legacy to Lanka – a highly professionalised Foreign Service
YORK: An Indian journalist based at the United Nations recounts
the story of a wily cabinet minister many moons ago who looked rather
suspiciously at a visiting newspaperman, and asked him: “What
is that device you are carrying”.
it was a tape recorder, the minister told the reporter to leave
it outside the room, and then added bluntly: “You are denying
me the right to deny what I am going to tell you”.
the Indian minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar was never intimated by
tape recorders when he was interviewed by journalists, particularly
at the United Nations. Perhaps he was one of the few foreign ministers
who was forthright and outspoken -- even as the tape recorders kept
unlike most political leaders, he also never lowered his voice answering
questions on politically sensitive issues nor did he want his statement
struck-off the record or warned that his comments were not for attribution
-- phrases that most journalists do not want to hear fearing it
would kill their story or water down juicy quotes. Kadirgamar also
never ducked tough political questions, however sensitive they may
an interview in his hotel room at the UN Plaza back in September
1999, Kadirgamar made his now-famous statement about the political
restraints of the United Nations.
said that UN officials and non-governmental organisations had no
right to inject themselves into the domestic politics of a country
because they didn't have a mandate to do so.
the exception of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
-- involved in issues relating to humanitarian aid and refugees
-- other UN agencies have mandates only to be involved in social
and economic development of a country”, Kadirgamar said.
should be more concerned with malaria and mosquitoes -- not domestic
political issues'', he said, a quote that kept circulating round
the world in different forms and different variations from the original.
During one of his many visits to the UN, he also expressed concern
over the attitude and activities of some of the UN's humanitarian
and development agencies based in the country.
meeting with the then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he
said: "I told Boutros-Ghali I am not happy with some of the
UN personnel in Sri Lanka. In my scheme of things, my national interest
comes first, not the United Nations, or anything else".
said Boutros-Ghali was very understanding and responded by saying:
"Of course minister, the whole purpose of the UN system is
to help member states. We are at your disposal. We are your servants.
If you don't like something, you must tell me. So please write to
me if you have any problems".
said that "there are some UN personnel in Sri Lanka whose heart
is not in the right place. We don't know what their motives are,
and I will not tolerate it".
situation in Sri Lanka has apparently not changed much since the
days of Boutros-Ghali, with some senior UN officials still acting
the role of colonial-rule viceroys.
more than one occasion, Kadirgamar turned down UN offers to mediate
Sri Lanka’s long-festering political and ethnic problem saying,
''I don't think there are any prospects of UN or any other kind
of mediation for the resolution of our problem''. The Indians continue
to take a similar stand on Kashmir.
by Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka took a lead role in pushing for three international
conventions against terrorism. He consistently took the view that
most Western nations were ignoring LTTE’s fund-raising activities
in European capitals.
I told them about fund-raising for terrorist activities, they said,
‘no minister, it may be happening, but they are not breaking
our laws. So what can we do about it’”. Kadirgamar said
he had warned them that they were "nursing little monsters"
right at their door steps. But most of them did not heed his warnings.
The problems of terrorism have now come home to roost.
senior official of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation,
said Kadirgamar had a love-hate relationship with the world body.
For years, he refused to have the customary photo-op with Secretary-General
Kofi Annan; something most foreign ministers cherished during their
annual visits to the UN for the General Assembly sessions.
the UN’s 50th anniversary celebrations 10 years ago, he diplomatically
kept away from a highly prized photograph of world leaders taken
inside the UN precincts. Since he kept away at the eleventh hour,
an intruder from an UN-based organisation took his place in the
line-up, baffling UN officials who could not identify him because
the Sri Lanka Mission to the UN said the man in the photo was not
our foreign minister nor did he have the slightest resemblance to
everyone knows, Kadirgamar remained a high profile LTTE target ever
since he spearheaded an international campaign to have the Tigers
proscribed. At every General Assembly session he addressed, Kadirgamar
launched a vociferous attack on the LTTE branding it a terrorist
organisation and decrying the recruitment of child soldiers.As he
walked out of the Assembly hall once, he was surrounded by a group
of Sri Lankan diplomats, UN officials, and at least one visiting
cabinet minister who praised him for his courageous stand.
you guys cannot do it”, Kadirgamar told the minister who was
his cabinet colleague, “some one has to”. But one of
his greatest contributions was to the country’s Foreign Service
which he professionalized as no other foreign minister had. In his
last interview at the UN in September 2004, he predicted that Sri
Lanka will have a first class Foreign Service in the next 10 to
15 years, as most of the recruits during his tenure wound up as
heads of missions overseas.
his leadership, Sri Lanka opened new embassies in South Africa,
Qatar and Jordan and re-opened our mission in the Philippines. He
once described Sri Lanka’s Honorary Consul in a Middle Eastern
country as “a rogue”.
always admitted that the Foreign Service had a “huge hole”
in the middle. “We always picked the cream of the crop”,
he said, at a time when the foreign ministry picked 14 out of 1,200
applicants. “This is my contribution to the future”,
he admitted in one his interviews, pointing out that he will recruit
at least five of seven career diplomats every year to fill the gap
created by senior officers who had reached the age of retirement.
several occasions, he had trusted the judgement of senior career
diplomats when making final decisions. When Sri Lanka was planning
to run for a seat in the Security Council (which it later voluntarily
conceded to South Korea), Kadirgamar was asked whether Sri Lanka
should stand down in favour of another Asian country. He looked
at the reporter sitting with him at the UN delegate’s dining
room and countered with another question: “What did Nihal
was willing to go along with an opinion that was to be expressed
by one of our highly rated career diplomats, Nihal Rodrigo, then
a minister-counsellor at the Sri Lanka Mission to the UN, and currently
our Ambassador to China.
Corea, a former Ambassador to the US and ex-editor of the Daily
News and the Observer, agreed that Kadirgamar made a lasting contribution
to the Sri Lanka foreign service.
has already been said, and more will be written, about his commitment
to creating a just and equitable society in Sri Lanka”, Corea
said. “An equally important aspect of his legacy is his role
of leadership in restoring dignity, professionalism, and self-respect
to Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry”.
he had lived and worked abroad, Kadirgamar was a newcomer to managing
a country’s foreign relations when he began life as Sri Lanka’s
foreign minister, Corea pointed out. “He learned quickly,
as he always did. He conducted himself with both confidence and
elegance. He was never fazed by the fact that he represented a small
won the respect of his peers across the world, as the messages that
have poured in to Colombo demonstrate. He did not use his reputation
to feed his vanity, but as an instrument to strengthen his country’s