29 September, 2020

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RKW Goonesekere: Renowned Lawyer, Unswerving Defender Of Human Rights

By Suriya Wickremasinghe

It is too soon for us, of the Civil Rights Movement and The Nadesan Centre for Human Rights Through Law, to write a full appreciation of RKW Goonesekere, who headed our movement for so long. For the present, let us just take a glimpse at our records. Thirty six years ago we wrote of him:

R.K.W. Goonesekere

R.K.W. Goonesekere

We would like at this stage to say something about two men of distinction who have headed our movement. Our first Chairman was Prof. E.R. Sarachchandra. Our movement will always be profoundly grateful to this distinguished don and dramatist for his ready acceptance of this office at a time when many were reluctant to be identified with CRM at all. During Dr. Sarachchandra’s absences abroad our Deputy Chairman R.K.W. (Raja) Goonesekere, then Principal of the Law College, acted for him. Later Dr. Sarachchandra was appointed Ambassador to France, and we asked Raja Goonesekere to take his place. His response was characteristic– “Yes certainly, but are we sure there’s nobody better?”

CRM could not have been more fortunate in having as its head this mild mannered, scholarly man, of distinguished academic record, extraordinary integrity and deep commitment to human rights. Raja Goonesekere was no figurehead in CRM, he gave it his time and talent freely, participating in its research and analyses and signing his name to its public statements and declarations. As a result he was sometimes at the receiving end of crude attacks including in Parliament where personal jibes took the place of reasoned reply to our arguments. Some time later, legislation was passed assailing the independent status of the Law College and bringing it under control of the Ministry of Justice. Raja Goonesekere continued with his work as Registrar of the Council of Legal Education and Principal of the Law College, both as a teacher of law and with the legal research which was always his abiding interest, and he continued as before to give of his spare time to CRM. Suddenly, he found himself the target of intrigue and a shameful campaign of vilification, which culminated in his decision to resign from his job. After a short interval Raja Goonesekere, who never had any ambition other than to pursue his vocation as a teacher of law in his own country, regretfully took up a teaching post abroad. The loss to the students of the Law College, to legal education which he had served for twenty five years, and to the CRM, was great; the loss to our country was greater still.

[from the Introduction to The People’s Rights: Documents of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka 1971 – 1978]

Fortunately for us all, Raja returned to Sri Lanka a few years later and resumed his contribution to the training of young lawyers, the development of constitutional law, the promotion of civil liberties and the enrichment of the intellectual life of our land. When a vacancy occurred, he resumed his role of Chairman of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Nadesan Centre, which positions he held till he died. A whole book now remains to be written about the outstanding contribution to society of this remarkable and most admirable of men.

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Thank the crows that roost on the bo tree he’s gone. Otherwise how I make my son an attorney at law?

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    It is good to see an article on Civil rights and Human rights concerned personalities of Sri Lanka in the public domain. Politicians and Administrators in Sri Lanka need to look back and realize the importance of opening the door again to Civil Rights and Human Rights. Due to a wrong concept of Power, Politicians and Administrators turned King makers and achieved disrepute dragging down all Citizens along with them. This wrong concept of Power creeps in at the helm because they were not exposed to lessons in Social science and humanitarian laws in their school. I am sure no school in Sri Lanka pays attention in teaching these very important subjects. It may be taught in Law Colleges but are they able to apply it to all Citizens when everything goes under the wings of politicians? It is very important for any Administration to introduce the subjects of Civil Rights and Human Rights as compulsory subjects after grade 8 as a requirement for higher studies.

    • 0
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      It is interesting to see how ignorant the Civil Rights noise makers are about the origins of the “movement” they have taken over.

      Professor Sarachchandra’s participation in this came due to the physical assault he suffered in the hands of R. Premadasa’s thugs who dragged him along the Baudhaloka Mawatha. Now it is the same people in the UNP who assaulted him are screaming about civil rights.

      About teaching Civil Rights from Grade 8 as compulsory, only on millions of dead bodies. We in Sri Lanka do not need these Khazar methods of mind control of the world as their tools of domination.

      Our Buddhist heritage gives us stronger ethic of civic rights more than any other conspiratorial group in the world.
      So, go jump in the lake “Richard”.

      • 1
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        Robert,

        As CRM Honorary Secretary Suriya Wickremasinghe has pointed out, Professor Sarachchandra was attacked long after the setting up of the Civil Rights Movement in 1971. It was probably in July 1977.

  • 0
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    [Edited out]

  • 0
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    I have had the privilege of being a student at Law College during the stewardship of Mr. RKW (Rajah) Gunasekere. We all loved him. The all-powerful, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the Justice Minister, had a visceral vengeance against Mr. Gunasekere. He was bent on harassing and humiliating Rajah Gunasekere. Felix was feared by all and loved by none. But Felix was not a match to Rajah’s sense of independence, integrity and intellectual prowess. The Law Students were sad that Rajah was pressured to quit. Law Students Union (LSU), under R.B. Seneviratne accorded a Farewell felicitation to Rajah. I recall saying on that occasion “Sir, you have stood up to powerful political mafia. You have got that rare specimen in human anatomy, called backbone”.
    I miss my Guru RKW Gunasekere and the likes of him – legal luminaries of unblemished integrity and independence.

  • 1
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    More than anything else, he was a wonderful human being. He was always ready to help others. When some of us at the Voet Inn from outstations who did not have a ready made practice to walk into as some of the well to do students had, we had to stay in Colombo and work there as Juniors/assistants to Senior Lawyers to gain experience. We had no way of finding a place to stay in Colombo at the meagre allowance we were receiving. RKW who was the Principal of Law College and by virtue of it the Warden of the hostel allowed us to stay in the hostel for some time until we could find a place at a reasonable rent. Even after we moved to our hometowns he was always there to give us (free) legal advice whenever we approached him. I know of many PCs of today who had the benefit of this munificence of RKW. He was a great man indeed and we will always remember him.

  • 0
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    Thank you Colombo Telegraph carrying this article and the comments too.

    RKW indeed was a great Sri Lankan who had the ability to look above religion,caste, and other narrow divisions and look at the larger picture.He was some one with his own unique set of convictions, with fair play and justice taking centre stage.

    Now our legal profession is unfortunately left with scum bags one too many.Just see how low they could get by defending the unfair.Some have ended up as political hacks as well.

    RKW well done thou great son of Lanka.

  • 2
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    Your correspondent “Robert” has written, erroneously,

    “It is interesting to see how ignorant the Civil Rights noise makers are about the origins of the “movement” they have taken over. Professor Sarachchandra’s participation in this came due to the physical assault he suffered in the hands of R. Premadasa’s thugs who dragged him along the Baudhaloka Mawatha. Now it is the same people in the UNP who assaulted him are screaming about civil rights. “

    “Robert” has got his chronology wrong. Regi Siriwardene, Kumari Jayawardene and I went to Peradeniya in 1971, some months after the April JVP insurrection, preliminary to setting up the Civil Rights Movement. On that visit, memorable in many ways, we met Dr. Sarachchandra, who readily agreed both to join CRM and to be Chair. Others enrolled during that trip included the University Librarian H.A.I. (Ian) Goonetilleke and historian Leslie Gunawardena.
    CRM was formally constituted in November that year and the list of some 47 names associated with its launch includes artists (George Keyt Richard Gabriel, Laki Senanayake) retired Civil Servants (DB Ellepola, DCR Gunawardena) academics (Ashley Halpe, Gananath Obeysekera, Prof. T Nadaraja) doctors (Prof.CC de Silva, Carlo Fonseka) senior lawyers (NDM Sanarakoon, S. Nadesan QC), trade unionists (J.A.K. Perera, L. Ariyawansa) , clerics (Bishops Lakshman Wickremesinghe and Leo Nanayakkara, Ven Puhulwelle Wimalawansa). The full list is in the book “THE PEOPLE’S RIGHTS, documents of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka November 1971-1978” published in 1979.

    The shameful physical attack on Prof. Sarachchandra by thugs that Robert refers to came many years later.

    Your other correspondent Richard’s suggestion of including civil-liberties-related material in school syllabuses is excellent, but it must be done in an interesting andmeaningulful way. CRM published a series of attractive illustrated booklets The Value of Dissent with case histories drawn from the past showing the importance of free exchange of ideas. It is very popular especially among our non-English speaking readers who are starved of such information. Number 6, on the movement in England to abolish the slave trade, is just out.
    Suriya Wickremasinghe
    Founder member and currently Honorary Secretary, CRM.

  • 1
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    A great man indeed, he never went after the PC title, I am sure people close to him know why. Surely its worth a mention here. While I have paid my condolences to his wife Savitri and son Nalin who is my contemporary I am astounded that the crusaders for justice, human rights, press freedom etc etc who post here in droves have not had the time to at least say a single word about this honourable man. So are all this crusaders are there only to be anti-goverment, anti- Rajapakse ?

    Funnily enough, its the members of the much maligned Tamil diaspora who has seen it fit to honour this gentleman here :-) Our usual anti government (any government for that matter) prolific commentators should extricate their digits :-)

  • 2
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    Raja was not only a distinguished and dedicated human rights defender, he was also a very warm and lovable human being. he will be terribly missed.

  • 2
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    And, Robert,
    Prof Sarachchandra was probably, attacked when speaking, in 1977, many years after the establishment of the Civil Rights Movement of which he was the first Chairman.

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