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28th February 1999

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Hectic but rewarding

By Roshan Peiris

Desmond Fernando one of Sri Lanka's most distinguished civil lawyers put the country into high perspective, when he was elected President of the renowned International Bar Association (IBA) in 1996.

Mr. Desmond FernandoHe was only the second person from Asia, Latin America and Africa to be elected to this exalted position in the IBA which has a membership of 120 countries.

"Many people in the countries I visited did not know where Sri Lanka was. They thought it was in Latin America because my name was Fernando. But both the Presidents of Syria and Tunisia knew Ms. Bandaranaike well and expressed admiration for her," he said.

Mr. Fernando found President Mennen of Argentina an interesting figure. "He told me I must watch the 'tango' if I were to understand the ethos of the people of Argentina. He gave me a book to read on the tango and I watched a performance. It apparently depicts the social liberation, aspirations and mores of the middle class, lower middle class and workers," Mr. Fernando said.

One of the most outstanding men Mr. Fernando believes he met during his IBA days was Nelson Mandela, the godfather of modern South Africa. He was, according to Desmond, keen on starting an East African Law Association.

"I was impressed by his immense knowledge of all of Africa and even Sri Lanka. He asked me to tell President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whom he once or twice referred to as Mrs. Bandaranaike's daughter that she must learn to co-operate with the leader of the opposition if she wanted to have a fruitful open market economic policy.

"I said it would carry more clout were Mandela to do so himself. He readily agreed and said he was meeting her shortly in New Zealand and would speak to her about it," Mr. Fernando said.

He also spoke warmly of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who he said was the main speaker at the fiftieth anniversary of the IBA.

The IBA began its Standing Committee on Human Rights after Mr. Fernando was elected Secretary General in 1992. His name was recommended by Sweden, Japan, India and England.

To the question, what part women played in the IBA, Desmond said none held office except Dianna Kemp Q.C. from Bermuda who became Secretary-General and later Vice-President."But there were many women Chairmen of Committees. There were sixty committees. They were also heads of various departments except the Finance Department."

Mr. Fernando reminisced that when he was President the first thing he did was to make out a case for GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). This concurred with the free movement not only of goods but all services including law services.

"I had a discussion with officials of GATT in Geneva on the principles that must be followed in exchange of services."

Mr. Fernando said as President he travelled a lot and his airfare and hotel meals were paid for by the IBA.With characteristic humour he said: "Any extras I had to pay for."

Mr. Fernando also spoke of how he was chosen Vice Chairman of the newly formed Standing Committee on Human Rights. He obviously impressed this august gathering, for he was elected Secretary General later on.

He recalled that he was responsible for sending IBA missions to Kenya to report on the human rights situation there. "I was able to hold a dialogue with Kenya's Attorney General, Amaswoko in London. One-by-one, I am glad to say we were able to implement the recommendations of the IBA," he said. A mission was also sent to Pakistan headed by Nick Cowdrey, Q.C. He too went to look into the human rights situation and also to hold the first ever seminar on human rights there." Mr. Fernando said: "It was a hectic two years travelling.But it was enjoyable. Once I travelled down from here to San Francisco and had to make a speech just after landing. It was tiring no doubt, but one got a sense of purpose in doing so."

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