Sonny Ramphal, the quintessential West Indian
November 19, 2003
In view of the time zone difference it is likely that Sir Shridath Ramphal has already been presented today (19th November) by the President of India with the Indira Gandhi Prize.
This prize has come to be regarded as the "Nobel" prize of the south. Established 18 years ago, it has been regularly awarded to persons who have done outstanding work for international peace, disarmament and development. Previous awardees include Mikhail Gorbachev, then leader of the Soviet Union, President Jimmy Carter, Dr Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic and Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland.
The prize has been awarded to Ramphal, according to the Prize Memorial Trust Press Release "for the great services he rendered for Peace, Disarmament and Development for the last three decades". But behind these bland words of the citation of the Prize Trust is almost certainly the recognition that Ramphal, perhaps moreso than anyone else that one can think of on the international stage, has been involved with and committed to the resolution of the great planetary problems which have emerged and have bedevilled mankind in recent decades. Such issues which include the global environment, poverty and development, disarmament and security and global governance outrun the competence and frontiers of individual states. Indeed such issues do not fit easily into the agendas of even the UN and its agencies. That is why beginning in the 1980s the study of such global issues was entrusted to a number of independent international commissions chaired by eminent individuals namely the (German Chancellor) Brandt Commission on International Development the Palme (former Swedish Prime Minister) Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, the Brundtland (former Norwegian Prime Minister) Commission on Environment and Development, the South Commission chaired by President Julius Nyerere and the International Commission on Global Governance which Ramphal co-chaired.
Now what is truly remarkable is that as far as one can ascertain, Ramphal was the only person who was invited to serve as a member to all these commissions - a testimony of his credentials as an internationalist, a kind of planetary citizen.
Ramphal was at the time serving as Secretary General of the Commonwealth which during his tenure was recognised as an international actor in its own right, a remarkable feat for a loosely organised entity not held together by any constituting law. The Commonwealth became a catalyst in world affairs especially on Southern African and Development issues.
Others have played major roles in their countries and regions but Ramphal's contribution was recognised as an unremitting effort to reshape the international order itself. It was Nelson Mandela who in 1990 spoke of his role as follows:
"Some men have become famous because of the service they have given to their countries, others have become well known because of the manner in which they have taken up issues affecting their regions and others have become famous because in their fight for human justice they have chosen the entire world as their theatre. Shridath Ramphal is one of those men".
Yet the roots of his internationalism lie deep in the West Indies and in the wider region of the Caribbean which he has not really ever left. Even now in his retirement he is clearly preoccupied with the progress of the regional movement as witnessed by his frequent public statements expressing concerns for Caricom and its development of new institutions.
The roots grow deep, back to his boyhood in Berbice and later education in Georgetown, growing up in a milieu where it was the most natural thing in the world, as natural as breathing in and out, to respond to a variety of rhythms be it Hindu wedding drums or the calypso beat, to delight in the variety of the Guyanese menu, deriving from other regions and culture, to have as one's friends persons who worshipped in temple or mosque or church, to cheer a cricket team whose dexterities derived from a varied racial background or a mixture of them.
Such ready understanding and acceptance of the ways of living of others which is the bedrock of internationalism did not come out of graduate school or extensive travel but is the birthright of all Guyanese. It is fundamental to the making of the Guyanese identity which is part of the larger West Indian identity - as is the case not only with Ramphal but with Clive Lloyd and Rohan Kanhai and Martin Carter and others.
Ramphal's initial international political experience was gained in the Caribbean. As a young man he was a senior official in the Federal Secretariat and experienced at first hand the tragic break up of the federation, a failure which must have left deep marks in his mind as he was committed to regional unity from the earliest student years in London where he had researched and written about it.
Later as Guyana's Foreign Minister he was to play the pivotal role together with Demas and other regional intellectuals in restarting the regional movement. Then came a leap on to the international stage with his organisation and chairmanship of the Conference of the Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned Countries - a Conference which marked an expansion in the Agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and its global influence.
Little known is the fact that it was during that conference that Prime Minister (as he then was) Burnham and Ramphal took the initiatives to reconcile the two groups of former colonial African Countries, the Arusha (English speaking) and the Yaounde (French speaking) who until then had viewed each other with suspicion tending to hostility. It was this which provided soon after the basis for the formation of the African, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) grouping whose foundation conference was accordingly held in Georgetown leading to the issuance of the Georgetown Agreement.
Ramphal took this wealth of varied, rich, regional experience with him into the Commonwealth Secretariat and into his subsequent career as a foremost international public servant.
However the world in which he once so effectively pursued his goals has changed dramatically. Where there was once a strong trend towards multilateralism, there is now the assertion of hyper-power and the systematic demolition or undermining of international organisations and the norms whose acceptance marked advances in civilisation. Through all this Ramphal has remained supremely optimistic. Ramphal adheres to his belief that "We are clearly in transition from a world in which the few are more than the many to a world that is less elitist and autocratic in its global structures, from a world governed by a small directorate of the strong to one whose future must be determined by negotiations and by consensus with the many who are weak..."
The world in which Caricom must survive has also changed fundamentally from that in which it was founded. At that time the regional movement was largely insulated from external economic pressures by the persisting colonial preferential market arrangements. Such protection is now rapidly eroding. Increasingly the problem of Caricom will be how to preserve "Community" in the deep meaning of that term, from an international system based on power. "Community" exists on the basis of kinship, common identity, unwritten rules and trust and in a commitment to a regional interest. Without special care, "Community" cannot easily stand up to current external threats and pressures.
Caricom needs now, more than at any other time, the wisdom experience and optimism of Ramphal. Surely there should be a place in the councils of Caricom for Sonny Ramphal, the quintessential West Indian.