Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Jayantha Dhanapala, former Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, at the UN headquarters in New York in October 2011. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe - Photo: 2024

Jayantha Dhanapala: An Outstanding Practitioner of Multilateralism at its Best—Part 1

By HMGS Palihakkara*

COLOMBO | 4 June 2024 (IDN) — May 27 marked the first year since we lost that voice of reason and warmth—our dear friend and respected senior colleague, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala. The person as well as the persona of JD, as we used to call him fondly, meant many things to most of us in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service: a guru, mentor, intellectual test bed, career pathfinder, role model, and much more.

Many, if not most, from that clan present here today would have benefited from that caring Dhanapala touch in one way or another. I certainly did.

Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala was an outstanding practitioner and promoter of multilateral solutions to global issues, especially in the peace and security domain. The lion’s share of his ambassadorial diplomacy was dedicated to multilateralism at its post-war epicentre—the United Nations, where he served as Under Secretary-General.

Why multilateralism? What is there for smaller countries? This is indeed a good query to raise.

The world is globalised and interdependent. And yet, it remains a complex mosaic of asymmetries. The best way—perhaps the only way—to peacefully convert these fraught asymmetries into mutually rewarding complementarities will be through enlightened multilateralism. However, the scorecard of the post-war multilateral system spearheaded by the UN turned out to be a mixed one.

Some praise it as a collective for preventing or ending wars, ensuring human rights, and meeting humanitarian needs. Others critique it as a house of selectivity and organised hypocrisy, where things are driven by the strategic priorities of a powerful cabal and not necessarily by the lofty principles enshrined in the Charter and follow-up treaties and resolutions.

The culpable cabal is, of course, none other than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the so-called P5. They also happen to be the ‘legitimate’ nuclear weapon powers, who seem to earn that status more by power and less by legitimacy.

The well-known ‘multilateral’ analyst, Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, sums this up, saying ‘in all multilateral processes, there is a constant tension between power and justice’. In theory, multilateral diplomacy should perform certain functions and deliver certain global goods for the benefit of all and not act as a means to the major power’s ends. In practice, however, Mahbubani says, “Power usually trumps principles and ideals.”

Consequently, the overarching question faced by the UN multilateral system is the challenge of relevance. How can the UN multilateral system remain relevant in a conflictual world where the powers-that-be continue to sideline or bypass the very system they themselves created when making decisions about war and peace?

The peace-making and peace-keeping history of the UN is replete with episodes depicting this deficit. Glaring and heartbreaking current examples of this challenge continue to unfold on a daily basis in the ongoing carnages in Gaza and Ukraine.

Having failed to deter or prevent it from happening, the system is unable or unwilling to take the initiative to even de-escalate or negotiate a pause to the carnage, let alone end this conflict. Just the other day, Israel yet again ignored the International Court of Justice’s order to stop the Rafah offensive.

The UNSC, which has the sole authority to enforce compliance with the ICJ order, remains silent. Strategic calculations by pro-Israeli parties to the conflict have trumped principles again. The UN system is reduced to a virtual bystander status with only minimum access even to humanitarian assistance. Humanist Under-Secretary-General Jayantha Dhanapala would surely have decried this situation from within the system.

UN-centric multilateralism, of course, is confronted with many more challenges. I will briefly refer to a few.

Acclaimed Israeli scientist and anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari—in his best-selling book 21 Questions for the 21st Century—flags three threats faced by humanity: climate change, nuclear war, and potential abuse of Artificial Intelligence (AI). These are not new concerns, but their evolving dynamics suggest that they can become existential threats if concerted multilateral efforts do not facilitate targeted and time-bound mitigation measures and solutions. Questions have been raised about whether, as a result, humanity is destined to face extinction sooner than previously estimated! Only time will educate us on this.

What is clear, however, is that since all these threats or concerns are borderless in form and content, negotiating solutions and mitigation measures must, of necessity, be multilateral.

Clearly, some progress has been made in addressing climate change under the auspices of the UN multilateral system. More challenging work, however, remains on the critical issue of building common ground between past and present polluters on funding mitigation and sustainable practices.

That again is a formidable multilateral challenge. Failure here is not an option. That is because all polluters, past and present, small and big, are at a climate change inflection point.

If we continue business as usual, we poise ourselves to cross the tipping point of global temperature rise at 2 Celsius. If, however, the incoming US administration decides to follow the former Trump administration’s policy of walking away from multilateralism and undermines the remaining joint funding action to tackle this global issue, an avoidable climate calamity will certainly become an inevitable one.

So multilateralism has its work cut out there.

As for the other two challenges on the Harari list demanding multilateral attention, viz., nuclear war and artificial intelligence, Ambassador Dhanapala played pivotal and pioneering roles in paving ways forward. This work he did as a visionary first responder long before the best-selling books of the likes of Harari made headlines.

On the nuclear war danger, the consensual outcome of the 1995 NPT Conference in New York, masterfully led by Jayantha Dhanapala as its president, was the first ever and by far the only international consensus on the bitterly contested nexus between nuclear non-proliferation and a nuclear weapons-free world.

The idea that nuclear non-proliferation cannot live in a nuclear disarmament vacuum was captured for the first time in that historic consensus. It remains the political and diplomatic foundation and the guardrail agreed by the nuclear and non-nuclear states for future multilateral negotiations towards realising what President Barack Obama once embraced as a worthy goal for humanity—a world free of nuclear weapons.

However, the stark reality is that currently there are no negotiations, bilateral or multilateral, taking place anywhere in the world on any nuclear arms control or arms reduction issue, let alone on disarmament. To make matters worse, nuclear powers have suspended negotiations and withdrawn from some treaties.

What is more, irresponsible nuclear sabre-rattling in America, Russia, and North Korea has assumed dangerous proportions. Multilateral negotiation forums of the UN—like the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva—remain paralysed. This is because the nuclear powers reserve for themselves the exclusive right to talk or not talk about nuclear weapons, even though they acknowledge that nuclear war could pose a terminal threat to humanity.

Reconciling this contradiction through a broad-based process of negotiations based on the 1995 consensus remains a difficult but indispensable task for the international community. Failure to do so in the current adversarial environment of rising nuclear tensions throughout the world could ignite a nuclear exchange by accident or miscalculation, leading to terminal planetary damage.

Given the fast-spreading nuclear capability and irresponsible advocacy of the utility of these weapons of mass destruction in the security doctrines of all major powers, solutions by definition have to be found through multilateral negotiations.

*HMGS Palihakkara is former Foreign Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka and former Ambassador to the United Nations. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Jayantha Dhanapala, former Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, at the UN headquarters in New York in October 2011. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Read more IDN articles on and about Jayantha Dhanapala: https://indepthnews.net/page/1/?s=Jayantha+Dhanapala

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top