Sir Desmond de Silva passes away


Sir Desmond de Silva

The death of Sir Desmond de Silva last week is a tragedy for Sri Lanka. But what is perhaps more tragic is that none of our decision makers can understand the blow we have suffered.

Sir Desmond came into the picture very late in the day. The last government completely ignored both the commitments it had entered into freely, to deal with accountability issues, and also the mounting dangers of international criticism. It started indeed by immediately throwing away its best defence against such criticism, by dismissing Dayan Jayatilleka from the position of our Permanent Representative in Geneva.

I told him later that he had achieved such a massive victory that government thought any fool could do it. But they did not use just fools, they also used villains who actively worked against our interests. And despite the commitment the President had made to Ban ki Moon, in May 2009 – when Dayan was nowhere near the place, but he was instead being advised by those in the Foreign Ministry whose allegiances Lakshman Kadirgamar had felt were not always entirely Sri Lankan – he did nothing to fulfil them until after the UN Secretary General had appointed what turned out to be a very vicious panel.

Then, having appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which produced an excellent interim report very swiftly, he appointed to implement these a committee that did nothing. That the situation was urgent was not understood by him and his advisers, and they managed to continue to hide their heads in the sand even after the Darusman Report came out. Though C R de Silva and his team produced the LLRC soon afterwards, there was no sign of an action plan to implement its recommendations in the period before the UN Human Rights Council met in Geneva, in March 2012.

It was only then that the President finally began to understand the complete contempt evinced for his orders as well as for our international critics by the team he had put in charge. So he got Lalith Weeratunge to produce a plan, which was done double quick – whereupon he entrusted its implementation to the same villain as before.

So again nothing was done, and we faced worse criticism in 2013 and then a resolution that seemed to sanction interference in 2014. It was only at this stage that the President awoke from his deep sleep, and appointed the Paranagama Commission to examine the conduct of our forces during the War. And not immediately, but soon enough, he appointed Sir Desmond de Silva to advise them.

Desmond was not one to let the grass grow under his feet, like our lotus eaters. He and the distinguished legal colleagues who supported him produced reports that made it clear how nonsensical were many of the charges against us. To add weight to these he also got a report from a distinguished British General, Sir John Holmes, that convincingly cleared the forces of war crimes in the conduct of the war.

But before the Paranagama Report could be finalized, the government changed. Given the affection the world at large felt for the new government, a verdict at the UNHCR was postponed until September 2015. Sir Desmond and the Commission worked overtime, and finalized their Report before that date.

But then unmitigated villainy as regards Sri Lanka and its forces kicked in. While there were certainly some villains in the service of President Rajapaksa, as his naivete in assuming that those he appointed to act on the recommendations would proceed as instructed indicated, he did not seek to put the country in the dock. Far otherwise were those who ran the country in 2015. Confident that President Sirisena would not understand what was going on, they refused to table the Paranagama Report in Geneva and, instead of trying to defend the country against the charges being flung around, they meekly accepted a damning Resolution.

It was in the run up to the September 2015 sessions that I first met Sir Desmond. He had a close confidante in Chris Dharmakirthi, who tried hard to get government to use his material, but they met a blank wall. And so Mangala Samaraweera, aided and abetted by his chief acolyte in the Foreign Ministry, Mahishni Colonne, put a noose round Sri Lanka’s neck.

Sir Desmond tried over the next two years to mitigate the disastrous situation we were in, but his hands were tied by the fact that, after his original mandate finished, he was hired on an advisory basis by the Prime Minister. Unfortunately he felt bound then not to act without the permission of the Prime Minister, though he made it clear in conversation with those he trusted that there was much that could and should be done.

This became crystal clear after Lord Naseby had managed to get copies of much of the material sent to Britain by Colonel Anton Gash, who had been its Defence Attache in Colombo during the War. That material made it clear what an honourable war the Sri Lankan forces had fought, but that was anathema to the ears of our Foreign Ministry, with Mahishini Colonne publicly insulting Lord Naseby for his efforts.

For obvious reasons I was one of the few people Lord Naseby took into his confidence, asking me to follow up with the President, to whom he had sent the material, and also to get the material to the former President. I was thrilled when Mahinda Rajapaksa collected the material as soon as the courier had delivered it home, but he then proceeded to forget about it. Typically, he told me when I asked that he had handed it over to G L Peiris, who it seemed had allowed it to sink without trace.

The President had not seen the material when I spoke to him about it. And though him reading it might not have served much purpose, he seemed to understand its significance, and also noted when we spoke that Ravi Karunanayake was more likely to use it to benefit Sri Lanka than Mangala (this was just after Ranil, realizing that both were mucking up their portfolios, ensured that the mucking up would continue, albeit at slightly less destructive levels, by switching their portfolios).

But Ravi, though I will not defend him with regard to financial dealings, is certainly more patriotic than Mangala. And I believe Sir Desmond will not mind my revealing now that he actually met with Sir Desmond, who drafted a memo he promised to use, to ensure that the material culled by Lord Naseby would be officially made public.

But Ravi had to fall on his sword, and his successor obviously has neither the intelligence nor the sense of patriotism to take things forward. Sadly Vasantha Senanayake is only the State Minister, but though he did yeoman service in thanking Lord Naseby and in ensuring that the President thanked him too, the Foreign Ministry delayed delivery of the President’s letter and has managed to stop serious consideration of what had been revealed.

All this was over nine months ago. And by then Sir Desmond was back in England, for the operation from which he never properly recovered. But I met him there nine months ago, courtesy of Amal Abeywardene who had been a pillar of strength to Lord Naseby as he has revealed. We talked then of the next steps that might be taken, though it seemed best to wait until Sir Desmond had recovered from the operation, and come back to Sri Lanka.

That was not to happen. I have sought news of him over the last few months, to be told he was still recovering, but I had no idea the situation was so serious. Nor it seemed did Lord Naseby, whom I met last March. He too spoke then about how easy it would be to get rid of the noose, if only our government were willing to act, but sadly there are no signs of that. And now with Sir Desmond gone, the greatest intellectual force that was available to us to deal with false allegations, the greatest social force that was able to bring together other formidable intellects to support us, the greatest moral force that was forthright about the need to make amends where we had done wrong whilst making it crystal clear that there had been no deliberate policy for which we should be judged adversely, we are bereft.

But it is still not too late to use his material and that provided by Lord Naseby to change the current terms of engagement. The President has occasionally shown that he understands the gravity of the situation we are in, but the moment he makes this clear, he seems to panic and retreat into the shell in which Ranil and Mangala have confined him. Left to himself, he cannot be relied on, but were there a change in the Foreign Ministry, if indeed he will take advice from intellectuals like Dayan who has studied the subject thoroughly, he might be able to ensure that the sovereignty of this country is not eroded.

When I wrote first about Sir Desmond’s death, a response noted the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Lord Naseby has been advocating. My support for the idea will not sway this government, but I can only hope that in tribute to Sir Desmond the President at least will understand that he needs to move and work to the patriotic agenda of these two Englishmen.

Prof. Rajiva


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...