Shridath ‘Sonny’ Surendranath Ramphal (1928 - )
The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in
Profile of Shridath ‘Sonny’ Surendranath Ramphal
Shridath ‘Sonny’ Surendranath Ramphal was born on 3 October 1928 in New Amsterdam, British Guiana. The eldest of five children, his father, James I Ramphal, was a Presbyterian schoolteacher and a pioneer of secondary education in Guiana.
Ramphal attended a private school founded by his father in the capital city, Georgetown. He was also educated at the Modern Educational Institute. He completed his secondary education at Queen’s College, a government school in Georgetown.
In 1947, Ramphal began his legal training at King’s College, London, and was called to the bar from Gray’s Inn in 1951. He returned to British Guiana in 1953 and served as crown counsel in the Attorney-General’s Office. In 1958, he joined the federal government of the West Indies as legal draftsperson.
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 10 years in national politics.
In 1967, the year after Guyana’s independence, Ramphal was appointed minister of state for foreign affairs, and became minister of foreign affairs in 1972. A year later, he also took on the portfolio of justice minister. 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 organisations 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 Developing World. Articulate, dynamic and self-confident, he was a strong advocate of the interests of the Developing 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 co-operation, 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 from 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.
Shridath ’Sonny’ Ramphal joined many leading international legal, political, economic and humanitarian organisations. 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.