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Deshamanya Dr. Radhika Cooma­raswamy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict 2006

Deshamanya Dr. Radhika Cooma­raswamy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict  2006
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Deshamanya Dr. Radhika Cooma­raswamy’s brother describes her as a woman of strong conviction with an unflinching sense of justice, a clear mind and a soft manner when dealing with people. “Whenever I travel the world and meet people who know Radhika, they tell me how much they admire her,” says Indrajit Coomaraswamy. “They also tell me that she’s a tough lady, and I laugh incredulously. She’s not tough at all. She stands for her principles, but she’s soft with people,” he elaborates.

A humanist and an ardent believer in nonviolence, Coo-maraswamy often goes the extra mile to propound her beliefs. In October 2004, while delivering the Mahatma Gan-dhi Memorial Oration, she declared unwaveringly: “As a Sri Lankan Tamil, I am now even more convinced that we lost our way when we made armed struggle the dominant means of fighting discrimina-tion and oppression. In Tamil circles, it is often said in whispers: ‘The LTTE and the armed struggle have brought us self-respect; we can walk on the streets without fear of Sinhalese mobs; if it was not for armed struggle, the Sinhalese would not have given us anything.’ I must disagree.” She elaborated: “I firmly believe that if we had stuck to nonviolence, if we had imagined new and more innovative forms of nonviolent protest and participatory politics, we would have been better off today as an ethnic group, as a country and as citizens of the world.”

She was born in Colombo on 17 September 1953 to Raju and Wijeyamani Cooma­raswamy. Her initial education was at Ladies College. Her father was a respected member of the Sri Lanka Civil Service and worked at the Ministry Of Finance during which time he helped to establish economic relations with a large number of countries. When Coomaraswamy was eight, her father accepted the position of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations Development Programme – and the family moved to New York.

After graduating from the United Nations International School, Coomaraswamy received her Bachelor Of Arts degree from Yale University, with a major in political science and a minor in economics. She also has a Doctor Of Jurisprudence from Columbia University, a Master Of Laws from Harvard University and boasts an honorary Ph.D. from Amherst College. She later received honorary doctorates from the University Of Edinburgh and the University Of Essex.

“She was always keen on studying,” reflects her mother. “I suggested that she return to Sri Lanka after her first degree. My own mother wanted her sent back so that she could get married. She cautioned me at the time that if Radhika qualified too much, she would never have a husband!”

Coomaraswamy first gained prominence as an international figure when, in 1994, she was made UN Special Rapporteur On Violence Against Women. She held the position on a voluntary basis until 2003 and is widely known for her tireless, outstanding work. During the course of her term, she travelled to Japan and South Korea to report on comfort women; to Brazil, on domestic violence; to Poland, on trafficking; to South Africa, on rape in the community; and to the US, on women in prisons. She also visited Rwanda and East Timor to investigate violence against women during armed conflict; Afghanistan to look at issues of religious extremism; and India, Nepal and Bangladesh to probe the trafficking of young girls. After each visit, Coomaraswamy wrote a report to the UN Commission On Human Rights.

Today, Coomaraswamy is at the zenith of her career. But on being asked what her most cherished accomplishment is, she replies that there isn’t one. “I don’t quite know what I have achieved,” she claims, modestly. “I have been lucky in life. My immediate family is such a blessing. In my work, I see so many dysfunctional families and I realise how fortunate I have been,” she affirms.

Most people assume that feminists are against marriage and family, she notes, stressing: “I am not. I think marriage and family are wonderful if they are centres of nurture and care. Feminists are only against pathological families where there is violence and abuse. I did not marry because I never found the right person. My work has kept me busy, so I did not have much time to search for one. I always felt that, given the pressure on my time, no marriage is better than the risk of a bad marriage.”

Any regrets? “Well, I always regretted not having a child,” she admits. “But, perhaps, that has been answered. The children in armed conflict are now my children,” she adds.

In April 2006, Coomaraswamy was appointed Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. It is a prestigious post, but only one of many offers that she had previously let pass. “They sounded her out to be head of the UN Commission On Human Rights and also of Amnesty International,” her brother reveals.

Despite considerable demand for her expertise abroad, Coomaraswamy had always wanted to – and liked to – work in Sri Lanka. That was one reason she returned to the country in 1977. She was at the Marga Institute until 1982, when the International Centre For Ethnic Studies was formed and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam invited her to be its director.

“I think it’s fair to say that Tiruchelvam and my father were the two strongest influences in Radhika’s life, in terms of her values and professional interests,” Coomaraswamy’s brother reflects. “Her friends Suriya Wickremasinghe and Kumari Jayawardena also had an impact,” he discloses. “My father’s career inspired her interest in human development. She comes to human rights, empowerment and gender from that perspective. Radhika is essentially a humanist. She is also a good fusion of East and West. While subscribing strongly to the Western concept of individual rights, she is equally rooted in the more collectivist Eastern values related to family, community and society,” he elaborates.

In May 2003, Coomaraswamy was made Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. It was a post she held until her recent departure to New York. For her groundbreaking work as UN Special Rapporteur and for her numerous other achievements, Coomaraswamy received widespread recognition. Among the many awards with which she has been bestowed are the International Law Award from the American Bar Association, the Human Rights Award from the International Human Rights Law Group, the Bruno Kreisky Award for 2000, the Leo Ettinger Human Rights Prize from the University Of Oslo, the Cesar Romero Award from the University Of Dayton, the William J. Butler Award from the University Of Cincinnati and the Robert S. Litvack Award from McGill University.

In November 2005, in recognition of her service to the country and the world, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga conferred on her the title of ‘Deshamanya’. She is the only woman to have received the honour.

Coomaraswamy has today become a woman with immense lobbying power. “She has very good access to decision makers. She is able to use quiet diplomacy and advocacy to influence people in positions of power,” her brother asserts.

In 2004, when the University Of Essex conferred an honorary doctorate on Coomaraswamy, Prof. Kevin Boyle delivered a glowing oration in which he called her a tireless campaigner for human rights and a voice for the voiceless. “She has made a real difference – not just in the way that violence against women is now regarded in global public opinion, but also in how women’s rights and human rights are seen today,” he said.

It was a fitting tribute for a woman who has truly done Sri Lanka proud.
Date: 2008-01-27 10:11:51
Modern Sri Lankan Heroes

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