H L De Silva bust
”Our image abroad cannot be significantly different from the rule of law image we create at home for ourselves. When the rule of law suffers at home, our image abroad suffers too. When we nurture a rich culture of the rule of law at home, image abroad becomes richer, even if the country remains poor in economic terms. This also appears to be the central message conveyed by thousands of citizens who testified before the LLRC as well.”
Retired Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara chaired the H.L. de Silva memorial event in Colombo on May 4. Excerpted are some of his remarks.
It is always an honour to remember a good citizen. It is particularly gratifying to pay homage to a fellow countryman and a patriot of exceptional ability, knowledge and intellect, like H.L. de Silva. There are many reasons for that feeling. You have three eminent speakers today who, I am certain, will speak eloquently to that sentiment. Before I invite them to speak please permit me to make two brief remarks in that regard.
Firstly, to say that H.L. de Silva was one of the most outstanding intellectual power houses in the legal norm setting and practice in Sri Lanka, would of course be saying the obvious. His colleague and friend Mr. S.L. Gunasekera, who is also one of your speakers today, described him as among the last of the greats at the Bar.
We came to know H.L. de Silva and his family when he arrived in New York as our Ambassador to United Nations during the mid 1990s. As Ambassador HL went about the business of representing Sri Lanka at the United Nations, the epicenter of multilateral diplomacy. The personal admiration I always had for H.L. de Silva rapidly grew into a friendship and association characterized by a great deal of common ground in matters of national interest and mutual professional respect,.
This was a time when the hot spots of the nascent diaspora groups that would later turn hostile to SL interests, were emerging in the West, particularly in North America. In this backdrop, Ambassador HL was in the forefront articulating Sri Lanka national interests at different forums at the UN and in other opinion making bodies in the western world. This he did this with the same vigor, skill and commitment with which he argued the interests of his clients, back home.
The intellectual depth, analytical skill, knowledge and experience H.L. de Silva brought to bear on his legal work here and diplomatic work abroad indeed represented a rare tool box any professional could dream of. Even rarer was his ability to do all that with a great sense of humility and discretion. In dealing with a multitude of issues on the multilateral agenda at the UN in New York ranging from human rights to terrorism or from sustainable development to humanitarian intervention, HL discussed his approach and ideas with us, the career officers, worked on his drafting tirelessly until it became an HL de Silva brand product and presented his case substantively and cogently.
But he never crowed about what he did in the diplomatic arena. Nor did he believe in the mega-pixel diplomacy we see today that would embarrass his interlocutor even though he would engage them intensely and substantively within the appropriate forum. This is quite a contrast to the currently popular models and practices of ‘outpouring’ diplomacy. He instead held that diplomacy by definition is discreet business, and that it has no room for loose- tongue polemics that could of course facilitate political brownies but would do little or nothing to promote national interest.
Embedded in him was a deep sense of citizenship with all that it entails – rights, responsibilities, equity, fairness, justice and above all decency. To try to integrate all that good stuff into an inherently fallible human being can be a humbling experience. H.L. de Silva showed us that it is doable though. It was a rewarding and pleasant personal experience to work with, associate and befriend such a man- a citizen par excellence, and an iconic public servant. Hence my personal gratification for being here today.
Secondly even as we remember the persona of H.L. de Silva, we will also be well advised to remember the powerful message he left behind for us, that is the imperative of the Rule of Law, a subject to which he dedicated almost a life time. That is a message that resonates with profound relevance and poignancy at this juncture of national affairs in Sri Lanka, as we try to grapple with a multitude of post conflict challenges both national and international.
However these challenges have one thing in common. They are explicitly or implicitly derived from an increasingly and embarrassingly visible rule of law deficit that militates against post conflict stability and reconciliation. What I would call H.L. de Silva’s valedictory volume—the valuable book titled ‘A Nation in Conflict’- which he completed just before he took leave of us, he articulated a clear message about the centrality of the respect for the Rule of Law in ensuring the well being of the nation, its security, integrity and image.
This is no easy task even under ideal circumstances. In the highly polarized post conflict environment we find ourselves in today, it will indeed be prudent to heed his call for the respect for the Rule of Law by all. This is necessary if we are to successfully invest the sacrifices made by the fellow citizens, the brave soldiers and innocent civilians alike, in a process of peace building in order to ensure that we are a nation at peace with itself.
Why do we need this?
Diminishing respect for the Rule of Law diminishes us all. Such erosion will allow impunity to raise its ugly head. Usually, impunity signals the onset of decay. Neither those who govern nor those of us who are the governed will be spared. It impairs civilized life and democracy. And it undermines the investment climate. Conversely, the upholding of the Rule of Law manifestly strengthens sovereignty, pre-empts external calls for intrusive accountability, deters threats to the territorial integrity of the nation and facilitates the enjoyment of fruits of citizenship and democracy by all.
Our image abroad cannot be significantly different from the rule of law image we create at home for ourselves. When the rule of law suffers at home, our image abroad suffers too. When we nurture a rich culture of the rule of law at home, image abroad becomes richer, even if the country remains poor in economic terms. This also appears to be the central message conveyed by thousands of citizens who testified before the LLRC as well.
So it is all in our hands. We do not have to blame conspirators, indigenous or alien. Sri Lanka has a long history of democracy. Recently we have seen democracy making history in some other countries of Asia, and Africa and even in Europe. They have chosen the rule of law in place of the rule of men. We had made that choice much earlier and nurtured it thanks to the enlightened contributions of the likes of H.L. de Silva. The best tribute we can pay to such sons of the soil is for all of us, those who govern and those governed, to recommit ourselves to say an unequivocal yes to the ‘force of rule’ and say a firm no to the ‘rule of force’.
So let us remember H.L. de Silva, a total citizen, whose work of a life time was dedicated to a rule based way forward for this land traumatized by a twofold conflict—a conflict of arms and a conflict of parochial political interests.