Clarion call for a global transformation
In the preamble to his address to the 63rd Session of the United
Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2008, President
Mahinda Rajapaksa quoted Sir Isaac Newton when he said: “we build too
many walls and not enough bridges”.
This is a statement of diligent statesmanship which set the stage for
a speech that contained a nuanced call for cooperation, solutions and
understanding in a world bewildered by its own pace, success and double
From an intellectual standpoint the President’s choice of sage was
right on the money, as it was Newton who said: “I can calculate the
motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”.
Getting back to the President, his opening words succinctly addressed
the issue, that through a global forum such as the United Nations, we
must resolve problems and eschew violence, revenge and blame.
He also made it clear that his commitment is toward rehabilitation
and reconstruction and that military operations should be launched only
to exert pressure on those who believe in military action to destroy
His clarion call to the international community to break the cycle of
conflict that plagues the world by focussing on development, and the
final words of his speech - that the current session of the General
Assembly should be the beginning of a new chapter rather than just
another session - is reminiscent of the words of President Franklin D.
Roosevelt who, immediately after World War Two, called upon the world to
build enduring institutions of peace which should not be endangered by
petty considerations or weakened by groundless fears.
President Rajapaksa drew the attention of the Assembly to the fact
that terrorism threatened civil society and the rule of law, while
observing that, although the UN system had set up various mechanisms to
counter this threat, the capacity of the world body to address this
challenge effectively had been brought into question.
There was also a subtle nuance on the importance of non- intervention
and the sovereignty of a State when specifically singled out the
Palestinians who are striving for an independent State and mentioned
that the world community must help them to manage their country without
any undue influence.
There was also a gentle admonition to the United Nations - that its
primary function was to render assistance for the well-being of its
member States. While recognising that the UN has only achieved limited
results due to resource constraints, the President cautioned against
poor coordination, ineffective design and inept staffing.
He reminded the Assembly that Sri Lanka is a party to 11 of 13 UN
Conventions for the suppression of terrorism and urged the international
community to proceed swiftly with the Comprehensive Convention on
International Terrorism, emphasising that discussions and negotiations
with regard to this important treaty should be concluded soon.
Arguably the most compelling message in the President’s speech,
particularly in the context of the global relevance of the Assembly was
the link drawn between the 10 year vision in Mahinda Chintana and the
United Nations’ Millennium Goals.
This is a very astute and appropriate analogy as the UN Millennium
Goals aim to cut poverty by half, ensure every child has the chance to
go to school and live a long and healthy life, promote gender equality,
combat disease, ensure environmental sustainability and develop a global
partnership for development.
Mahinda Chintana, the vision of the President of Sri Lanka and
arguably the most profound political statement released in recent times
in Sri Lanka, is a systemic thought process that addresses the entire
system of society.
It goes right across the board, from primary education to job
creation to providing for physically and mentally challenged persons and
onward to securing equality of pay for males and females.
It cuts across the entire value chain of social requirement and
ensures that democracy is driven by values established by the
Perhaps the most important element of this philosophy is that it
pursues a value-based democracy ruled by the people where development is
not merely concerned with material well-being and economic affluence,
but covers in a broad sense all forms of human progress and a better
quality of life.
In this broad sense the UN Millennium Goals and Mahinda Chintana are
soul mates, making the Sri Lankan political process an inextricable link
of the global political process represented by the UN Goals.
It is also noteworthy that President Rajapaksa reiterated the
importance to Sri Lanka of Metta and Ahimsa or loving kindness and the
respect for life, a fact which he mentioned during his speech two years
ago to the 61st General Assembly on September 20, 2006.
With this statement, the President advised the Assembly of nations of
the thousands of years of Sri Lankan values which are based on
understanding, forgiveness, kindness and non-violence.
In this context the President emphasised the value placed by Sri
Lanka on human rights, mentioning that Sri Lanka occupied an important
place in the UN Human Rights Council.
The President conveyed the message that, in a modern world of strife
and conflict, the protection of human rights is the most significant and
important task for a modern State, particularly since multi ethnic
States are the norm in today’s world.
This brings us to the realisation that the traditional nation State
in which a distinct national group rules over a territorial unit is fast
receding to history.
Globalisation and increased migration across borders is gradually
putting an end to the concept of the ethnic nation State, although
resistance to reality can be still seen in instances where majority or
dominant cultures impose their identity and interests on groups with
whom they share a territory.
In such instances, minorities frequently intensify their efforts to
preserve and protect their identity, in order to avoid marginalisation.
Polarisation between the opposite forces of assimilation on the one
hand and protection of minority identity on the other inevitably causes
increased intolerance and eventual armed ethnic conflict.
In such a scenario, the first duty of governance is to ensure that
the rights of a minority society are protected.
In my view, President Rajapaksa’s speech at the General Assembly
contains both a profound global message as well as a compelling national
statement. It is that an honest leadership has to be truly sovereign,
democratic and able to keep its promises.
The development brought about by an honest democracy could not be
measured merely by the increased per capita income of the citizens of a
country, but also by their political and economic freedom and their
equal enjoyment of the fruits of growth.
Both democracy and development denote a continuous change which is
brought about over a sustained period of time through indigenous
efforts. Sustainable development, achieved through democracy must in
essence be rooted in local conditions and emerge from real forces within
It also tells us that the protection of human rights is the most
significant and important task for a modern State, particularly since
multi ethnic States are the norm in today’s world
Leaders have to be assisted in these noble tasks and this brings to
bear the important dimension of the duties of a citizen. President John
F. Kennedy is best known for his quote: “Ask not what the country can do
for you but what you can do for your country”. This captures in essence
the other side of human rights law.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “What duty does a citizen owe to the
government that secures the society in which he lives? What can it
expect and rightly demand of him in support of itself? A nation that
rests on the will of the people must also depend on individuals to
support its institutions in whatever ways are appropriate if it is to
Persons qualified for public office should feel some obligation to
make that contribution. If not, public service will be left to those of
lesser qualification, and the government may more easily become
It is quite timely that President Rajapaksa asked that the 63rd
Session of the General Assembly be a new chapter. From the perspective
of human rights, there will always be wrongs, therefore there must
always be rights”. This should indeed be the principle for a new
The author is a senior official at the United Nations in Montreal.