When Lakshman Kadirgamar (Balliol, 1956) stepped down from a long and extremely successful career as an international lawyer in Geneva, he didn’t take the easy option. At the point when most people would have kicked back and enjoyed a well-deserved retirement, he instead decided to enter politics, soon becoming Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister.
What followed was an equally impressive political career, against the odds. Despite the real and present threat of assassination from the Tamil Tigers, who viewed him as a doubly attractive target because of his lack of ethnic sympathy for their cause, Kadirgamar courageously continued his work — until he was shot by an assassin at his home in 2005.
Sir Adam Roberts — President of the British Academy, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford and a former friend of Kadirgamar — has put together this series of reflections on the man, along with eleven key documents written by Kadirgamar between 1964 and 2004. The first section, written by Kadirgamar’s contemporaries, serves as a necessary and insightful introduction to the man and a background to Sri Lanka’s historic problems — but it’s the documents that are undoubtedly the most compelling part of this compilation.
Kadirgamar was the first person to conduct an Amnesty International investigation into a country, and his surprisingly upbeat, hope-filled report on Vietnam, where he found people who suffered greatly but refused to take revenge, presaged his later admonitions to Sri Lankan officer cadets. Indeed, in a speech to the Kotelwala Defence Academy in 1996, he emphasised the importance of behaving justly, explaining that “we are fighting ultimately to build a lasting peace in our country that can only come about by welding the communities together, not driving them apart.”
In fact, his view of democracy seems to spring directly from his legal background, based on rational evaluation rather than emotion — a mature and statesman-like view from a man whose primary motivation was to serve his country. “So-called educated people must not shirk responsibilities in public life,” he once wrote; a sentiment applauded by Chris Patten, who writes in the book about just how important Balliol College and its tradition of public service was to Kadirgamar. In later life, he’d often be seen sporting his old college tie.
But it was on terrorism that Kadirgamar was at his most outspoken. In a Chatham House speech in 1998, he characterised the approaches to international terrorism as “Nelsonian Blind Eye vs. Enlightened Self-interest” and declared himself tired of the “messages of condolence, sympathy and succour” which to him sounded “routine, repetitive and hollow” as bombs exploded and nothing was done.
What comes across throughout this book is the absolute determination of an honourable man to do his duty, using his gifts of eloquence and rational thought — honed by Oxford Union debates and a lifetime of legal arguments — to warn the free world about threats to its freedom. “It is absolutely no good for any country to say ‘it is not our problem; thank heaven, it is somebody else’s problem’,” he once sagely warned. “You can’t say that any more… It is eminently a matter of one’s own self-interest… the terrorist who was sitting on somebody else’s doorstep yesterday could be on our doorstep tomorrow.”
Fortunately, he did more than just warn during his time as Foreign Minister — taking many practical steps to deal with the terrorist threat, both at home and abroad — and, happily, Sri Lanka’s internal wars now appear to be over. It’s just saddening that this book serves as a reminder that Kadirgamar’s death deprived his country of a man of courage, clarity of thought and wise counsel, who could have contributed much to the current peace.