Kadir’s legacy to Lanka – a highly professionalised Foreign Service
NEW 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”.

Told 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”.

Unlike 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 running.

And 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 be.

In 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.

He 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.

“With 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.

''They 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.

After 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".

Kadirgamar 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".

Kadirgamar 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".

The 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.

On 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.

Prodded 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.

“When 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.

A former 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.

At 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 Kadirgamar.

As 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.

“If 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.

Under 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”.

Kadirgamar 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.

On 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 tell you”.

Kadirgamar 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.

Ernest 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.

“Much 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”.

Although 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 country.

He 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 cause”.

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