In Awe of A Richmondite in the International World of Space

HLD Mahindapala writing in 1999, … with this title: “NANDI– The Southern Star in Space,” .… in Mahindapala: From A Scribe’s Pen”

The route from an obscure Sinhala-Buddhist mixed school in Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka to the Outer Space Affairs Office of the United Nations in New York and Vienna was inevitably long, winding, and arduous, with usual quota of diversions and pitfalls on the way. But nothing en route – not even the English alphabet unknown to him in his early education – daunted Nandasiri (known to his friends as “Nandi”) Jasentuliyana. His upward movement from the Sinhala-Buddhist village school in the south to the heights of the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and Deputy Director- General of the United Nations in Vienna is an untold saga known only to a few who had known him.






The story of the boy from the south, who climbed the dizzy heights of international mountains, overcoming all obstacles on the way to the top at the UN, can be told only in superlatives. This is inevitable because Nandasiri Jasentuliyana has left behind an outstanding academic and professional track record. Despite this and despite his international status he has studiously kept out of the limelight without sharing honors at home with the other towering Sri Lankan celebrities like His Excellency Christopher. J. Weeramantry, the Vice-president of the International Court of Justice, or Shirley Amerasinghe or Jayantha Dhanapala. There is a reason for this. He deliberately cultivated a low-profile ever since Mr. Sam Wijesinghe, former Secretary-General of the Parliament, told him sometime in the 60s’: “Young man, success attracts jealousies! If you want to succeed keep away from publicity in Sri Lanka.” He followed his mentor’s advice with such tenacity that not even a dental surgeon could pry open his mouth all these years.

He was quite content to go about his work without any fuss. But he took care to leave an indelible mark with every step he took. He walks the corridors of the UN with an easy familiarity almost like a home away from home. In those corridors his reputation has grown as a leading authority on the laws governing the new frontiers of outer space, which at the time of the Reaganite “star wars” threatened to be the theatre for the next cosmic wars. His achievements parallel that of Shirley Amerasinghe, Sri Lanka’s distinguish Ambassador to UN, and Jayantha Dhanapala. Shirley Amerasinghe plumbed the depths of the sea, Jayantha Dhanapala drilled deep into the core of atoms, and Nandasiri Jasentluliyana scaled the heights of space at the UN. Both are internationally recognized authorities in these two critical areas vital for the future of humanity. It is, indeed, a remarkable coincidence that two Sri Lankans should be acknowledged as leading authorities on the two extremities of the earth that determines its survival.

In the post-Gagarin era outer space assumed a greater significance as a vantage-point for political and military purposes. The open spaces out there assumed a new political, economic, and military importance. Outer space was viewed as the new colonial territory needed for supremacy on earth. The jockeying for positions in the administration of outer space reached a critical stage at the height of the Cold War when the super-powers were competing for strategic places in space as a means of dominating terrestrial landscape.

One key position was that of the Executive Secretary to the UN Conference on the Peaceful uses of Outer Space 1982 (UNISPACE II). In the early eighties at the height of the cold war UN was deadlocked over who should be appointed to this post. Soviet Russia and United States were competing for 10 months to grab this key position. US had wanted the job for an American (Marvin Robinson formerly of NASA) who has temporarily been heading the UN’s outer space affairs division. The Soviet Union and the Communist bloc had been pressing the candidacy of a Czechoslovakian official who had joined the division in February 1981. In January 1982 Kurt Waldheim, the departing Secretary-General of the UN, broke the deadlock by appointing Nandasiri Jasentuliyana. The news of breaking the deadlock grabbed the headlines of the international media. It was Waldheim’s last act before he ended his term as Secretary-General of the UN.

It could be argued that Jasentuliyana was the ideal non-aligned candidate acceptable to both sides. But it is more than that. He was already in the Outer Space Affairs Division (OSAD) with the requisite credentials behind his name. Ambassador Jean J. Kirkpatrick, the Permanent Representative of the USA to the UN, in her letter to Waldheim, commending his appointment, wrote: “While we continue to believe that Mr. Robinson was the logical choice to be Executive Secretary for UNISPACE ’82, we know that Mr. Jasentuliyana is an able and experienced officer of the Outer Space Affairs ‘Division (OSAD) and would surely be an effective Executive Secretary for the Conference.” This was written in April 1981. Since then Nandasiri Jasentuliyana’s record as a suave and cool-headed diplomat, manoeuvring his way through Cold War warriors, has earned him a commendable reputation among international civil servants, starting from Kofi Annan downwards.

The Washington-based National Space Society honored him with the rare distinction of being one of the 100 “Space people who have had the greatest impact on our lives”. In this exclusive club he is in the company of celebrities like John F. Kennedy, astronauts Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong, movie director Stanley Kubrick exploring futuristic themes, movie producer Steven Spielberg etc. All these are shining stars of space exploration. They are the Columbuses of the new age going in search of the unknown space that is most critical to the next stage of man’s evolution. The first was in the Silurian Age when the fish and algae came out of the sea and established colonies on land. The second was when man went out on voyages exploring the unknown parts of the earth. The third – and perhaps the final stage — was when man stepped out of the earth and moved into space.

Yet it is this virginal space that is fraught with complex issues, if not danger, for the survival of mankind. International cooperation in space projects is a prime need. Space wars projected in science fiction – genre in which yesterday’s fiction becomes today’s reality — can threaten the survival of our blue planet. The world went to the brink of total annihilation under the Strategic Défense Initiative (Star Wars) program of Ronald Reagan which pushed Soviet Union into a rival program with both superpowers competing for supremacy in space. Both were engaged in research and development of space-based offensive and defensive weapons. The theory was that those who conquer space would conquer the earth. Jasentuliyana works at the legal and political frontiers of this space with consummate ease. He works with a tireless commitment to turn space into a non-military zone. Commenting on this Jasentuliyana told the Space society magazine that “a growing militarization of space could increase the risks of international conflict and divert important resources from more productive uses”.

Faced with the potential threats as well as the immense possibilities for the future welfare of mankind, the UN went into top gear to explore the peaceful uses of outer space. Nandasiri Jasentuliyana became the key figure in coordinating, directing, and organizing this program from way back as the 1960s. The UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE) has become a regular forum for the international community to discuss and initiate new programs for the peaceful uses of space. This could range from a World Weather Watch collecting data from satellites to sorting out overcrowded airwaves from the communication satellites thrown into space like balloons. Last but not the least, is the threat of one of the millions of stray meteorites hitting the earth with an explosive power strong enough to send it into another ice age.

The future, therefore, is in space and everybody’s talking about it. In the collector’s issue of the Space Society magazine honoring the new stars of space it was said: “Everybody talks about peaceful international cooperation in space, but Nandasiri Jasentuliyana does something about it His vision has always been that though only a few nations have space faring capability, somehow all nations should benefit.” Turning space swords into planetary ploughshares is not an easy task. He has to bring together diverse and competing interests and harmonize them for peaceful purposes. Even though the political contest for lebensraum in space has not yet reached critical proportions the legal aspects have to be spelt out to accommodate rival claims and to prevent future space wars. As the grim and grave scenarios of science fiction draw nearer Jasentuliyana will have to work harder to define the legal space within which the rival claimants – whether they be states or gigantic corporations ~ will have to settle for peaceful solutions. It is a daunting task but he works at it unfazed by its complexities. But at the back of his mind lurks a fear of the future in space. Behind the publicized camaraderie of international astronauts embracing in space stations there is a threat that can turn nasty and hit the earth with devastating power.

The militarization of space took a new turn with Bill Clinton reviving the Star Wars program investing, initially, $10 billion— a massive injection of funds partly to please the Right- wing and partly to maintain the military superiority of the United States. Once again, the Regan era Star Wars is back on the international agenda with countries like China and Russia bristling with resentment. Against this background, his impending retirement (he passed the three-score and ten on November 23 last year) has the UN corridors buzzing with fears for the proposed UNISPACE III (scheduled to be held in Vienna between June 19 and July 30). It is the uncertainties of the future in space that makes him a man much in demand in the UN circles for his diplomatic skills and his expertise in space law.

Now as he moves into the proverbial three-score-and-ten, without the claws of time leaving any discernible scars, the U.S. delegate Kenneth Hodgkins has expressed his country’s “serious concerns” over the future staffing of the Office with the intended departure of Jasentuliyana. The IPS Daily Journal (November 2, 1998, Vol. 6.No.209, page 6) quotes Hodgkins as telling the Special Political Committee of the General Assembly: “We now understand that changes in the senior leadership of the Office might take place this year. This is a disturbing development, since it has the potential of disrupting preparations for UNISPACE III.” He added that if UNISPACE III is to be a success “the people doing this work must be experienced, hardworking and deeply knowledgeable about international space cooperation.”

Hodgkins was supported by Ambassador Raimundo Gonzalez of Chile, the Chairman of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses. The IPS Daily reports that Ambassador Gonzalez himself had heard about upcoming changes in the staff of the Office for Outer Space affairs, beginning with its director. He commented: “The United Nations could not afford the luxury of dispensing with the valuable contribution of that division, especially at such a crucial state. It would be unrealistic to press ahead (with UNISPACE III) without the support of the Secretariat in the preparations for a world conference of such scope, magnitude and importance, particularly to developing countries. ”

Following these appeals, the Secretary-General Kofi Anan promptly requested Jasentuliyana to continue his services beyond the mandated age of retirement for United Nations Officials, in order to organize and direct the United Nations World Conference on Space (UNISPACE III). The conference was considered a great success and drew up a blueprint for nations to follow in the next decade as they explore outer space and utilize its practical applications. It was a fitting farewell to the long and successful career of Jasentuliyana at the helm of UN space program.

Unlike Shirley Amerasinghe and Jayantha Dhanapala, it must be emphasized, that Jasentuliyana did not break into the international diplomacy through the Sri Lankan Foreign Service. He worked his way up through sheer dint of his own efforts. When he left Sri Lanka on a Commonwealth scholarship to McGill University in Canada, he was determined to study space law. It was virgin territory, virtually unexplored unlike the other branches of the law. To him it was a new and adventurous field. He envisaged the potential dangers and the possibilities of the conflicts in space even as a law student in Sri Lanka. As if foreshadowing his future career, he wrote in 1961, when he was the editor of the Ceylon Law College Review: “This year 1961 has been momentous. Man has finally done it! In defiance of the law that what goes up must come down, he has gone there and stayed there. It is our tragedy that we are chiefly aware of the glamour and glory, and yet strangely blind to the terror and madness of it all. The next time THE PRESIDENT speaks ill of the PRIME MINISTER we may find an ICBM labelled “Washington C. O. D”, hurtling over us, destination – definitely known. We wonder who will reply.” That is a question that continues to haunt him. His career has been devoted since then to prevent it happening.

Once again it was Mr. Sam Wijesinghe who put him on the right track when he was casting around for a direction in his future career path. It was Mr. Wijesinha who told him to specialize in space law and gave him the exact location where he could find the ideal avenue for his metier.

In Vienna protocol demands that newly appointed ambassadors should present their credentials to the head of the UN Office in Vienna as representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and it happened to be Jasentuliyana as Acting Director General of the United Nations Office in Vienna when Sri Lanka’s newest ambassador, Mr. S. Poolokasingham called on him in January this year. This is, indeed, a rare occurrence where one Sri Lankan diplomat presents his credentials to another Sri Lankan representing the UN.

For a pioneer sailing in the uncharted territories of space it was inevitable that it would be filled with star-studded celebrities of space. A routine part of his career was to rub shoulders with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who went to the Moon, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, Cosmonauts Valeriy Polyakov and Vladmir Titov who spent over a year in space, Sally Ride and Dr. Mae Jamison the lady astronauts are among the many legendary stars of space whom he met. The Austrian Cosmonaut Frans Viehboch of Austria and Cosmonaut Dumitri Prunariu of Rumania are among his family friends.

Dealing with outer space drew him naturally into the universality that envelops space. Though he did spin in space he never lost the touch of the earth under his feet. For instance, assembling five Nobel Laureates — President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mrs. Elena Bonner and Poet Wole Soyinka – to a public discourse on their own personal experiences was a part of his public duty. The lives of these Nobel Laureates under totalitarian regimes that had robbed them of their own human rights for many years, or as activists speaking out on behalf of those still suffering from discrimination, servitude and other forms of modern-day oppression kept his feet firmly on earth.

At the end of his career NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin signed and presented as a memento a framed U.N. flag that was flown aboard space shuttle Columbia (STS-90) along with a crew patch worn by the astronauts on board the spacecraft and a signed photograph of the crew. This symbolic memento is a fitting tribute to his mission in space. The inscription in it went further. It read: “Presented to Nandasiri Jasentuliyana in recognition of his support for furthering the peaceful uses of outer space for all nations.”

That says it all. What more can a boy from an obscure village do than serve all nations – and that too from outer space!

* Original text dated March 1999.

The first Australian Schools team to visit Ceylon seen in 1958 with the Combined Schools Team that played in Galle with Nandi Jasentuliyana (aka JLN De Silva then) as skipper (seated in centre) …. 


A PERSONAL NOTE from a former ‘ENEMY’

I first encountered Nandasiri as an enemy in enemy territory on Richmond Hill homegrounds when I played for St. Aloysius Under 16 against the Richmond eleven. We then continued this battle for our First XI teams at the neutral venue of the Galle Esplanade during th mid-1950s.

Our paths then moved in quite different directions …. till he hit the lmelight with his striking book on space law, entitled Same Sky, Different Nights, with an event involving a local publishing house that had presented my books as well: viz, Vijitha Yapa Publications. Thus, clearly, a tale of “same town, different topics, same publishing house.”

Nandasiri Jasentuliyana’s ‘odyssey’ in space law: “Same Sky, Different Nights”

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One response to “In Awe of A Richmondite in the International World of Space

  1. Joe Simpson

    Hi Michael – very interesting reading for this Canadian retired terrestrial lawyer! Amazon has a Kindle downloadable edition of the memoir mentioned above, for a very modest cost.

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