Lakshman Kadirgamar’s Legacy

H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, in Sunday Times, 11 August 2019, where the title is “Lakshman Kadirgamar: The Legacy of an Icon”

Fourteen years ago this month, a suspected LTTE assassin snuffed out the life of Sri Lanka’s best known and widely admired Foreign Minister — Lakshman Kadirgamar. The media reported recently that authorities in Germany had arrested a suspect connected to this crime. This news brings into sharp relief the sorry state of accountability in our country. Even after fourteen long years, we have not yet been able to conclusively investigate and prosecute a single offender involved in this ghastly act of terror. Much else has happened though.

Mr. Kadirgamar’s diplomacy, while advocating human rights, prevented human rights issues from becoming foreign policy problems

The armed conflict had ended but conflict by other means has continued. We thought the scourge of terrorism was over but the Easter Sunday atrocity showed that like a hydra-headed monster, it can rise again in different forms.

Using their free franchise, the people of Sri Lanka have changed Governments and Presidents. Sri Lankan democracy suffered but withstood the vagaries inherent in the debased politics that underlie these changes. Lakshman Kadirgamar would have felt happy about the resilience of our democracy. He knew democracy is vulnerable though. “……democracy is vulnerable, it is fundamentally constrained, limited by the demands of democratic practice and tradition. A democracy even at a time of war has to remember the rule of law, the freedom of the press and all those requisites of a practising democracy……”

Belying the early optimism of reform and progress brought about by these electoral changes, the inventory of the country’s governance and public policy deficits grew. The domain of foreign policy was no exception to this and the late Minister would not have been happy about that.

Having terminated the armed conflict in the face of many military, diplomatic and humanitarian challenges inherent in that process, Sri Lanka appeared to have been burdened with a large case load of human rights issues. In the face of this predicament, a typical Kadirgarmar-ism would be to gear governance and diplomacy to prevent human rights issues from becoming foreign policy problems. The fact that both the former and current Governments have failed this test would have caused him much concern and pain.

He was a strong advocate of a proactive human rights policy and refused to be defensive on human rights issues. While being strongly anti-LTTE, he supported with equal vigour the idea encapsulated in 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. Under his watch, the policy premise of the Foreign Office was that fighting terrorism and fighting for human rights are a binary task and the causes are not mutually exclusive. It also did not accept the argument that human rights are a Western concept and that they are alien to our ethos, Buddhist or other. In fact, the contrary was the truth. Four years before his untimely demise, Minister Kadirgamar told Parliament that human rights legislation is “going to outlive all of us” and that “who knows, some of us may need it ourselves one day!”. As it turned out, these were prophetic words indeed!

At the same time, the late Minister was also firm in his belief that human rights cannot and need not, be allowed to ‘migrate’ abroad for external dispensation. To ensure this, he advocated a holistic and twin track approach, i.e. independent and robust functioning of the judicial, investigative and law enforcement mechanisms at home and ‘preventive diplomacy’ abroad, the latter firmly supporting international cooperation but not impractical intrusiveness. ‘Undeliverable’ Resolutions or other intrusive strictures as well as confrontational diplomacy inimical to Sri Lanka interests were thus avoided or minimised. Under that regime, instructions to the Geneva and New York bound delegations were that they should not shoulder good looking ‘wish lists’ but ‘negotiate’ deliverable outcomes based on our national interests.

Mr. Kadirgamar’s preference for discreet preventive diplomacy against noisy and reactive approaches did not mean that he was espousing meek diplomacy. His tenure ensured that Sri Lanka articulated its point of view firmly and cogently without indulging in unproductive polemics that could precipitate or aggravate confrontations that are harmful to Sri Lanka interests.

The late Minister did much to revitalise the Foreign Office as a strong and professional institution not only by recruiting promising young talent but also by encouraging research and in-house training. It is, therefore, no surprise that he is fondly remembered as ‘LK’! He had this 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 range of difficult issues.

He did set high bars. This would have been challenging to some but rewarding to performers. He also took time over details when needed. I recall him telling a colleague who presented a hastily prepared guest list — ‘my dear, this is a pretty poor list for a rather expensive dinner!’ After a taxing meeting at the Ministry, at which a particular participant could not make his presence felt, LK commented dryly ‘there goes a gentleman without a single thought in his mind!’ His humour was both educative and biting!

His tenure of office saw one of the largest contingents of career diplomats serving as Sri Lanka’s envoys. Ironically, the late Kadirgamar’s largely successful efforts to professionalise the Foreign Service came to fruition in the immediate aftermath of his own passing. It happened the following year when demarches by Sri Lanka brought about a regime of EU sanctions on the LTTE leading to it being included in the EU’s list of terrorist organisations – (May 2006). The late Minister, who did so much to make it happen, did not live to see it happen. The task was left to the institution he nurtured and loved. The Foreign Ministry and its missions pursued the project to its successful conclusion through quiet but effective diplomatic work.

That, perhaps was the first instance of a Collective of European nations slapping such punitive sanctions on a ‘peace talking’ armed group.

However, there were no roadside bill boards advertising ‘diplomatic victory’. There was no triumphalism. Mercifully and thankfully, there were no plane loads of ‘VIPs’ invading European capitals to lobby! It was all done by humble public servants.

It was perhaps the most fitting way to pay homage to the LK brand of diplomacy – hard-nosed and sans fanfare. Minister Kadirgamar would have been pleased with the presence of professionalism in that effort. He would not have been displeased with the absence of those ‘VIP’ elements either.

The late Minister would have appreciated the convergence of ‘democratic forces’ and the ascendency of consensual politics promised in recent times. He was a strong advocate of consensus building on national issues, especially on the ethnic front. He in fact argued that there is an ‘inherent flaw’ in democracy that can ‘assert itself from time to time to the detriment of all’, where democratic parties ‘yield to the temptation to play politics with fundamental national issues’ that should ideally be dealt with by consensual discussions. He advised those quarrelling politicians: “We must seek to bring ourselves back on to the rails of decent conduct.”

The exodus of ‘decent conduct’ from all gates of that building we call our Parliament, as seen recently, would have caused him a great deal of disappointment, even anger.

The late Minister worked tirelessly to promote bipartisan approaches to foreign policy and political decision making. His plea for a bipartisan political culture on national issues resonates with greater relevance today as the forces of polarisation seek to overwhelm the forces of reconciliation.

Ten years since the ending of the armed conflict and fourteen years since that dreadful assassination, Sri Lankan politics seem to be still mired in what the late Minister described as ‘self-induced myopia’. Surveying the current political scene, one is left with the disturbing feeling that ‘the myopia syndrome’ appears to continue to blur our collective vision for a secure and peaceful future.

As Sri Lanka heads for yet another ‘defining election’ in the near future, it is perhaps fitting to recall a truism the late Minister articulated in Parliament five years before his death, “We must never forget that people are always looking at us and saying what are the legislators from all sides of the house, whom we sent to Parliament, doing? …ultimately people are not going to be fooled…. Surely they will rightly say that these people are behaving irresponsibly. People expect, I do not draw lines here, all of us to put our heads together and hammer out compromises. If we fail, we fail the Nation. How much bloodshed is to go on until this opportunity comes again?”.

At this juncture of our national affairs, Lakshman Kadirgamar would have asked our leaders to be consensus builders. We hardly need more partisans. Nor do we need more destructive and divisive posturing. Whilst nothing is worth at any cost, we do need good faith negotiations and consensus on national and public policy issues impacting our vital national interests like security, foreign policy and economic policy, including FDI matters. These by definition necessitate compromises over parochial interests so that larger national interests can be advanced.

It was clear that LK was a firm believer of President John Kennedy’s counsel – ‘whilst we must never negotiate out of fear, we must never fear to negotiate.’ It is time for our political leadership of all sides to enter good faith negotiations on critical public policy issues to ‘hammer out those compromises’ that the late Minister was talking about nearly two decades ago.

Many have written and spoken, and rightly so, about the paucity of enlightened leadership in the country – a leadership that can rise above those parochial interests and become a true catalyst for consensus building. The country is caught up in a prolonged leadership drought. The next election will certainly change faces. What else will it change? Hopefully some, but probably not much? Will consensual thinking remain a chimera? Had LK lived longer, could he have helped end this drought or at least mitigate the thirst? But he is no more, and the rest can only be conjecture.

HMGS Palihakkara was Foreign Secretary during the tenure of Lakshman Kadirgamar as the Foreign Minister of  Sri Lanka

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