Comprehending Kadirgamar: Relevance of the man and his mission, 15 years after his demise

Saturday, 15 August 2020 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Facets of Sri Lankan Foreign Policy at the end of the 20th century and its significance in 2020
Lakshman Kadirgamar may have passed, but his presence, personality and policies permeate through periods, and remain relevant in Foreign Policy discourse in Sri Lanka, in South Asia and beyond

A decade-and-a-half after his assassination, Lakshman Kadirgamar remains an iconic figure whose presence, personality and policies were influential, not just from the perspective of an individual but more for a country and its relations with the world. As Sri Lanka sees the formation of a new cabinet in August 2020 in the wake of a General Election, it is fitting to reflect on that which has been, especially in the Foreign Policy arena, and the contribution of an individual, facets of which remain relevant to date.

At this juncture, an attempt is being made, to examine the challenges back in 1994 and the manner in which they were dealt with, and thereby reflect on the present and identify the concerns that lie ahead, and the means through which they can be addressed. This is being done with emphasis on three particularly aspects though numerous others exist. 

While the formulation of Foreign Policy remains within the remit of the Executive branch of Government, the minister assigned with the portfolio of Foreign Affairs is also answerable to the Legislature. As such the Foreign Minister walks a fine line in having to work closely with the President of the country, and with Parliament, while also promoting issues of national interest, internationally. The network internationally includes the foreign missions based in Colombo and Sri Lankan missions across the world, leaders and counterparts of countries with which bilateral relations have been established, as well as international organisations to which the country has varied forms of involvement ranging from being a full member, to observer or dialogue partner. 

The selection of an individual to undertake such a task remains challenging. Whilst the Prime Minister retained the portfolios of External Affairs and Defence from 1948 onwards, the process was altered when J.R. Jayewardene appointed A. C. S. Hameed, making him the first non-Prime Ministerial Foreign Minister. From then onwards, many have occupied the position and made noteworthy contributions to the sphere of diplomacy and Foreign Policy in Sri Lanka. 

Foreign Policy formulation and implementation remain crucial elements in any country. It is more critical in a country that, possessing much potential, has had to bear the brunt of violence, bloodshed and conflict and yet strive to reach out to the international community, fulfil responsibilities on the global stage and also remain a reliable and relevant player in the world. In 1994, it was a daunting task. It could be argued that in 2020, while the circumstances have changed, prejudices and biases on the part of influential stakeholders in the world, remain, and require a strategic approach. 

The decision by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994, to bring Lakshman Kadirgamar into the political framework commenced a political journey of a little more than a decade. From those initial discussions, before she became Prime Minister, to the period that was to follow with many variations along the way, spanning almost the entirety of her presidency, the two personalities enjoyed a relationship which was unique in many ways, and hugely beneficial to the country. Her knowledge of the field of Foreign Affairs and his expertise and experience resulted in the creation of a highly conducive environment. Never before, or after has the country seen such a process of bonding between a president and foreign minister, as that which was evident during their time in office. 

Human rights

Addressing the fifty first session of Commission on Human Rights at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, in February 1995, Kadirgamar spelt out in detail the measures taken and those which were envisaged, in the human rights sector. The tone was set in that speech through which he explained the steps taken in the United Nations, and with influential global players and highlighted the commitments of the government in a transparent and unambiguous manner. Noting the concerns that had been raised over human rights, he expressed confidence that the mechanisms that had been initiated would change the discourse on Sri Lanka. 

These measures included the rescinding of emergency regulations, the appointment of three commissions to investigate disappearances, the strengthening of the powers of the Ombudsman, the finalising of plans for the establishment of a human rights commission and the ratification of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the enactment of relevant legislation. He had also appointed a five – member group of experts from non-governmental entities to advise him and to ensure that he remained abreast of international developments in the arena of human rights. 

That which was done in those opening months of the Kumaratunga presidency would change the tide, mend relations, and ensure stability in ties with crucial players in the world, the UN and its affiliated agencies but more importantly portrayed Sri Lanka in positive light as a country determined to make a worthy contribution and be counted in the world. 

Fast forward to 2020, and Sri Lanka faces a plethora of issues internationally. It is the government of the day which is now being called upon to respond to these issues, ensure understanding prevails and guarantee Sri Lanka a position among equals. While COVID-19 caused a lull period of hibernation, the virus having taken its course, will begin to recede, but the challenges that Sri Lanka faces in the human rights arena in particular will resurface once again. It is here that a pragmatic approach becomes essential. Instilling confidence in the international community will be the biggest task of the new Foreign Minister, who will need to adopt measures akin to that which were undertaken two and a half decades ago. A proactive approach, wherein questions are answered before they are asked, measures are highlighted before they are raised, and action is justified before it is required would draw international attention but more importantly convey clarity of thought and deed. 

This clarity in communication is a pressing need of the hour. Governments and their leaders failed in the past on several fronts due to their inability to communicate effectively and others succeeded owing to their ability to perfect the art of effective communication. The outline provided by Kadirgamar in 1995 cleared concerns that may have existed in the minds of the international community, conveyed genuineness of action and resulted in the adoption of a cooperative and consensual rather than coercive approach to human rights issues. It went further, in guaranteeing the people of Sri Lanka their due rights and instilled confidence in the government and its leadership. A template was thus created by Kadirgamar. One which should be dusted, discussed and developed to address the challenges that lie ahead as Sri Lanka prepares to face the upcoming human rights sessions in Geneva. It is also noteworthy that Geneva might be a part of the UN system but it does not comprise the totality of the UN. Sri Lanka has enjoyed the best of relations with numerous UN organisations and agencies since before the country became a fully-fledged member of the UN in New York in 1955. These bonds require due focus, adequate strengthening, and greater involvement by the country if Sri Lanka is to reap the benefits of multilateralism in 2020, a century after the world adopted this additional course of diplomatic engagement, with the establishment of the League of Nations. 

Kadirgamar himself measured the effectiveness of the template he created in 1995, when he addressed the Human Rights Commission in March 2005, in what would become his last speech on that platform. He explained the ‘concerted and determined efforts to rebuild the nation’ after the tsunami; noting the ‘unreserved commitment towards promoting and protecting human rights both nationally and internationally’ based on ‘our national ethos derived from age-old traditions as well as our commitment to democracy and freedom’; the strengthening of the national human rights protection system ‘in line with Sri Lanka’s constitutional and international obligations as a party to seventeen international human rights instruments including all seven major human rights conventions and treaties; the zero tolerance policy on torture; and the establishment of human rights directorates in the three armed forces and police. 

While it might be argued that Kadirgamar was responding to international concern, having to explain the course of action of the state, or defending the positions adopted by the country, it is also relevant to note that his expression of commitment to ‘engage with all members of the Commission on Human Rights to narrow differences, reach consensus and to ensure contribution to the common goal of promoting and protecting human rights’ created a highly conducive environment for the government to operate in. This had positive repercussions in other spheres of engagement of the state, and augured well for Sri Lanka, a country although considered small has been one which possessed and continues to possess vast untapped potential, which is often stifled in the international arena. 

The process of reviewing a policy, its means of implementation and the outcomes originally desired, results in the activation of a highly effective mechanism. Often policies once formulated, are directed to be implemented and seldom reviewed to measure effectiveness. By taking stock internationally, Kadirgamar displayed transparency. This lucidity gave rise to a greater degree of openness which was appreciated, and which further consolidated the trust established by the government. 

The situation of 2020 though varied in nature also pivots upon the building of trust, similar to that which was required in 1994. The government is called upon today to strengthen the network of allies that already exist, construct new bridges of connectivity and promulgate proactive measures, which would essentially build trust where it doesn’t exist or is relatively weakened. The ability of the government to reach out to the international community as a whole and directly address issues of concern, explain stances taken or those that would not be taken, and engage continuously with the wider spectrum of states with which irregular contact exists, would see a marked shift in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic engagement. 

Sri Lanka needs to significantly assume a human rights position which includes forthright deliberation, strategic policies and concrete action, which is relentless in nature and unyielding in implementation. 


Sri Lanka had joined the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 at its inception and when Kadirgamar entered the national fray in 1994, he identified the need to ‘secure South Asia’. Identifying three ingredients, Kadirgamar stated that political will was a primary factor, as was regional security and cooperation as well as the ability to talk freely and frankly to each other in the region. This approach which became a cornerstone of Foreign Policy formulation with regard to South Asia in the Kumaratunga administration was carefully nurtured and actively pursued by both the President and Foreign Minister in their dealings with their counterparts in SAARC. 

In 2000, the Foreign Minister in discussing the immense amount of potential and boundless possibilities of SAARC opined that “It has to happen. We will overcome the problems that beset us now. There are problems that bedevil relations among some of us. They are intractable, but not insoluble. There is a vast reservoir of goodwill among all the peoples of our region which in time will propel the member states concerned to get together, to bury their differences and move SAARC along.”

He was speaking in the backdrop of numerous challenges that the organisation had faced. The first half of the 90s had seen practical steps being taken with the South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) signed in 1993, and activated in 1995; the establishment of the SAARC Trade Chamber; the setting up of the Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians; and the holding of subject specific Ministerial Meetings. 

In 1997, on Sri Lanka’s proposal, member states agreed to ‘a process of informal political consultations’ to promote peace, stability, amity and accelerated socio-economic cooperation. Yet the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998 shook the region but intense diplomacy by Sri Lanka and solid networks in the region resulted in the Colombo Summit being successfully concluded later that year. Here attention was focused on regional issues, their impact on individual countries and the growing challenges if the impact was not addressed at an initial stage. Pushing the need for a common approach Sri Lanka was able to positively influence stability and action in South Asia. 

In the run up to 2020, SAARC appeared to be trying very hard to prove Kadirgamar wrong. His strong belief that problems can be overcome and that the goodwill of people will prevail and propel members forward, remains a guiding star for the South Asian region. Sri Lanka had a golden opportunity in 2016, when the Summit in Islamabad was on the verge of being postponed, to intervene on behalf of the region and all its members. The leadership at the time could have salvaged the Summit through shuttle diplomacy using the good offices of a senior Sri Lankan leader, acceptable to both India and Pakistan.  That opportunity was lost. 

2020 has given rise to new opportunity. The rigours of the virus saw the initiation of a virtual summit in March by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The leadership responded to the crisis, deliberated on potential action and promised closer collaboration. The decision of Prime Minister Modi to revisit SAARC and thereby strengthen his neighbourhood policy, is a timely measure which requires concerted action by all, especially Sri Lanka. As a country that enjoys close ties with India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka must remain alert, available and active in thwarting any attempts to derail SAARC, or prove its irrelevance. 

Neighbourhoods are important. This is especially so for small countries which co-exist with bigger ones. It is in the interest of South Asia to ensure closer collaboration, and equally necessary for Sri Lanka to play a pivotal role in promoting this closer collaboration. South Asia is an entity based on geography, which cannot be changed. Its potential effectiveness was highlighted at its inception, reiterated over the ensuring decades and is still relevant in 2020. 

Foreign Service

While the best of policies can be formulated it is in the implementation that they are truly tested. The process of formulation might have been the most efficient, but if the means of implementation falter, the endeavour will fail. The Foreign Service of Sri Lanka is the conduit through which Foreign Policy is implemented, and has possessed members who have made vast strides internationally which have resonated well and reflected Sri Lanka in the most positive of light. 

Kadirgamar, being aware of the need for a strong, vibrant force to implement policy, painstakingly focused on the recruitment of such individuals. His ‘army’ had to do battle on many fronts in tackling an abundance of issues that beset Sri Lanka in the ’90s. This force that he ventured to strengthen was to be the vanguard of Sri Lanka internationally tasked with being the first responders on the ground in capitals around the world. 

Their failure would result in the failure of the administration’s policies. It would result in the breakdown of effective communication. It would halt the noteworthy measures adopted within Sri Lanka. It would also undermine him, as Foreign Minister and the efforts he was taking to champion the positions and stances of Sri Lanka. He gave due emphasis to this integral component in the cycle of Foreign Policy formulation and implementation. An examination of Kadirgamar’s time in office is not merely one in which a single person accomplished everything that happened, or one in which he and President Kumaratunga reaped the fruit of an effective Foreign Policy alone. The contribution of the Foreign Service was critical for them. 

This contribution was ably supported with individuals drawn from outside the Service, who were credited for progress in their chosen fields and would, it was believed bring value to the Foreign Policy equation. Many shone, some may have not, which is a situation that is relatable to the Foreign Service as well. However of significance was Kadirgamar’s concentration on improving the Foreign Service and ensuring it possessed the capacity to face the growing challenges of the world in general, and Sri Lanka in particular. 

In the current phase, the Foreign Service remains a crucial element in the armoury of the State. However the role played by the diplomat is rapidly changing and those in the Foreign Service and those responsible in recruiting officers need to realise that the era of the generalist is passing. Diplomacy needs specialists who are able to advise, create awareness, and draw attention to that which is occurring regional and beyond, but also be proactive in preparing for that which can occur. Being articulate is the need of the hour. 

There was a time when diplomats were the main point of contact between leaders. They are not anymore. Leaders would rely on diplomats to convey messages, both verbal and written. They don’t anymore. Today leaders are talking, travelling, texting and tweeting with each other, resulting in the role of the diplomat changing drastically and causing the person to evolve to meet the changing times, or get left behind in the march of progress. 

Education plays a pivotal role in enhancing specialisation. While foreign ministries of neighbouring countries and regions focus heavily on improving the capacity of their diplomats, they do so through thorough programmes of education in International Relations, Foreign Policy and Diplomacy; skills development especially pertaining to negotiation and communication; as well as ensuring a sound understanding of the past and its intricacies, and the present and its unfolding developments. The consequential advancements and achievements they continuously make in the international arena are a testimony to that which they sowed. 

The road ahead

Whilst President Gotabaya Rajapaksa steps out on a stable footing of governance following the victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna at the recently-concluded General Election, the need to focus on three crucial elements in the foreign Policy arena remain relevant. 

There will be economic challenges ahead, trade issues to contend with, and large power rivalry to steer away from, but most significant is the need to focus on the issue of human rights; promote a sound neighbourhood policy through an effective contribution to regionalism in South Asia, and through the numerous groupings that Sri Lanka is a party to; and convert the Sri Lanka Foreign Service from a force of the past to one that is equipped to be in the vanguard of Sri Lanka on the international stage. 

Kadirgamar may have passed, but his presence, personality and policies permeate through periods, and remain relevant in Foreign Policy discourse in Sri Lanka, in South Asia and beyond. 

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