A decade ago this month, an LTTE assassin snuffed out the life of Sri Lanka’s best known and widely admired Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, also known as ‘LK’ by the stalwarts at the Colombo Foreign Office. Much has happened since. The armed conflict, the resolution of which the late minister was deeply seized of, had [...]


Remembering his legacy as we head for polls


A decade ago this month, an LTTE assassin snuffed out the life of Sri Lanka’s best known and widely admired Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, also known as ‘LK’ by the stalwarts at the Colombo Foreign Office. Much has happened since. The armed conflict, the resolution of which the late minister was deeply seized of, had ended but conflict by other means continued. The election-prone people of Sri Lanka have changed governments and presidents. Sri Lankan democracy suffered at times but on the whole, withstood the vagaries inherent in these changes. Lakshman Kadirgamar would have felt happy about some of these developments. The promise of reform and progress these developments had brought about remain, but an inventory of governance and foreign policy challenges grew. The late minister would not have been happy about that.

Lakshman Kadirgamar

Having ended the armed conflict despite the humanitarian challenges that process entailed, Sri Lanka appears to be burdened with quite a case load of human rights problems. The Kadirgamar advice on that score would have been that our governance and diplomacy should be geared to prevent human rights problems from becoming foreign policy problems. He would say ‘when you get your governance act right, getting your human rights diplomacy right would become less of a problem’. LK was a strong advocate of a proactive human rights policy. He refused to be defensive on human rights. While being strongly anti-LTTE, he would support with equal vigor, the idea and indeed the spirit embedded in the Fundamental Rights Chapter of our Constitution that the Government’s primary job is not to defend its human rights record, but to defend human rights.

The Foreign Office under his watch did not accept, and in fact challenged the contention that human rights are a Western concept and that they are alien to our ethos, Buddhist or other. The late minister was firm in his belief that human rights cannot and need not be allowed to become diplomatic burdens, bilateral or multilateral. To ensure this, he and his Foreign Office advocated a wholesome and twin-track approach, i.e. independent and robust functioning of the judicial and law enforcement machinery at home, and vigorous preventive diplomacy abroad. Resolutions and other strictures as well as confrontational diplomacy inimical to Sri Lanka interests were thus avoided or minimised. LK’s preference towards discreet preventive diplomacy as against noisy reactive approaches did not mean that he was espousing a policy of meek diplomacy. He articulated the national brief emphatically and cogently without indulging in self-destructive polemics that could precipitate or heighten controversies that are harmful to Sri Lanka interests.

The late minister did much to restructure 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 for seniors. His tenure of office saw the largest contingent of career diplomats serving as Sri Lanka envoys. Ironically, LK’s efforts towards professionalising the Foreign Service came to fruition in the immediate aftermath of his assassination when effective lobbying by Foreign Service Officers brought about a regime of EU sanctions on the LTTE culminating in the EU listing of the LTTE as a terrorist outfit in 2006. LK, who did so much to make it happen, did not live to see it happen.

Minister Kadirgamar would have been happy to see the convergence of democratic forces and the ascendency of consensual politics as was evident in recent times. He was a strong advocate of consensus building on national issues, especially on the ethnic front. He 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 descent conduct.” (Hansard of April 10, 1997).

LK worked tirelessly to promote bipartisan approaches to foreign policy and political decision making. The so-called Liam Fox agreement remains a unique, if controversial, Kdirgamar effort in the realm of promoting such common ground. His plea for such a political culture on critical national issues resonates with greater poignancy today. More so, at a time when the forces of reconciliation appear to take sustained pounding from the forces of polarisation in the unforgiving battlegrounds of electoral politics in this country. Six years since the ending of the armed conflict and ten years since the demise of Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lankan politics seems to be still mired in what the late minister described as ‘self-induced myopia’. Surveying the current political scene, one is left with the foreboding feeling that “the myopia syndrome” is likely to continue to blur our collective vision for a secure and peaceful future.
As Sri Lanka heads for another ‘defining election’ just five days after the tenth death anniversary of Lakshman Kadirgamar, it is perhaps fitting to recall a truism he 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 until this opportunity comes again,” he asked. (Hansard Aug. 2000)

At this juncture of our national affairs, Lakhsman Kadirgamar would have said we need consensus builders. We do not need polarity builders. Nor do we need destructive posturing. Although nothing is worth at any cost, we do need good faith negotiations and consensus on national issues, which by definition necessitates compromises. Whilst we must never negotiate out of fear, we must never fear to negotiate either. It is time for our political leadership of all sides to ‘hammer out those compromises’ that Lakshman Kadirgamar was talking about more than a decade ago.

(Mr. Palihakkara was Foreign Secretary at the time of the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination in 2005 and served in the post till his retirement from the Foreign Service. He is currently Governor of the Northern Province).

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