Tribute: Sir Desmond De Silva QC (1939-2018)

Sir Desmond de Sliva QC in 2016 at the Horton Debate Society Dinner in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

June 10, 2018 (LBO) – The British press is full of tributes following the unexpected demise of Sir Desmond de Silva QC. Most major media publications in the UK explored and saluted his brilliant career and its legacy.

The Sri Lankan media seem to have failed to recognise the significance of one of the Nation’s greatest sons, and therefore I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts.

My qualification to pen this piece is lacking. I have probably spent less than 10 hours in close quarters with Sir Desmond. Others have worked with him, or known him for a lifetime. Many are familiar with his place in the British establishment, something that a Sri Lankan American like myself has limited understanding of. However, despite my limited contextual background on the man, I feel compelled to write.

I first got to know about Sir Desmond over a decade ago. I was in my mid twenties at the time. I had gone on a trip to Kandy. My wife had heard of a place called Helga’s Folly, which was owned an operated by Sir Desmond’s sister. Helga was known to my wife’s family and my wife wanted to visit her eclectic hotel and take a look. It was during the time of the war, and thus the property was almost deserted. However, despite the lack of people, I was bowled over by the sense of style that emanated from every corner of the place. I believe the property was originally owned by their grandfather George De Silva, freedom fighter and member of Sri Lanka’s first Cabinet.

What most fascinated me were pictures on the wall of their family history. It was on those walls that I saw the press clippings of Desmond De Silva QC. The articles described a man at the very top of the legal profession in the UK. As a lawyer, I was fascinated that there was a past pupil of Trinity College Kandy who had reached the absolute pinnacle of the profession in the UK.

From then on, Desmond De Silva QC was an entity to me. He was a man of stature and significance that l looked up to. Over the years, I would continue to follow and read about him from time to time. Little did I realise that the larger than life Queens Counsel I read about on those walls, was still yet to move on to his greatest accomplishments.

Desmond De Silva was later knighted for his service to the legal profession. He was made a member of the Privy Council. Most significantly, he made it to the rank of Under Secretary General of the United Nations where he was the Chief Prosecutor who brought Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia and war criminal, to justice. In the legal profession, throughout the world, it is hard to find a record so diverse and accomplished as Sir Desmond De Silva’s.

Sir Desmond is possibly one of the most accomplished persons to be born on Sri Lankan soil. Unlike most revered figures in Sri Lanka, here was a man who came not to the top of the nation, but to the top of the world order. He did this as a professional, and with panache.

As fate would have it, our paths would eventually cross. About 18 months ago, we hosted Lord Mark Malloch Brown at the Horton Debate Society Dinner, organised by Lanka Business Online (LBO). As the head of LBO, I was the master of ceremonies for the event. Mark Malloch Brown, like Sir Desmond, was also a former Undersecretary General of the UN. As Under Secretary he served as Kofi Annan’s Chief of Staff. Lord Malloch Brown, together with Kofi Annan, ran the United Nations with Sir Desmond as their Chief Prosecutor.

Lord Mark Malloch-Brown at the Horton Debate Society Dinner in Colombo, Sri Lanka

As the seating arrangements for the Horton Debate dinner were made, it should have been obvious that Sir Desmond should have been seated next to Lord Malloch Brown.

However, at this point, I did something selfish. Sir Desmond was a hero of mine, and I set the seating so that he would be next to me at the far end of the head table from Lord Malloch Brown. I wanted the conversation with Sir Desmond to be with me. Sir Desmond graciously accepted his seat at the ‘wrong’ end of the table next to me.

As the dinner went on I was dumbfounded. I was sitting next to one of my personal heroes, and the conversation was not flowing. I had hours next to him, and was unsure if I was even making a good impression. Perhaps neither of us had enough wine to loosen up, or perhaps Sir Desmond was wondering why he was sitting next to me instead of Lord Malloch Brown.

As I guided the crowd through Lord Malloch Brown’s speech and Q&A, I lined up the final question. Sir Desmond wanted to say something, and I was the one who was going to give him the microphone. I thus launched into a prepared introduction that showed Sir Desmond that I knew exactly ‘who’ he was.

Then he stood up, 77 years old, took the microphone and quietly began to speak. At first he was a little quiet, and I was not sure if he would be able to command the attention of the crowd. Then it happened, one of greatest moments that we have had in the Horton Debate. Sir Desmond launched into a speech about how he and Malloch Brown worked together in order to execute the unprecedented arrest of Charles Taylor, finishing the speech with the closing phrase: “no one is above the law.” The crowd was stunned and erupted into applause. Here was Sir Desmond, coming in with his closing argument to steal the show, just as I imagine he had done countless times in the courtroom.

As I was escorting Lord Malloch Brown out of the event he said to me that if I were ever going to have him again as a guest speaker, that we must fly Sir Desmond in also to be by his side. Lord Malloch Brown was clearly struck by Sir Desmond’s oration, and I am sure when he thinks of Sri Lanka, he will think of Sir Desmond that evening.

As the months went on, I became a close friend of the Hon. Nirj Deva MEP. Another great Sri Lankan, Nirj had known Sir Desmond for a lifetime. Both were Sri Lankans that made it to the top in the UK. Both were active in the conservative party, and both were involved in Sri Lankan affairs from time to time. Sir Desmond being a decade his senior seemed the elder statesman in the relationship.

As fortune would have it, Hon. Nirj Deva was going to be spending the weekend with Sir Desmond and family on his Taprobane Island in Weligama. He serendipitously invited my wife and I to join them for the day. We were greeted by Sir Desmond and his daughter Victoria’s warm hospitality. The day was a myriad of cocktails, lunch, tea, wine, and what would have been a long night of great conversation. However, when the champagne started to come out, my wife knew that I would be unable to keep up with these two old hands and we subsequently excused ourselves.

In those several hours with Sir Desmond and Hon. Nirj Deva, I learned about personal interactions with dozens of global leaders. I learned law from one of its greatest practitioners, and was treated to an old world roaring intellectual discourse that seems hard to come by in this day and age. The interaction was special to me, and I will cherish the opportunity I had to engage in peer level interaction with these two great men. The day it came out, I bought Sir Desmond’s book, “Madam, Where Are Your Mangoes?” I had to know more.

When you read his book it becomes clear. Sir Desmond is one of the most substantial global entities that Sri Lanka has ever produced. Today we are ruled by politicians who have limited ethics, education and experience. We leave our future, and the future of our children in their hands. We do this while we let the most accomplished Sri Lankans, like Sir Desmond, save the world.

Sri Lankans have emerged everywhere on the world stage. We should be entrusting our children’s future to the best of them. The National List is a brilliant aspect of Sri Lanka’s Parliament that allows political parties to bring leaders into the government from outside electoral politics. The leaders of Sri Lanka’s political parties should get much more out of the national list. As a nation we should have got so much more out of Sir Desmond. The world was not so foolish and Sir Desmond’s contribution to it was monumental. Sir Desmond, Sri Lanka has missed you dearly.