel drafting chapters; I relied upon daily visits to his home where I worked with original materials in his personal library. The finished book was later jointly published by UNIDIR and SIPRI and was very favorably reviewed.

After the drafting was over, he arranged for a driver to take me on a tour of Sri Lanka. I visited numerous historical and religious sites, a tea plantation, an ancient Buddhist fortress atop a massive column of granite, and an elephant orphanage that cared for animals that had been wounded by landmines from the years of the civil war. I was able to witness the famous yearly Buddhist festival, the Esala Perahera, in his home city of Kandy.

Some years later, I edited a volume of his speeches that was published by an NGO in Sri Lanka. I am currently trying to compile a comprehensive collection of all his published articles and speeches, which I have discovered is a massive undertaking.

In October 1947, Albert Einstein wrote an Open Letter to the UN General Assembly in which he made a plea for “more statesmen and fewer diplomats.” He saw diplomats seeking to promote the narrow parochial interests of their individual countries, while statesmen pursued the common good and the ideals and interests of humanity as a whole. 

Jayantha heeded this advice throughout his career and his entire life. His character, life, and statesmanship will inspire future generations for I hope many decades to come. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image credit: The Island, Sri Lanka.