Activists / Lawyers

Judge Weeramantry: Tread Lightly on the Earth

When it’s time to autograph his latest book, Judge Christopher Gregory Weeramantry is besieged. Admirers crowd around the venerable judge with copies of ‘Tread Lightly on the Earth: Religion, the Environment and the Human Future’. Silver-haired and smiling, he finds time to exchange a word with everyone.

The judge who will be turning 83 in November this year, is already grandfather to 11 grand children and his commitment to a more peaceful world is in part inspired by them. His lucid, deeply erudite writings draw from across all disciplines and celebrate the country’s diverse cultural inheritance. Still deeply engaged in peace education for young people and children, Judge Weeramantry seems to scoff at the very idea of retirement. There is simply too much to be done.

Judge Weeramantry at the book launch.

Internationally known for his work both at the International Court of Justice and through his organisation WICPER (The Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research), the former Supreme Court judge has been awarded the UNESCO prize for Peace Education and the Sri Lankabhimanya, counted among the country’s most distinguished national honours, along with numerous other awards.

Over the course of many books, a number of landmark judgements, prestigious appointments and uncounted lectures and seminars Judge Weeramantry has been the voice crying in the wilderness, calling for a more inclusive, more visionary interpretation of international law.

Now, ‘Tread Lightly on the Earth,’ joins the long list of books penned by him, many of which re-examine the basis of the law and its application to the great threats engendered by and to human civilisation in the 21st Century.

Beyond the title, clues to the subject matter of this book could have been garnered simply by taking stock of the dignitaries present on the night of the launch. In the first row, right beside Mrs. Weeramantry, were representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam, while across the aisle sat senior members of the law firm Julius and Creasy.

Later in the week, we visit his offices in Colombo 3. With the International Court in full session staring down at us from a picture, Judge Weeramantry declares “I have always thought that law and legal studies have been far too narrow.” Indeed, this has been his view for over four decades, but he is struggling to change attitudes many centuries in the making.

Judge Weeramantry nearly became a historian (before a friend convinced him to switch to law) he says as he recounts the story. Apparently, modern international law is based in part on the work of the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. Writing during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Grotius lived in a world where religious disagreements bred one of the most devastating conflicts in European history. This led him to distance the new discipline from religion and instead base it on the shared experience of all humanity. Nevertheless, four centuries down the line, it might be time to reconsider our approach.

Introducing his subject matter in the preface to his book, Judge Weeramantry writes, “It is surely paradoxical that in the midst of 150 millennia of existence, we ignore the quintessential wisdom of those 150 millennia as enshrined in the common core teachings of the world’s great religions.” The latter half of the book is divided into sections devoted exclusively to the teachings of five of the world’s major religions – Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

Years of passionate study have gifted Judge Weeramantry with an extensive knowledge of all five. He can quote chapter and verse to supplement his arguments, be they against nuclear armament or environmental degradation.

He begins with Rama listening to the sages of the law when they told him never to use a hyper-destructive weapon. (“You cannot use this weapon because it goes beyond the purpose of war, said the sages. The purpose of war is to subdue your enemy and to live with him in harmony thereafter. Not to ravage his countryside and decimate his population.”) He then refers to Christianity (“Jesus on more than one occasion scolded the lawyers very strongly for their legalism….so called Christian legal systems have forgotten this. They now stress rights and not duties, when they should be stressing duties, not rights.”)

In Buddhism he finds one of the most beautiful expressions of enlightened custodianship. (“Mahinda accosted Devanampiyatissa while the latter was on a hunting trip. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Remember, you might be the king of this country but you are not the owner of this land, you hold it for the benefit of those to come.’”)

Well before international treaties were declared unbreakable, Islam held promises sacred, whether between two individuals or between two rulers, says Judge Weeramantry, adding that in parables like that of the double decked boat we have clear illustrations of the importance of conflict resolution. From Judaism he draws upon the story of the judge who is asked to decide ownership in a land case. He bends down and whispers to the land – ‘these two people say they own you, who is the real owner?’ But the land whispers back, ‘they don’t own me, I own them.’

Idealistic though he may be, Judge Weeramantry has never been short of allies, be they learned jurists or schoolchildren. In fact, it is on the latter that WICPER places the most emphasis. “Sometimes I go to schools and talk to class.

Their eyes light up…the idealistic principles on which it rests commends themselves to even the schoolchildren,” he says, adding that the organisation attempts to show children that dispute resolution can begin with them. WICPER also holds camps for schoolchildren and university students from different Sri Lankan backgrounds, focused on fostering inter-cultural understanding. Through lectures and seminars, Judge Weeramantry strives to demystify international law, and establish it as an instrument of peace. “It has too long been considered a specialist preserve,” he says.

In a time when religion is sometimes seen as a divisive force, Judge Weeramantry finds instead something to unite us. Scientists will tell you that we are on the precipice, that we cannot continue as we have or Earth will become uninhabitable. This book couldn’t have come at a better time – it offers a practical way in which to motivate over six billion people and a truly enriching perspective on what the role of the law could play.

Just a few days after his hardback went on sale, Judge Weeramantry is already juggling notes for his next few books. Entirely distrustful of typewriters and the like, he painstakingly hand writes every page. Occasionally, he takes a break to play the piano. But his ruling passion continues to be the law. It seems to harbour endless variety for him, engulfing subjects as diverse as philosophy and politics, history and physics and he celebrates them all in his interpretation of it. Indeed, to him it is the guardian of all we must hold dear – our children, our planet, and our future.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 27, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

2 thoughts on “Judge Weeramantry: Tread Lightly on the Earth

  1. Am glad to hear it has been of use to you. I’m a huge fan of Judge Weeramantry and his work, and am sure you would find the book itself of interest. Thanks again for reading!

  2. Thanks for this useful summary of Mr Weeramantry’s book. I have referred back to it a number of times now in the absence of the book, which, sounds fascinating and important. I look forward to reading the book for myself and congratulate the author of this article for providing an excellent resource for the meantime.

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