Plus - Appreciation

The memories that will linger

Rodney Clement Austen Vandergert

Rodney, the ‘silent knight’ of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service has departed quietly into the sunset. He departed, the way he lived, with quiet dignity, without fanfare, fuss or bother…… in his own inimitable style.

Rodney’s unexpected departure has left his family and friends engulfed in deep sorrow. The sad news of Rodney’s demise reached me in the early hours of a cold morning in Geneva when my wife called me from hospital within minutes of his passing away. The initial shock and sense of disbelief gradually gave way to a flood of thoughts of Rodney and the happy times we spent together – a friendship spanning over 30 years. I was grappling with a range of emotions until the sun, I thought somewhat reluctantly, finally broke through the dark clouds hanging over Geneva valley.

My mind went back to 1979; I had a few years before ventured out to start a career as an international lawyer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rodney returned that year to the Ministry after his tour of duty in New York, having worked under the late Shirley Amerasinghe, when Sri Lanka was basking in that “one brief shining moment of our own Camelot”. We were the Chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference, the Non Aligned Movement and held the Presidency of the UN General Assembly. New York was the epicentre of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic initiatives. Rodney returned to Colombo with this rich experience behind him.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs too was undergoing radical change; a Ministry that had functioned directly under the Prime Minister since the dawn of Independence was now de-linked and was vested with a separate identity under a Foreign Minister. A new government had assumed office with an overwhelming mandate and a Ministry that had hitherto been insulated from domestic political forces was beginning to feel the impact of such forces. The economic environment was beginning to undergo radical change; a centrally-planned economy was giving way to a liberalized economy. These changes made it imperative that in the implementation of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, the necessary changes were effected, transforming the traditional political diplomacy to an economic diplomacy.

In a sense it was ‘the best of times’ and perhaps the ‘worst of times’. Certainly these were uncertain times. A young officer embarking on a career in the Foreign Ministry needed the sure and steadying hand of an experienced mentor and a dependable colleague to guide him through this uncertain terrain. Rodney assumed duties as Legal Adviser and offered his hand of friendship and I clasped it firmly. It was the beginning of a close friendship which was to make a deep impact on my career.

I shall always treasure pleasant memories of working together with Rodney in the Legal Division attending to the multitude of tasks then being assigned to us. He was the true professional, looking into minute detail, be it a complex treaty issue on which advice was sought or a routine Diplomatic Note that was being drafted. (We always prepared thoroughly before attending any meeting!) I particularly remember accompanying Rodney to attend meetings of a Presidential Committee appointed to finalize Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements, a virgin territory then, in the immediate flush of economic liberalization. Rodney explained at length the complexities involved, which may not always have been to the liking of some who thought that the only guiding principle in attracting foreign investment should be the maxim ‘let the robber barons come,’ but they all listened to his point of view which was always well articulated and respected his views.

Rodney’s sense of professionalism, the ability to be a team player and work together with colleagues, both within the Ministry and outside, and to be above the fray of narrow turf battles, left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I am sure to others closely associated with him.

I also enjoyed Rodney’s warm hospitality and company, on his postings abroad as Ambassador. His first appointment was as High Commissioner to Ottawa. Rodney had arrived in Ottawa without the family initially, and was attending to all the work involved in presenting credentials. He looked into every detail, which was nothing unusual. I was on a UN scholarship in Montreal at the time and used to commute to Ottawa to spend the weekends with Rodney. Not leaving anything to chance, Rodney wanted to rehearse the credentials presentation ceremony the evening before and I stood in for the Governor General of Canada. The next morning standing on the steps of the Ottawa Residence with Sri Lankan friends, we watched Rodney being driven to the Governor’s residence in horse carriage to begin another chapter in hislong career.

Rodney’s next posting was to Moscow, at the time the capital of the Soviet Union. In the winter of 1989, I had the opportunity of visiting this great city about which I had heard so much and enjoying the hospitality of Rodney and Cheryl .What I did not know then, was that these were the last days of the mighty Soviet Union and that consequent to the Gorbachev policy of Perestroika and Glasnost, cracks were beginning to appear on this mighty edifice, which once looked so solid.

Rodney took me through the usual landmarks, including the Kremlin Palace. He was particularly keen to walk me through the streets of Moscow to show me something extremely unusual then, perhaps taken for granted now. This was to get a sense of the spirit of re-awakening that was rapidly spreading among the people of Russia. I vividly recall the speech-makers, the soapbox orators in the street corners of Arabat, enjoying their new found sense of freedom, a phenomenon unthinkable in the pre-Gorbachev era. Rodney had been a keen observer of the sea change that was sweeping through Russian society and gave me a vivid description of the current political changes in Moscow. But whether Rodney or I could ever have anticipated the grand finale that was soon to follow – the collapse of the Soviet Union – is entirely another matter.

Rodney was also a godfather to the Sri Lankan student community in Moscow, always willing to give his ear and lend a helping hand to them. To these young people far away from their homes, in an alien environment, Rodney and his family was a great source of comfort.

Rodney’s final posting as Ambassador was to China in Beijing. My commitments at the time did not permit me to visit Rodney in this magnificent city, much to my regret.

As Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rodney presided over, [with complete acceptance to the political leadership of the day,] the transition from the 17-year United National Party Administration to the People s Alliance Administration in 1994. During this period, he forged a constructive working relationship with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, which greatly contributed to the efficient functioning of the Ministry. I recall vividly the late Lakshman Kadirgamar’s first visit to the Foreign Ministry, when I accompanied Rodney and Additional Secretary Jayantha Dhanapala to brief the new Foreign Minister. Rodney together with Jayantha gave a detailed briefing to the Minister on the many issues pending from the previous administration in order to identify priorities of the new administration. For me this was a classic expose of an orderly transition between governments and particularly in maintaining a bi-partisan foreign policy.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is Rodney’s academic background. In the mid 1950’s he obtained his Degree of Bachelor of Laws from the University of Ceylon having read for the degree as one of nine undergraduates of the Law Faculty of the University of Ceylon, which was at that time housed in Peradeniya. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1960. He completed his Advocates finals in the early 1970s and was admitted to the Bar. Although he did not go into active practice, his abiding interest in the law, saw him completing his Masters in Law degree at NYU.

While in Sri Lanka, Rodney responded to the call of the Law Faculty to serve as a visiting lecturer in International Law. He discharged this responsibility with the same degree of meticulousness that he displayed in the Foreign Ministry. It was in this capacity that he was appointed Supervisor of my doctoral thesis. It is with a deep sense of gratitude that I recall the time he devoted to this task amidst his manifold duties in the Ministry. Rodney was the happiest when I was elected to serve on the International Law Commission in 2006 and he gave me every encouragement as I ventured down a new path on the eve of my retirement from the Public Service.

During my career spanning 32 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was fortunate to serve under several outstanding public servants. Among them, late W. T. Jayasinghe and Rodney Vandergert have left a deep impression on my career, with their dedication to duty, sense of integrity and high degree of professionalism. They both moved on within a short space of a month or more of each other and the personal sense of loss is immense. However the sense of values and commitment to principle they both inculcated in us, during their sojourn, gives me much comfort and courage.

Many who had the opportunity of bidding Rodney a final farewell speak of Rodney’s mortal remains with his usual smile, dressed in the navy blue suit, which had fate not intervened, he would have worn for daughter Niloufer’s wedding next month.

I prefer to remember Rodney the way he was and the warm goodbye he bid me at his home, a few days before I left for Geneva, only a few weeks before he left us. We had enjoyed a good dinner and talked into the night, of men and matters, as we always did.

These are the memories that will linger on………

Dr.A. Rohan Perera PC

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