Colombo Telegraph

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

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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