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Scion of Indian indentured labourers to the Caribbean, where citizens of East Indian descent now comprise at least one fifth of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural peoples of the Caribbean Community, Ramphal has been selected by a jury of eminent persons as the newest awardee of the coveted ‘Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development’.
Instituted 18 years ago to commemorate the "outstanding contributions to national and global well-being" of Indira Gandhi, the assassinated Prime Minister of India, the Gandhi Prize is viewed as India's equivalent to the world renowned Nobel Prize.
Our comparatively small region of the global community, where political independence first came just four decades ago, boasts three Nobel laureates - Arthur Lewis, Derek Walcott and Vidia Naipaul. Now comes the internationally recognised Indira Gandhi Prize for 2002 to Shridath Ramphal.
The 75-year-old Guyana-born quintessential 'Caribbean Man' joins an illustrious company of previous awardees, starting in 1987 with former President of the now defunct Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Among subsequent awardees were: Norway's ex-Prime Minister and current Director General of the World Health Organisation Gro Harlem Brundtland; United States former President Jimmy Carter; Ireland's ex-President and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson; Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, and at an organisational level, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), the latter for its outstanding contribution in "safeguarding and developing the health of the World's Children".
Over the years, the citation for the Prize, awarded annually by a jury of eminent persons headed by India's Vice-President, has been directed to specific contributions.
In the case of Ramphal, the first recipient from the Caribbean-Latin American region, the jury has decided to award the ‘2002 Prize’ for his "great services for peace, disarmament and development over the last three decades".
The Prize consists of an award of two and a half million Rupees (Rs2.5 million) or its equivalent in foreign exchange, and a trophy, with the citation, bearing the portrait of Indira Gandhi. He will officially be awarded the prize in India on November 19 this year.
In his many years in public life in the region and internationally, Ramphal has seen and lived through it all, and not merely as a spectator - the high and low points in governance; the gross social and economic inequalities and discrimination.
The strengths and weaknesses of governments, rigged elections and corruption of institutions; triumph of democracy over dictatorship; clash of civilisations; building bridges of friendship among the Caribbean, African and Asian societies to strengthen resolve for a peace with justice and development to liberate the poor and powerless.
Just a few months ago, in January this year, Ramphal - the former Commonwealth Secretary General for some 15 years and a major player, along with the late William Demas in the launch of CARICOM - was one of just ten individuals of the vast Indian 'Diaspora' worldwide to have been honoured with India's new ‘Pravasi Bharatia Samaan' Award.
That January award, for ‘eminent contributions’ by persons of Indian origin beyond the sub-continent, was made at a three-day event on ‘India and the Diaspora’ to mark India's forging of friendship with the international community since its independence in 1945.
‘Sonny’ Ramphal, as Sir Shridath is popularly known among political leaders and others in the region, has come a far way indeed in acquiring an enormous reputation, regionally and internationally, since he left behind those controversial years of the 1960s when he served as Attorney General and Foreign Minister of the Guyana Government of Forbes Burnham.
Alister McIntyre, another outstanding son of the Caribbean, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and former Secretary General of CARICOM, in his foreword to Shridath Ramphal's ‘Inseparable Humanity’, published in 1988 to mark the 150th anniversary of Indian indentureship to the West Indies, wrote:
"So long as poverty and underdevelopment stalk the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, so long as democratic rights and processes are being denied to people, there will be a need for spokesmen and leaders to champion the causes of the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised and the exploited...
"Several years ago, 'Sonny' Ramphal nailed his flag to that mast. His service to humanity is already acknowledged. I am certain that acknowledgement will continue to grow..."
McIntyre was prophetic, as demands for the quality of Ramphal's contributions have continued to "grow", as evident within the past two decades with honours bestowed on him by universities and other international bodies and institutions as well as frequently called upon to render service on high-level international commissions.
Indeed, he was the only person to have served on all of the major international commissions that sought solutions to critical global issues in the 1980s They included the Willy Brandt's Commission on Development, Olof Palme's on Disarmament and Gro Brundtland's on Environment and Development.
Ramphal, among the first to receive CARICOM's highest award, Order of the Caribbean Community (OCC), also co-chaired, with Sweden's former Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsen, the Commission on Global Governance whose 1995 report on ‘Our Global Neighbourhood’ was hailed by then President Nelson Mandela as "a timely work deserving our full attention"
He was subsequently called upon to head the West Indian Commission that produced the far-reaching 1992 ‘Time for Action’ Report on the way forward for the Caribbean region, and subsequently led the Regional Negotiating Machinery for five years.
He has been Chancellor of the University of the West Indies for some 14 years, a post from which he is expected to retire in September. Currently, he is serving as Facilitator for Belize, under the aegis of the Organisation of American States, to find a definitive resolution to the century-old territorial dispute with Guatemala.
When he accepted the prestigious award in New Delhi last January among nine other eminent persons of the worldwide Indian Diaspora, Ramphal stressed that while his "roots were in India" his identity was "firmly Caribbean"
A passionate regionalist, Ramphal regards his chairmanship of the West Indian Commission as "one of my proudest roles on behalf of our region".