Shridath Surendranath Ramphal (born 1928), a Guyanese barrister, politician, and international civil servant, was the secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Guyana. An architect of regional integration in the Caribbean, he helped to increase the role of Guyana in world affairs.
Shridath S. Ramphal—"Sonny," as he was widely known—was born on October 3, 1928, in New Amsterdam, British Guiana. His ancestors were Indians who arrived there in the 1880s. The eldest of five children, his father, James I. Ramphal, was a Presbyterian schoolteacher and a pioneer of secondary education in Guiana. He later became the first Guyanese to be appointed to a senior government post when he was made a commissioner in the Department of Labour soon after the outbreak of World War II.
Ramphal attended a private school founded by his father in the capital city, Georgetown. He was also educated at the Modern Educational Institute, which also was run by his father. During those early years his father had a profound influence on his life, and Ramphal wrote that his father's "passionate belief in the basic goodness within all men" made a deep impression on him. He completed his secondary education at Queen's College, a government school in Georgetown.
In 1947 he began his legal training at King's College, London, and was called to the bar from Gray's Inn in 1951. As a pupil in chambers, he worked with a distinguished barrister and politician, Dingle Foot, who at the time was chairman of the Liberal Party. He continued his studies for a Master's degree in law and did part-time work in the Legal Section of the Colonial Office to support himself.
He returned to British Guiana in 1953 and served as crown counsel in the Attorney General's Office. It was during this period that he became interested in constitutional law and started his enthusiastic support for the creation of a West Indian federation. However, the next five years were unhappy ones, primarily because of serious ideological differences between him and the Marxist People's Progressive Party leader, Cheddi Jagan. In 1958 he joined the federal government of the West Indies as legal draftsman. The following year he was appointed solicitor-general, and in 1961 he became assistant attorney-general. However, the federation was short-lived, and after a referendum in Jamaica it broke up.
Ramphal then went to Harvard Law School for a year as a Guggenheim Fellow. He returned to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1962 and entered private practice. In 1965, while he was still in Kingston, he was invited by Forbes Burnham, the prime minister of British Guiana, to return home and become the country's attorney-general and to begin drafting Guyana's independence constitution. This was the beginning of his ten years in national politics.
In 1967, the year after Guyana's independence, Ramphal was appointed minister of state for foreign affairs. In 1972 he became minister of foreign affairs, and a year later he took on the portfolio of justice minister as well. He was instrumental in shaping Guyana's foreign policy— which is based on the principle of non-alignment—and in establishing its foreign service. He was actively involved in Caribbean politics and in the major international organizations of which Guyana is a member—the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Group of 77, and the Non-Aligned Movement. He also strengthened relations between the countries of the Caribbean and those of Latin America. He was a key spokesman for the developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific in the negotiations with the European Community which resulted in the Lomé Convention of 1975.
At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1975, Ramphal was unanimously appointed the Commonwealth's second secretary-general, the first from the Third World. Articulate, dynamic, and self-confident, he was a strong advocate of the interests of the Third World, the need for a new international economic order, and the need to end apartheid in South Africa. Soon after his appointment he challenged a statement by Henry Kissinger that the international economic system had worked well and argued that the developing countries had not been well served by it. He stressed the importance of increased North-South cooperation, and he played an important role as a member of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, the Brandt Commission. He had a deep commitment to human rights and served as a member of the International Commission of Jurists beginning in 1970. After the end of his term as secretary-general of the Commonwealth in 1989, he served as head of the World Conservation Union and played an important role in the Earth Summit in 1992. His book Our Country, the Planet (1992), published just in advance of the Summit, expresses his commitment to the causes of international economic reform and environmental protection. In all he served on five international commissions on global development and the environment.
Ramphal joined many leading international legal, political, economic, and humanitarian organizations. He received honorary degrees from universities all over the world and awards from various national governments. Although he received a knighthood in 1970, he preferred the simple title of "Mr." He married Lois Winifred Ramphal (née King) in 1951, a nurse whom he met while he was a student in London. They had four children, two sons and two daughters.
There is as yet no biography of Ramphal nor any detailed account of his work as secretary-general of the Commonwealth. However, One World to Share (1979), which is a selection of his speeches as secretary-general from 1975 to 1979, and Inseperable Humanity (1989), a selection of speeches and essays from 1971 to 1987, have much relevant material on his views on major international issues. In addition to these and Our Country, the Planet (1992), he had two other publications: Nkrumah and the Eighties (1980) and Sovereignty or Solidarity (1981), in which he argued that national sovereignty should yield to international solidarity.