For his lifetime of groundbreaking work to strengthen and expand the rule of international law.
Christopher Weeramantry (1926-2017) was a world-renowned legal scholar and Vice-President of the International Court of Justice, who played a crucial role in strengthening and expanding the rule of international law. His work demonstrated how international law can be used to address current global challenges such as the continued threat of nuclear weapons, the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment.
When the International Court of Justice made its decision on nuclear weapons in 1996, Weeramantry was a dissenting voice. He strongly disagreed with the majority’s decision to leave undetermined the legality of one area of the use of nuclear weapons – namely, the use of nuclear weapons in self-defence when the survival of the state was at stake. His dissenting opinion recognised that this exception would in practice be widely used by the nuclear-weapon states, and he categorically asserted their illegality “in any circumstances whatsoever.”
Weeramantry also focused on other areas of cutting-edge jurisprudence where social questions, theology and philosophy meet, such as the impact of technology on human rights or the environmental principles in international law.
Career as a judge and professor
Christopher Weeramantry was born in Sri Lanka in 1926 and studied at universities in Colombo and London, earning a Doctorate of Law (LL.D.) from London University. He became a judge at the Sri Lanka Supreme Court in 1967. In 1972, he moved to Australia to be a Professor of Law at Monash University, Melbourne (until 1991). In Australia, his writings led to the initiation of the annual Law Week, where numerous events are organised for members of the legal profession to discuss and explain their work to the public.
Weeramantry had held Visiting Professorships in many countries. He was chair of the international council of the Institute of Sustainable Development at McGill University in Canada, President of the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) and Chairman of the International Chief Justices Working Group on Strengthening Judicial Integrity.
During the 1980s, Weeramantry became prominent in helping to unravel international disputes, notably as chair of the Nauru Commission of Inquiry from 1987-1988. The Commission was set up by the government of Nauru to investigate responsibility under international law for rehabilitation of the phosphate lands of Nauru, which had been ruined during international trusteeship.
Nuclear weapons had always been a particular concern for Weeramantry. His book Nuclear Weapons and Scientific Responsibility (1987) has been widely translated and is still one of the most important texts on the legal responsibilities of nuclear scientists.
Weeramantry was elected to fill the Asian seat on the International Court of Justice in 1990 and was subsequently chosen by his colleagues as their Vice-President in 1997, while still a first-term member of the Court. He retired from the Court in 2000, having presided over many cases, including the case of the 1988 Lockerbie plane crash.
The illegality of nuclear weapons
When the International Court of Justice made its decision on nuclear weapons in 1996, Weeramantry was a dissenting voice. He strongly disagreed with the majority's decision to leave undetermined the legality of one area of the use of nuclear weapons - namely, the use of nuclear weapons in self-defence when the survival of the state was at stake. His dissenting opinion recognised that this exception would in practice be widely used by the nuclear-weapon states, and he categorically asserted their illegality "in any circumstances whatsoever."
His book-length exposition of international law on this, one of the most important cases in the history of the International Court of Justice, has been regarded as his crowning achievement. "The threat and use of nuclear weapons," he wrote in his opening paragraph, "contradicts the fundamental principle of the dignity and worth of the human person on which all law depends. It violates the fundamental principles of international law, and represents the very negation of the humanitarian concerns which underlie the structure of humanitarian law."
A global legal scholar and pioneer
Weeramantry also focused on other areas of cutting-edge jurisprudence, where social questions, theology and philosophy meet, such as the impact of technology on human rights or the environmental principles in international law. According to Weeramantry, international law is "mono-cultural and Euro-centred." He showed that international law had many other roots. The first writers of systematic texts on international law were the Islamic writers in the 8th century. So, Weeramantry wrote about Islamic jurisprudence and repeatedly cited old religious principles as customary law in his judgements. In his book The Lord's Prayer: Bridge to a Better World, he showed how over a hundred principles of human rights and international law lie embedded in the Lord's Prayer.
Weeramantry was extraordinarily active, travelling widely all over the world to give keynote speeches at major conferences. A book published in association with McGill University's Centre for International Sustainable Development called Sustainable Justice: Reconciling Economic, Social and Environmental Law charted how the concept of sustainable development became important in international law.
His book Armageddon or Brave New World: Reflections on the Hostilities in Iraq (2003) was one of the first books to appear on the legal implications of the Iraq War. In this book, Weeramantry made a very powerful case that humanity will either step back from the error of the Iraq War and reaffirm the essential importance of the UN and the rule of international law, or it will slide into further unilateral wars, and, ultimately, nuclear catastrophe. A second edition was published in 2005.
Another one of his books, Xenotransplantation: The Legal & Ethical Aspects, was based on research done for the Medical Faculty of Harvard University. It dealt with the possible dangers to global human rights of the new technique of transplanting animal organs into human bodies.
The Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research
Christopher Weeramantry set up the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research in Sri Lanka in 2001. It rested on the three pillars of Peace Education, Cross Cultural Understanding and International Law as an Instrument of Peace. The work of the Centre covered all these aspects both locally and globally. In Sri Lanka, the Centre held camps for school children and university students from different Sri Lankan backgrounds, in order to foster intercultural understanding. It also conducted lectures and seminars on these topics, sometimes by itself and sometimes in association with organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Centre has also produced detailed reports for the Sri Lankan Law Reform Commission on both the protection of witnesses and the compensation of victims of crime and terrorism.
Weeramantry's last campaign: A new ICJ judgement
In its 1996 judgement, the International Court of Justice ruled that nuclear-weapon states have an obligation under international law to continue and conclude negotiations leading to the abandonment of nuclear weapons. Weeramantry was working on another case to bring back various aspects of these issues to the International Court, including the violation by nuclear weapons states of their obligations as set out by the Court.
Weeramantry passed away in his native Sri Lanka on January 5, 2017, aged 90.
In 2020, the International Justice Award in memory of His Excellency Justice CG Weeramantry was announced for the first time, to distinguished senior-level jurists whose lifeworks, intellect and character offer the highest possible credit to the memory of Judge Weeramantry and his international legacy, including his concern for the interests of current and future generations, his commitment to international law, peace and sustainable development, and his global humanism and leadership in the law.