Late Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala
- Following is a tribute by former Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha at the funeral service for Late Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, at Trinity College Chapel, Kandy, on 29 May
I am humbled to have been asked by the family of the late Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala to speak a few words on this solemn occasion, as we prepare to lay him to rest.
I wish to express the condolences of my colleagues in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, as well as my own, whose professional lives Ambassador Dhanapala has enriched both directly and indirectly over his long years of public service.
He was undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s most accomplished diplomat, but his life also impacted many other spheres – both domestic and international, where he was respected for his vision, steadfastness, and the high degree of integrity he brought to any task undertaken.
As he fittingly makes his last journey from Trinity College, where his global vision was nurtured and celebrated, I want to focus on Jayantha Dhanapala – the Diplomat, the Advocate of causes, and the Mentor.
Jayantha Dhanapala joined the then Ceylon Overseas Service in 1965, and was posted first in London, and then in Beijing – where he mastered the Chinese language. He served in New Delhi as Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in the early 1980s at a time the ethnic conflict was escalating, and Indo-Sri Lanka relations were tense. From there he moved to Geneva in 1984 as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative and was responsible for keeping the multilateralisation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue in check in what was a turbulent period.
Subsequently, on leave from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Dhanapala was to serve as the Director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), where his role as an international civil servant was to blossom.
He returned to the Foreign Ministry as Director General Economic Affairs with the responsibility of setting up the Bilateral Cooperation Unit in 1992 and was to later be the Additional Secretary. In 1995 he was appointed as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the USA, at a time LTTE terrorism was escalating and its ramifications in the West most felt. His contribution to having the US proscribe the LTTE in 1997, which was to be a precursor to similar actions by a host of western countries, was significant.
Earlier in 1995, while serving in Washington DC, in an already illustrious career, Ambassador Dhanapala was to achieve possibly his greatest diplomatic success, which was to secure an indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) under his Presidency of the NPT Review Conference.
Following retirement from the Foreign Service, from 1998-2003 he took on the challenging job of UN Under Secretary General and to re-establish the Department of Disarmament after the UN reforms of 1997. During his tenure, besides spearheading the UN role in curbing the proliferation of weapons, he was to undertake a review of existing norms and contribute to norm-building relating to the field.
Assessing Ambassador Dhanapala’s contribution as a diplomat during an event to mark the release of ‘Sri Lankan Son: global diplomat’ in December 2019, former Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara was to observe, “He is an assiduous builder of common ground – a difficult but indispensable part of effective diplomatic craftsmanship. Our work in Geneva and New York during some of the most testing times for Sri Lankan diplomacy made one thing clear. It is that consensus building is a fine art of engineering decisions that endure and are seen as win-win solutions for all – not winner takes all solutions”.
In mid-2004, invited to manage Sri Lanka’s peace process as Secretary-General of the Peace Secretariat, Ambassador Dhanapala brought both his skills as a negotiator, along with the deep understanding of the dynamics of separatist conflict and its ramifications abroad to the table. Besides playing an important role in ensuring the equitable distribution of the resources received Post-tsunami, the SCOPP under his leadership was to also endeavour to avail of the sensitivity generated for Sri Lanka across ethnicity and religion, as a catalyst in seeking a lasting peace.
Ambassador Dhanapala later made a bid for the post of Secretary General of the UN but withdrew from the vote to facilitate a consensus decision in favour of an Asian candidate.
Subsequently, other than for a brief stint as Senior Advisor on Foreign Affairs to the President in 2015, most of his time over the past 15 years or so was mainly devoted to civil society activism. He was an active member of the ‘Friday Forum’ which called successive governments to account on issues relating to human rights, good governance, transparency, devolution of power, and other socio-economic issues of the times. He was also a member of the Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka from 2018-2020, representing civil society. Internationally, besides many academic contributions made throughout his career, from 2007-2017 Ambassador Dhanapala served as the President of Pugwash, as Deputy Chairman of the Governing Board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In addition to continuing his advocacy on non-proliferation and disarmament issues, he was particularly an early proponent to advocate for a pre-emptive ban of Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS).
Although I had known Ambassador Dhanapala previously – initially as a journalist at Rupavahini, and since 1988 as a much-respected senior officer in the Foreign Service, I had never seen him more animated than in this latter phase. In Geneva, as Sri Lanka Chaired the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in 2015 which also dealt with the issue of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), and in 2018 took its turn in presiding over the Conference on Disarmament (CD), my younger colleagues and I were privileged to see at close quarters – what I regarded as the transition of ‘Diplomat Dhanapala’ to ‘Advocate Dhanapala’. Liberated from representing the interests of the State or the many international and issue-based Institutions he had previously served and headed - which he had done for most of his life, he was intent on pushing the boundaries on issues he believed to its logical limits. In these forums, mostly associated with ‘the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots’, he was impatient to see effective change happen in his time. In fact, there were times, when while in no way varying with him on the direction and goal, but rather on the pace and tactics, I have had to respectfully remind him, what he had taught us – that diplomacy is painstaking business.
However, to many in this congregation, as he was to me, the role which endeared Ambassador Dhanapala most, and for what he will be greatly missed – is as a mentor.
I am sure there are here those belonging to several age groups, and from many institutions in which he served in his period in public service and thereafter, who will each have their own stories to tell of the numerous instances on which his counsel, his cautioning and even his occasional reprimands were most consequential to eventually what they turned out to be. I do.
For this we will all remain eternally grateful to him, and by extension also to Mrs. Dhanapala who was by his side throughout and was also very much an important influence on us, as well as on our families. To her, his daughter Kiran and son Sivanka, I want to specially thank them for so willingly sharing Ambassador Dhanapala with all of us over these long years.
Sir, individually and collectively we will carry forward the projects you cherished and continue to endeavour to build ‘the Sri Lanka’ and ‘the world’, towards which you worked so tirelessly throughout your life. In this quest, be assured, we will not fail you.
May your soul rest in peace!