Lakshman Kadirgamar’s Death Anniversary:


The late Foreign Minister  Lakshman Kadirgamar
The late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar

Seventeen years ago, on a day like yesterday (August 12), a suspected LTTE terrorist snuffed out the life of Sri Lanka's best known and globally admired Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, at his residence in Colombo.

A lawyer, scholar, Statesman, gentleman and patriot, Kadirgamar spearheaded the mission of cleaning the tarnished image of Sri Lanka by exposing the image of the LTTE which had been championing its cause in the West as ‘freedom fighters'.

Between the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and the brutal crushing of a Southern insurgency, Sri Lanka ranked among the worst human rights violators of the world. Kadirgamar's strategy was not merely attempting to change the perceptions about the island through propaganda but to change realities on the ground. He led the campaign to ban the LTTE from several countries across the world by convincing them that by isolating terrorist activities in one country can lead it to become a global menace. He put a stop to many of the LTTE fund-raising activities. Amid war he focused on human rights and humanitarian law training for the military. He spoke about post-war peace with remarkable foresight and was aware that winning the peace of the minority communities would be a challenge.

Kadirgamar had a clear and steady mission for his country when he accepted the invitation to become Foreign Minister under former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994 at the age of 62. His dream was to build a multi-religious and multi-ethnic Sri Lanka where all communities could live in harmony.

A strong advocate of a proactive human rights policy, he refused to be defensive on human rights issues. While being strongly anti-LTTE, he supported with equal vigour the vision behind the Fundamental Rights Chapter of our Constitution that the Government’s job is not merely to defend its human rights record, but to defend human rights. The policy premise of the Foreign Office under him was that fighting terrorism and fighting for human rights are a binary task.

Soft-spoken yet fearless, this skilled orator managed to put the interfering international community in its place on several occasions. He was responsible for packing off two heads of UNDP who tried to interfere in the affairs of Sri Lanka at the time. This earned him recognition from Heads of States overseas. He did not mince his words but called a spade a spade. When Kadirgamar spoke, the international community listened.

Having had many achievements to his credit, his was in every sense of the word a multifaceted career. An illustrious past pupil of Trinity College and the alumnus of the University of Peradeniya and Sri Lanka Law College, Kadirgamar attributed much of his success to his Motherland. Before taking up a political career, Kadirgamar had practised as a distinguished lawyer both in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the UK, served as a Consultant at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, and as Director of Asia and the Pacific at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). In 1988 upon his return to Sri Lanka, he resumed his legal career and was appointed President's Counsel in 1991. The tremendous experience he gathered while serving these international organisations would have undoubtedly helped him perform his ministerial post well. He was also the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) from 1998 to 2001 and the Chairman of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) from 2003 to 2005. He was also a member of the Policy Advisory Commission of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

The late Minister did much to establish the Foreign Office as a strong and professional institution. He recruited promising young talent and encouraged research and in-house training. He had a distinctive ability to seek, select and engage experienced seniors as well as talented juniors in developing and crafting concepts, projects, and policy postures on a wide range of difficult issues. His attempts to establish a Professional Diplomatic Corps paid off as youth were encouraged to hone their talents and serve the sector with their skills rather than through political patronage. His tenure of office saw one of the largest contingents of career diplomats serving as Sri Lanka’s envoys.

A SLFS officer must today be fluent in the two national languages - Sinhala and Tamil - while being competent in English and at least one other international language. Each SLFS officer must obtain at least a master’s degree in international relations or a related subject before he or she completes 10 years in the service. A modern day career diplomat must be able to negotiate, communicate and be equipped with inter-personal skills in addition to the basic requirements.

Lakshman Kadirgamar may be no longer among us but his presence, personality and policies permeate through periods, and remain relevant in Foreign Policy discourse in Sri Lanka, in South Asia and beyond. He will be remembered for his honesty, courage and his larger than life personality. He will be remembered and honoured as a man who sacrificed his life for peace. The determined and democratic struggle he waged against the LTTE may have cost him his life, but his unparalleled contribution to safeguarding the unity, sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the country has certainly gone down in the annals of Sri Lankan history.


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