Some memories of WUS international


The 1980s undoubtedly was a decade of transformation. This means the years at least a year before 1980 and two years after 1989. It would be incorrect to quote Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities referring to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” because ‘the worst of times’ probably came during 1990s, although some indications were within the 1980s.iii    

In 1979, the world saw the emergence of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, followed by Ronald Regan in the USA in the following year, representing more or less the same trend. In Australia, similar trends appeared even before.iii These political changes marked a new era in global economics (and also politics) normally called ‘globalization’ or ‘neo-liberalism.’ Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had already started slowly in China by that time. Therefore there was a convergence between the East and the West. There was an apparent need to democratize different regimes (left and right) on the part of international establishments, at least to some extent, to achieve these economic objectives, apart from the people’s continuous demands for democracy and human rights. However a strong theocracy had already been installed in Iran in 1979. There were similar strong trends in other countries in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. War did not exactly disappear.    

Democracy has always been a major aspiration of WUS in its broadest meaning of the term with emphasis on human rights, social justice, sustainable development and positive peace, and therefore the decade for WUS was more or less ‘the best of times.’      

Following Ronald Regan’s meeting with Michael Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, in 1989 his successor George Bush and Gorbachev declared that the ‘cold war was over.’ That was undoubtedly a positive international development for both camps, although at the end of 1991 the whole Soviet Union collapsed. While it was not the ‘end of history’iv, a new international order undoubtedly came to dominate the world with many prospects for democracy, human rights, feminism and education for all. Many dictatorships or authoritarian regimes as far apart as Haiti and Czechoslovakia, Chile, South Korea and the Philippines fell, but some continued (like Iran) or reemerged after a while (like Myanmar). I was in Prague on WUS mission when the ‘velvet revolution’ took place in November 1989.v  

The most significant political change during the period for WUS undoubtedly was the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990 and the new political and constitutional changes were unleashed thereafter. It was a long mission fulfilled for WUS. But in terms of justice, some of the Apartheid culprits apparently         

The decade also marked technological changes. Personal computers and computer networks came to the forefront along with many developments in communication and information technology. Email networks started to emerge. Those were extremely encouraging for WUS. Although it was not apparent at the beginning, there were adverse effects as well in economic circumstances. These were in the areas of climate change, social welfare, education, international aid and also north-south relations. ‘Economic, social and cultural rights’ started to take a back seat not only in ‘liberal’ countries but also in ‘socialist’ countries. The ‘welfare-state’ appeared to disappear with effects on donor countries.’ Money and profits started to become central criteria in human values, overtaking humanitarian concerns in many countries.  

Although the old cold war atmosphere subsided, new internal conflicts and wars produced large number of new refugee influxes throughout the world. When the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries fell apart many previously hidden problems surfaced such as academic freedom, autonomy of higher educational institutions and poor conditions for university students. WUS vision and mission were not outdated. Peace in the Middle East including a resolution to the Palestinian question became crucial although still not resolved today.   

Assembly in Nantes 1984 and After 

I was selected as the Associate Secretary for Asia and the Pacific at the 66th WUS General Assembly held in July 1984 in Nantes, France. Then General Secretary Klavs Wulff was a pragmatic person with broadminded vision for social work and humanitarian activities. The interview panel comprised Jean-Marie Schwartz of WUS France who also was the incumbent President of WUS International; Klavs Wulff as the General Secretary; G. S. Randhawa of WUS India; and Patrick Mangeni from WUS Uganda as WUS Executive Committee Members. The selection was approved by the 30 delegates at an Asia/Pacific regional meeting within the assembly.   

The Nantes WUS Assembly had the innovative theme “Academic Solidarity and Cooperation” for its policy workshop.  ‘Academic cooperation’ was not completely unknown then to educational events or conferences primarily conducted by UNESCO or associated organizations. However WUS added the concept of ‘academic solidarity’ to sharpen the meaning and take it to a higher level emphasizing the obligations on the part of academics to their counterparts in trouble. Mere academic cooperation previously was limited to institutions and researchers. Solidarity meant much more than cooperation signifying ‘academic unity and team spirit’ among academic communities in different regions, countries and cultures.  

Although there was solidarity was in practice in various projects and refugee scholarships for a long time in WUS, the new formulation resurrected the initial spirit that Ruth Rouse and others espoused in 1920 when the forerunner of WUS, European Student Relief (ESR) was founded.vii The Nantes workshop was a useful one in an intellectual sense. The delegates from France, India, Canada, Uganda, South Africa, Austria, Guatemala, Chile, the UK, Turkey, Canada, Germany, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka made important contributions. The objective was also solidarity and cooperation between WUS committees themselves, although this was not properly pursued thereafter. By this time, there were over 50 committees and active contact groups all over the world.viii  

The Assembly also appointed a Commission to carry forward the conclusions of the workshop. It was this commission, reorganized later, which developed the “Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education.” The initial members of the Commission included Harunur Rashid (Bangladesh and the new President of WUS International), Jean-Marie Schwartz (France), Patrick Mangeni (Uganda), Raul Molina (Guatamala), Gunduz Vassaf (Turkey) and Klavs Wulff as the General Secretary. I was also a member and served as the Secretary. Manfred Nowak was invited later to contribute his expertise as a member.ix 

The Assembly in Nantes also was a landmark in WUS history in terms of its subsequent problems. Klavs resigned from the General Secretary post, perhaps due to the pressure from conflictual regional/ideological politics. It was a setback for WUS in my experience. The new Executive Committee appointed Marco Gandasegui from Panama as the General Secretary, although some members tried to look for alternatives.x Marco was an academic from Panama just after his postgraduate education in the USA. He assumed duties in mid-1985 and served until the following General Assembly in Madrid in September 1986. During this period there was some instability at the Secretariat and WUS International. Nigel Hartley, General Secretary of WUK UK at the time, was selected as the new General Secretary during the Assembly in Madrid to end the instability. WUS Canada played a major role in this transformation.   

I remember three most capable Presidents of WUS International during the period. The outgoing President in 1984 was Jean-Marie Schwartz of WUS France, a reputed academic and an amicable person with a great sense of humour. Then was Harunur Rashid from WUS Bangladesh who had  long experience in academic research and WUS work, and later became the Director General of the reputed Bangla Academy in Bangladesh. I think the best problem solving President thereafter was Hugo Miranda from Chile who has had long experience in international organizations and public policy.     

At the ‘Villa’ or the Secretariat  

I joined the WUS International Secretariat in October 1984. After landing at the Geneva airport there as a luncheon meeting with Klavs and Simon Weersuriya at the nearby Transport Café, a familiar place for WUS staff and visitors. Simon, my predecessor, was working at the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) and gave me many useful advice on dealing with the committees and matters at the Secretariat. He followed Hema Dassanayake who was working then for WHO. It was my first experience working for an international organization.  

The staff and all were very welcoming, greeting me lightheartedly in different languages, perhaps to amuse me. The Associate Secretary for Latin America was Carroll Schwartz and for Africa, George Mayesta. Libby Visinand, Gail Hunter, Edith Sauber, Silvia Eggli, Inger Nordback, Lidia Gomez and others were also in the Secretariat, people from different countries and backgrounds. That was one beauty of the WUS International Secretariat. Some time later George was replaced by Trevor Abrahams and Carroll by Ximena Erazo.xi   

The spacious WUS Villa included a basement which lodged the valuable WUS archives, protecting the history of WUS since 1920.  Then there were two floors for reception, officers, a kitchen and a large room which could accommodate around 20 persons for a meetings and training sessions. In the garden were two or three plum trees, an additional ‘stimulus’ for the staff during the fruit season. Although neglected, irises bloomed during the autumn in the garden as well as in neighbouring gardens. It must be the reason why the lane from the main airport road was called Chemin des Iris.  

Back then the best fast communication was through fax. It worked well with some WUS committees but not with all. Letters, and in emergencies telephone calls, were the main modes of communication.  

At the beginning of my period, typewriters were used for letters, reports and minutes and then came a computers network within the Secretariat. The computerization of WUS office was primarily an initiative of Nigel Hartley in 1987, among his other initiatives. They included training in time management. I filled in for Nigel between his appointment in 1986 and his arrival at WUS in early 1987. He also visited Geneva frequently from London.  

Laksiri Fernando with Nigel Hartley

There was a boom in WUS activities in the late 1980s before it apparently took a dive. There was a time when there were 20 persons working in the office and the average budget of 14 million Swiss Francs peaked at over 20 million. The new faces that came to the office included Nora Wintour, Vera Zasulich, Carmen, Mark, Marcella, Martin Zak, Amaha Tsion and Yvonne Gregory. I resigned in September 1991 to migrate to Australia for family reasons. During my period I not only had the opportunity to work in the General Secretary’s Office but also to function as the Officer in Charge of WUS’s Human Rights Program.  

Apart from the Villa, WUS apparently owned three apartments to accommodate staff from distant countries. Alas, they are now gone. When my wife and son joined me in early 1985, Klavs generously allocated me the apartment he was living in at 10, Rue Henri-Frederic-Amiel. I was there for a while then handed it over it to another colleague.  

Klavs handed over the keys, with the advice to keep some extra umbrellas for visitors, if I held a late night party! I was puzzled. The story was that some friends of Klavs when leaving after probably a ‘noisy party’ had encountered icy water poured from the next apartment’s balcony during the thick of winter. There were strict rules in Switzerland about ‘noise pollution,’ ‘night visitors’ etc. particularly after 10.00pm. People imposed ‘punishments’ if these rules were violated.

Author profile
Laksiri Fernando

Dr Laksiri Fernando was senior lecturer, Political Science, University of Peradeniya before appointment as associate secretary, Asia/Pacific, WUS International from 1984 to 1991. Laksiri studied in Sri Lanka (BA Economics), Canada (MA Political Science) and Australia (PhD Human Rights) and migrated to Australia in 1991. He was deputy director, Human Rights Centre, University of NSW (1991-2); PhD scholar University of Sydney while teaching (1992-1995); executive director of the Diplomacy Training Program at the University of NSW (1995-97); returned to Sri Lanka as professor, Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo (1997-2010) where he served as dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies; Director, Centre for the Study of Human Rights, and Director, Peace Building Project, Ministry of Constitutional Affairs. He was also a member of the advisory committee to the president on Constitutional Reforms; director, Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and Television Training Institute; director and Chair, National Centre for Advanced Studies; and a director of the Colombo Stock Exchange. A Japan Foundation scholar (2005-6), and a visiting scholar in several countries, his two major academic publications are: Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka and Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Since retirement to Australia to join his family, he has focused on popular writing with many publications, and is now enjoying a focus on art.