50 years of Sri Lanka in the United Nations
Immediately after gaining independence in February 1948 Sri Lanka,
then "Ceylon" applied for membership in the United Nations. Applications
from 16 countries including Sri Lanka got blocked at the U.N. Security
Council due to the veto power used by the USSR.
Sir, John Kotelawala, the Prime Minister used the story of veto to
discredit the local Marxists. When the USSR submitted a list of
applicants including Sri Lanka, the USA vetoed it. However, Sir John was
silent over the veto used by the USA.
Outside the United Nations General Assembly building in New York,
the Ceylon national flag is hoisted for the first time while a
Ceylonese official stands beside it and a hurriedly gathered team
led by Annesley de Silva, Ceylon Trade Commissioner in New York,
took their seats in the General Assembly building behind the name
board marked ‘Ceylon” on 14 December, 1955 (A United Nations Photo
lent by the United Nations Association of Sri Lanka).
Finally as a result of a negotiated settlement Sri Lanka gained
membership in the UN on December 14 1955-exactly about 50 years ago.
From 1956-1972 Sri Lanka functioned in the UN System under the name
"Ceylon"; with the 1972 Constitution "Ceylon" was changed into "Sri
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike after the landslide victory in 1956 took
immediate measures to open Sri Lanka's UN office in New York. Things
were not easy at the United Nations where a Cold War was carried on -
both super powers were using their intelligent units ruthlessly - the
CIA and the KGB to gain political supremacy.
Even in Colombo the Foreign Ministry was not well organized and it
was understaffed. Although an application for membership was sent to
Secretary General of United Nations Sri Lanka was not prepared to
function as a member. In fact there was hesitancy in Colombo for fear of
losing the "rice-rubber" deal with China, if Sri Lanka got the UN
In 1954 Asian Powers met in Colombo. As recorded by G.H. Jensen, an
authority of Asian Affairs, Sir John was not enthusiastic when Pandit
Nehru offered his good offices to gain UN membership for Sri Lanka.
1956 to 2005
From 1956 there were several international crises that were referred
to the United Nations. How Sri Lanka as a member of the United Nations
responded should be looked into. Voting records of the General Assembly
and the Security Council are good indicators of the behaviour of member
countries and also they reveal actual foreign policy that member
countries have followed with regard to world crises.
Sri Lanka's voting correlations with Afro - Asian countries were very
high, compared to U.S.A. the U.S.S.R. and the UK. Africo-Asian countries
formed a caucus and consulted each other before taking decisions at the
United Nations. That was started by the Indian Representative at the UN
in the late forties. This consultative group got enlarged with the birth
of Nonalignment Movement in 1961.
During the early days of UNP rule from 1948-1956 Sri Lanka's foreign
policy was guided by the British. This practice was done away with by
For instance, in 1956, over Algerian and Hungary questions and other
issues such as readmission of China into the United Nations, Sri Lanka
voting correlations with the UK were nil. In 1956, there were eleven
roll calls over the Suez Question and Sri Lanka over 6 issues voted
against UK. This trend of having very low voting correlation with the UK
continued and it further supports the point that S.W.R.D did not allow
Sri Lanka to be guided by the UK on foreign police matters.
From 1960-1965, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike's time, Sri Lanka became
most active at the United Nations fora and continued the policies set by
her husband. Her decisions were observed even by the world press because
she had to function as a member of the Security Council. She also
functioned as a leader of the Nonaligned Movement working in
consultation with the Afro-Asian leaders.
On July 21 1960, the day Mrs. Bandaranaike came to power, the Congo
problem was at a very critical point. International tension was
gathering momentum as a result of breakdown of the Russo - American
summit conference due to alleged spying by American aircraft over the
Sino-Indian boarder clashes in 1962, escalation of the Vietnam War
provided for Sri Lanka opportunities through which to contribute
positively to reduce world tensions particularly through the United
Dudley Senanayake, the Premier did not deviate from the policies of
his predecessors during the period from 1965-1969.
It is interesting to note how Sri Lanka, under different party
leaders, responded to international crises. In this paper it is not
possible to discuss all the crises but we will be taking up one or two
under different leaders, such as Sirimavo and J. R.. At the annual
sessions of the General Assembly the world leaders delivered prepared
speeches and what is important here is what they did at the United
News of President Nazar's nationalization of the Suez Canal Company
on July 26 1956 reached S. W. R. D. immediately but did not take much
time to realize the dangers of this act. First he discussed the crisis
with Pandit Nehru and suggested having a meeting of Colombo powers.
He instructed Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative R. S. S.
Gunawardena to up hold Egypt's rights to nationalize the Suez Canal
Company. Further he suggested having a conference of countries using the
All the efforts made by the international community, such as London
Conference, were failures. On November 1st, 1956 Suez issue came to the
General Assembly for the first time.
Sri Lanka got a chance to voice her views on the subject. Over Suez
question there were 11 resolutions and Sri Lanka voted for all of them.
S. W. R. D. attended the General Assembly, not only as the Prime
Minister but also as the representative of Colombo powers. His effort to
resolve the Suez Crisis, pleased the Arab countries. Sri Lanka was
appointed as a member of the Suez Advisory Board.
In mid 1956, the political stability in Hungary began to deteriorate.
Russian troops entered Hungary on October 22nd, 1956 at a time when the
Suez issue was a burning question as shown earlier. On October 24th, the
situation in Hungary was critical. Russian prevented taking this
question to the Security Council by using her veto right. However, the
U.S.A. was successful in bringing the issue to the General Assembly on
November 4th 1956.
There was no response from Pandit Nehru and Bandaranaike. Both of
them gave their reasons for inaction. They said there was no information
for them to act. At the U.N. General Assembly there were nine
resolutions on the Hungary question.
Both India and Sri Lanka abstained from voting on the 7 power
resolution number 1015-ES II. It was supported by the U.K. and U.S.A..
The USSR voted against it. Sri Lanka voted for Cuban Resolution No. 1127
which was supported by the U.S.A. and the U.K. while India abstained.
Resolution No 1128 was co sponsored by Sri Lanka along with India and
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's speech at the General Assembly on November
22nd 1956 explained various problems that the member countries like Sri
Lanka had to face in responding to world crises.
United Nations General Assembly appointed a fact finding special
committee on Hungary and the Sri Lankan Representative R. S. S.
Gunawardena was appointed a Secretary of this committee. Pro Russian
forces in Sri Lanka accused R. S. S. Gunawardena of being an American
stooge. By June 1958, S. W. R. D. removed R. S. S. from the U.N. and Sir
Cloude Corea was appointed to the United Nations. Hungary crisis
remained unresolved for a long time.
Congo, a region of Central Africa, was a Belgian colony. In 1960 it
gained independence and colonial forces left the country. There was a
serious break down of law and order and for the protection of Belgium
citizens staying in Congo, Belgium armed units were flown back to Congo.
Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba and President Kasavutu on July 12th, 1961
reported to the UN Secretary General asking for help to establish law
Sri Lanka was handicapped by lack of information as there was no
embassy in Central Africa. Sir Cloude Corea provided information that he
could gather from the United Nations and briefed Mrs. Bandaranaike. Cold
War entered the Congo issue. The UN sent 3,500 troops to maintain law
and order. Sir Cloude Corea took the initiative to bring forward Sri
Lanka-Tunisia resolution number S/4405.
This was unanimously adopted by the Security Council on July 22nd
1961. This resolution had lot of political wisdom. But it could not
avoid unfortunate incidents like killing of Lumumba. Being a member of
Security Council Sri Lanka responded well to reducing tension in Congo.
(for details see - Sri Lanka's Foreign Policy PP 136 to 144).
Indo - Pakistan issue of 1971
It has become a tradition for Sri Lanka to maintain cordial relations
with India and Pakistan which consisted of two territories, 1,000 miles
apart. At the general election in 1970, Pakistan Peoples' Party led by
Zulfiqar Ali Bhuto secured a majority of seats in the Pakistani
Parliament. The Awami Legue led by Mujibur Rahman Swept to power in East
Pakistan. This resulted in a breaking away of East Pakistan, West
Pakistani rushed its army to prevent the break up.
Over this war, a US solution of seven points forwarded to the
Security Council was vetoed by the USSR. Mrs. Bandaranaike held several
Cabinet meetings to decided on the couse of actions that Sri Lanka
At the General Assembly Sri Lanka's Representative Shirly Amerasinghe
submitted a three-point solution, but it was unacceptable to India. Mr.
Amarasinghe without voting rights took part in the debate on the war at
the Security Council on December 15th 1971. On December 25th 1971 India
granted diplomatic recognition to East Pakistan which took the name
Bangladesh. Sri Lanka was silent till 50 countries granted Bangladesh
On March 3rd 1972, Mrs. Bandaranaike announced her decision to grant
Bangladesh recognition. She was followed by USA on April 1972.
Holding of American diplomats
Mr J. R. Jayewardene defeated Mrs Bandaranaike's regime in July 1977
and became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Under the new constitution
of Sri Lanka he became the President with a five sixths majority in
Parliament and also occupied the chair of the Nonaligned movement.
American diplomats of Teheran were kept hostage by militant students
- followers of Ayatolla Khomeini - in November 1979.
This issue became a burning question at the UN. President Jayewardene
sent his Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hameed to Iran to find a solution.
Dr. Waldheim the Secretary General informed the Security Council of what
he had heard from Mr. Hameed whose individual efforts were a failure.
During the last 50 years of the UN the most important issues that Sri
Lanka took up were the proposal to make the Indian Ocean a Zone of
Peace. All the big powers, USA, USSR, and the UK and their supporters
opposed the proposals.
Mrs. Bandaranaike appeared in the General Assembly in October 1971
and formally put forward the proposal to declare the Indian Once Peace
Sri Lanka was appointed Chairman of the Indian Ocean Peace Zone ad
hoc committee which made several resolutions but still the proposal
remains a dead letter. (For details see Sri Lanka Foreign Policy PP
Several Sri Lankans through their contributions at the UN have become
distinguished people - Shirly Amerasinghe, V.J. Fernando, Sir Claude
Corea, have left behind their legacies.
Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala through his skills and devotion to the
principles of the United Nations Charter is now getting ready to contest
for the post of Secretary General of the UN. He will appreciate
President Mahinda Rajapakse's blessings and support in this hour of
need. Let all the Sri Lankans extend their blessings to him.