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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

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The Law at his finger-tips

Today we focus on Dr. Amrith Rohan Perera, an International Civil Servant of high repute. He retired as Legal Advisor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after serving the ministry for over 30 years. He is an authority on International Law. “My family hails from Ruwanwella. I grew up in a village in Ruwanwella. And then we came to Mount Lavinia for our studies in Colombo. My father had a political background. He was a Member of Parliament and a Senator. I studied at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia.

In a very general way I took part in sports such as swimming and cricket and so on. Nothing very competitive. But I got involved in other activities like being Secretary of the Sinhala Literary Union. I also took part in English and Sinhala debates. In your formative years, involvement in these types of activities gives you confidence as you step into the wide world,” said Perera.


Dr. Amrith Rohan Perera

Perera also worked as a journalist at Lake House in the late 60s before it was taken over by the government. He recalls it as a very challenging time.

“I was working for the Sinhala publications writing feature articles in the area of Arts and Culture. That was a very active period in the fields of cinema and theatre in Sri Lanka. For a young person getting into journalism, it was a very interesting period. Then of course I took to Law. Again there were many uncertainties at that time. Far reaching legislative measures such as the land reform law affecting the property rights of people were being introduced and law was developing in new directions. But my primary interest from that time was the field of International Law.”

International affairs

Before he started his specialization in the field of International Law, he practised as a civil lawyer. From 1973- 1976, he did private practice mainly in the appellate courts, under the guidance of senior counsel, the late Nimal Senanayake, who helped the young lawyer to get on his feet.

Having joined the Legal Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka in the mid 70s during a period which Perera calls a 'shining moment in the conduct of Sri Lanka’s diplomacy.' “I joined during the 70s. That was a high point in the conduct of Sri Lanka’s international affairs. Sri Lanka assumed the chairmanship of the Nonaligned Movement at the Colombo Nonaligned Summit in 1976. Sri Lanka also chaired the United Nations General Assembly, as well as the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. Thus, Sri Lanka played a critical role at that time. We engaged with the international community, both the developed and developing countries, in different initiatives.

“It was a tremendous experience for us the young officials to observe the unfolding drama. The work we were doing was very challenging. Unfortunately that position changed with the events of July 1983. From that point onwards the question was how is Sri Lanka going to best manage the situation internationally? So it was a question of crisis management from then on and which unfortunately continues even today.”

Legal and political issues

During an illustrious career spanning 32 years, Perera has tackled issues on behalf of Sri Lanka on a range of sensitive legal and political issues. The diverse treaties that were negotiated covered key areas such as foreign trade and investment, maritime boundary regimes, mutual legal assistance and extradition. “The position of Legal Advisor is so interesting because in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs you deal with an array of diverse issues with diverse entities - at the international level with foreign states and international organizations and at the domestic level with diverse ministries, departments and agencies.

Perera has been under the influence of stalwart personalities who became his mentors. One was the late W. T. Jayasinghe, then the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs. “To start off your career with towering personalities such as W. T. Jayasinghe who has rendered a yeoman service is a great experience. These were people you could learn so much from. They appreciated the work that you did. There was so much that we as officers could learn from them. ”

Perera also served in the International Law Commission from 2007-2011. “ILC is the principal legal body of the United Nations and I was elected to one of the Asian vacancies. I'm glad I was able to work with a group of eminent international lawyers in a collegial environment and gain valuable insights and experiences. I was able to make my own contribution in distinct areas. Within two years of my election I was requested by the chairman at that time, the late Sir Ian Brownlie, an acknowledged authority on International Law, to become co-chairman of a study group dealing with some of the current issues in the field of investment law. In 2011, I was made the general rapporteur of the commission. In that capacity I had to ensure that the report of the commission which is being transmitted to the United Nations General Assembly accurately records what transpired in the commission during that year. It was a very challenging task which gave me tremendous professional satisfaction.

Terrorist groups

Currently Perera is the chairman of the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee on measures to eliminate international terrorism. This was established by the General Assembly in 1997. He was elected Vice Chairman in 1997 and he participated in negotiations in what came to be known as the New Generation Anti-terrorism Conventions - Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist bombings and Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Financing. In 1997, there was a spate of terrorist bombings targeting innocent civilians in many parts of the world - the Central Bank in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Kenya, Tokyo and Manchester. This led to the initiative to formulate the convention on the suppression of terrorist bombings. Then there is the all important international convention on the suppression of terrorist financing which recognizes the financing for terrorist purposes as a distinct offense. It prohibits both direct and indirect financing through charitable fronts and seeks to cut the trans-frontier flow of funds to terrorist groups.

“In 2000 I became the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee and led the initiative to finalize the international convention on the suppression of nuclear terrorism. We are now grappling with the task of finalizing what is called the comprehensive convention on international terrorism which has been pending for a long time. The delay is largely due to political factors rather than legal issues.” He also chairs the Eminent Persons Group of the Asian African Legal Consultative Organization which is a direct outcome of the Bandung Conference of which Sri Lanka was a founder member.

Perera has many publications to his credit; the first publication was a comprehensive volume on the legal framework for combating international terrorism, published in New Delhi. Thereafter he wrote a collection of essays under the title: ‘Changing Frontiers of International Law’. Others are articles in international journals including the field of investment law, international criminal law and international humanitarian law. Outside Sri Lanka he has been very active in the academic field.

“I was invited by the UN Legal Office in Geneva to lecture at the Annual International Law Seminar for young lawyers and diplomats. I have also been invited as a guest lecturer by the John Hopkins University and by the Institute of Middle Eastern and Balkan Studies in Slovenia. So wherever it is, I will always find the time if it is for an academic purpose. It is professionally satisfying and helps your own thinking process.” In addition to his many assignments abroad, he continues to serve as a visiting lecturer at several universities in Sri Lanka.

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