Above all divisions

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington in June. - MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington in June. - MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

Lakshman Kadirgamar was a man above class, caste and creed. As Foreign Minister, he opened a new chapter in Sri Lankan policy.

BY 1994, Sri Lanka's position in the world was not at all enviable because of the negative publicity the county had attracted. Our prestige had hit the rock bottom. When President Chandrika Kumaratunga set up her government in 1994, Lakshman Kadirgamar was pursuing a very lucrative legal career in Britain and Switzerland. He gave up all that and came over to Sri Lanka to join the government and the President appointed him Foreign Minister.

Up to the time of his taking over in 1994, there was a lot of vicissitudes in the relations between the north and the south of Sri Lanka. With his advent into the Foreign Ministry, the President took the first step towards the peace process by sending a four-member delegation in October 1994. That was a very constructive approach by the President and Kadirgamar. With the Secretary to the President and three others, I had the opportunity to go to the north on October 13 and 14, 1994, and discuss with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) matters of a non-political nature to begin with.

It was purely a non-political mandate because the President's wish at that time was merely to clear the site for political issues to be taken up down the road towards peace - ultimate peace. That development heralded the beginning of Kadirgamar's foreign policy. He wanted permanent peace for our country. He was a Tamil, a non-Buddhist, but he had a vision of making peace with the north and the east. The first job he took was to advise the President with regard to the delegation that was sent.

From there onwards there was a series of meetings in Colombo and in the north. However, rather unfortunately, the third phase of war started by April 1995 and the government had to look at the peace process anew. Taking his cue from the situation, Kadirgamar went around the world to meet Foreign Ministers and heads of state to give a clear picture of what was happening in Sri Lanka.

By that time, the image of Sri Lanka had taken a beating - the Sinhala majority was being branded as war-mongers. The West and Asia were not ready to forget the "holocaust" of 1983. Therefore Kadirgamar thought he must get to the West and make clear to the people where we stood with regard to the peace process. It was a formidable task. He went right round the globe in order to strengthen the position of the Sri Lankan government.

Uppermost in his mind while dealing with the peace process - and which was admitted and accepted by most countries including India - was that the Sri Lankan policy must be taken as a composite whole. Sri Lanka was an entity with territorial integrity and in that space there ought to be and there shall be sovereignty - sovereignty of all the people of the country as represented in Parliament - for the north, the south, the west and the east.

So immense was his task. It was most challenging, and the people knew it was most challenging because he was a Tamil himself. I remember once at a television programme where I was present, the anchor asked him: "Mr. Minister you are a Tamil, aren't you?" Kadirgamar said: "I am from the Tamil community, but I am the Foreign Minister for the entire country, the whole of Sri Lanka, so I am the voice for all the peoples of this country."

Kadirgamar's mind was very clear. Being an eminent lawyer, this came from the application of a very incisive mind to any problem - whether legal, policy, or administrative. He could clearly think and put his views across, and from thereon he never wavered. To the last, his intention and his integrity were centred upon one thing - peace with dignity and peace for all people. While he abhorred any type of criminalisation of policies or terrorism, he always believed with conviction that with the expansion of criminalisation of that nature and terrorism, the democratic rights of the people got reduced and undermined.

He always balanced these two things. He said at any forum or to any individual that he preached a philosophy based on the highest principles of democracy. He appreciated freedom, he enunciated freedom - freedom of the individual, freedom of the collectiveness of the people, and freedom of association. Being an eminent lawyer - brought up in the best traditions of law and the public school spirit - he had the base of collective responsibility, he had the base of a good sportsmanship of give and take.

The war broke out in 1995, and with the government working towards the international ban, it was extremely difficult to convince the Western world, especially the European Union, and, of course, the United Nations. But he took up the matter with heads of state and senior government officials, for instance, at the Home Ministry in London and the State Department in Washington. At each of those meetings, I felt that he lucidly, but comprehensively, said that we had to be at an equal status to negotiate and discuss as to what extent we could achieve peace and as fast as possible. His point of view, strongly put across, was that terrorism and assassinations had to stop and the freedom of the individual had to be honoured and upheld.

IN the present Constitution there are only eight clauses on "Fundamental Rights", but in the October 2000 draft of the Constitution there were 23 clauses. Even the "Fundamental Rights" that are in subsidiary pieces of legislation were embodied in the 2000 draft Constitution. All this was made possible by the eminence of one man - Lakshman Kadirgamar. His advice to the various committees and to the President was that "Fundamental Rights" should be prioritised, and herein I must also mention the role played by Prof. G.L. Peiris, the then Minister of Constitutional Affairs.

For the first time, in the Foreign Ministry, Kadirgamar set up a ministerial committee meeting every month with all heads of departments such as the police and the armed forces, and the Defence Secretary on the violation of human rights. They were documented and taken up at the Human Rights Commission. There is a plethora of human rights institutions in the world, so we are answerable to them. He took upon himself the responsibility of monitoring human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

This shows how much he appreciated the question and the problem of violation of human rights.

Whomever he met, the one and only philosophy he put forward was clear: "Let us be a democratic nation and in order for that let everyone be a free man. Let there be no criminalisation, let there be no blood." That was one thing he did not ever contend with. This is the fundamental policy he shaped and formed during his career since 1994.

In 1999, the President stated that she had been thinking of another nation as a mediator in the peace process. She had gone by history - the Oslo Accord, the attempt to bring Israel and Palestine together. It was her belief that Norway would do it. Kadirgamar went one step further and said it was not a matter of negotiation or mediation, but a matter of facilitation.

I was involved in the beginning and we had frequent meetings about facilitation and all accepted the concept. He was of the opinion that India must play a role, but Indian polity and Indian foreign policy were such that India said it would wait, let Norway take the centre stage. Therefore, it began by 1999 and culminated with the ceasefire. That began a new chapter in Sri Lankan policy - largely set by Lakshman.

EVERY time there was a disaster and a predicament such as the bombing of a church or a civilian pocket, he came out openly against it. But one thing was that whenever he said that, people thought he could do more than what he could say. He, on his own, believed in the fact that he was the Foreign Minister for the whole of the country. He was a man without an electorate. The people who gathered at his funeral were not his voters. Therefore, he always believed in the fact that he could not be a traitor to his own people, when he was speaking for everybody in this country. He, I believe, was a man above caste, class or creed.

Kadirgamar was a relatively new entrant to the Foreign Ministry in 1994. His success is traced back to his days as a student. He was not a man who was only grounded in his books. He excelled as an all-rounder - in cricket, rugby and athletics. This means that he was a polished man, an all-rounder in his student days, and he had a quick grasp of facts.

We had three excellent Oxonians - S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Lalith Athulathmudali and Lakshman Kadirgamar - all three were gunned down by assassins. That is the tragedy of our country. Sri Lanka's history was written more in blood than in ink. We are losing our leaders one by one. The Tamil community is losing its leadership, one by one, and where do we go from here headless, leaderless?

Lionel Fernando served for five years under Lakshman Kadirgamar, including as Foreign Secretary between June 1999 and January 2001.

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