Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lakshman Kadirgamar: Ardent campaigner against terrorism

Lakshman Kadirgamar, lawyer and politician: born Jaffna, Sri Lanka 12 April 1932; Called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1958; Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1994-2001, 2004-05; Honourary Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford 2004; married (one son, one daughter); died Colombo August 12, 2005.

Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was assassinated at his home in Colombo on August 12, 2005, had as profound a grasp of the threat posed by terrorist violence as any political leader in the world today.

He had known for almost a decade that he was a high-priority target for assassination by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Kadirgamar had a near-miss on December 18, 1999, when a suicide bomber attempted to kill President Chandrika Kumaratunga at an election rally.

Five men were killed, the president was injured but survived, and Kadirgamar, who had been due to accompany her to that meeting, escaped because he was unwell that day and didn't go. He knew that the LTTE had him, as well as other ministers, in their sights, and was under 24-hour military protection.

As he said in a speech in September 2000, "For us who have to live with terrorism, when we leave home in the morning there is no guarantee that we will come back at the end of the day, absolutely none whatever." Ironically it was at his private residence, where he had gone for a swim, that he was shot.

Earlier on the day of his death, he had realised a lifetime's dream when he launched a new academic journal, International Relations in a Globalising World, which was a key part of his long-term plan to raise the level of Sri Lanka's contribution to international diplomacy.

Kadirgamar began his turbulent political career at the age of 62, when other people are thinking of retiring. It was in 1994 that he entered Parliament for the first time, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs until 2001 and since 2004. Warm, outgoing, hard-working, and with a subtle and powerful intellect, he was outstandingly effective in that role.

He maintained a level of co-operation with the governments that mattered most to Sri Lanka - especially India, China, the United States and the UK - that had sometimes eluded his predecessors. His role in developing South Asian co-operation was perhaps his proudest single achievement.

Already when he entered politics, the terrorist campaign was a threat to Sri Lanka's long democratic traditions.

As Foreign Minister, notwithstanding his impeccable liberal record, he called for tough action against terrorists, not just within Sri Lanka, but also internationally.

Sri Lanka was a strong supporter of, and on his instructions the very first country to sign, the 1997 International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings. Long before 11 September 2001, he warned Americans of the need to get tough on the terrorist financing that was going on in their midst.

In London in 1998, at a meeting at Chatham House, he reminded his hosts that they, like the Americans, were turning a Nelsonian blind eye to organisations raising money for terrorist causes abroad.

A toughening of UK and US law against assisting terrorist campaigns was at last beginning to happen. In 1997 the LTTE was belatedly listed by the US government as a terrorist organisation. With typical realism, he attributed these changes more to the terrorist outrages of the 1990s than to his advocacy, coming as it did from a country that, he said, is "small, relatively weak, and relatively lacking in political clout".

Kadirgamar was born in Jaffna in 1932. A Tamil and a Christian, he came to be regarded as a renegade by the zealots of the LTTE but he pointed out, with impeccable logic, that the Tamils are not arranged tidily, but are intermingled with Sinhalese, Muslims and others on the map of Sri Lanka - so the attempt to set up a separatist state by force is a threat to them as much as to the other communities.

In speech after speech, he emphasised the need to maintain civil liberties while also acting decisively; the importance of understanding the political context in which terrorism arises; and the need to focus on the wrongfulness of terrorist acts.

As he put it, with characteristic clarity: Terrorism is a method - a particularly heinous one - rather than a set of adversaries or the causes they pursue. Terrorism is a problem of what people (or groups or states) do, rather than who they are or what they are trying to achieve.

As a young man growing up in post-independence Sri Lanka, he excelled at cricket, rugby and athletics. Coming to Balliol College, Oxford for graduate studies in law, he became President of the Oxford Union in 1959, and obtained a BLitt in 1960 for a thesis on "Strict Liability in English and Roman-Dutch Law".

In 2004 his connection with Oxford was renewed when he was elected an Honourary Fellow of Balliol, and in 2005 he spoke at the Oxford Union with characteristic elegance at the unveiling of a portrait showing him addressing that equally significant debating chamber, the UN General Assembly, which he did at least eight times.

In his long and distinguished legal career, he became a noted expert on intellectual property law, and for 12 years (1976-88) worked in Geneva in senior positions in the World Intellectual Property Organization. His most notable achievement as a lawyer, however, is much less well known.

When in 1963 he was asked to investigate the treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam, he became the first person to conduct a formal investigation in a country on behalf of Amnesty International. His report, which I obtained from him at the time, was unashamedly sympathetic to the Buddhists:

"I feel that the memory of their achievements cannot be allowed to fade without it being brought to the notice of the world that men of such calibre and integrity are still amongst us." Over 40 years later, the same might well be said about him.

courtesy: Daily News

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