By Saritha Irugalbandara
Former Under Secretary General of the United Nations Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy identifies herself as, “Not fully an activist, not fully an academic,” but as someone who has always been fueled by the necessity to, “Fight against social injustice.”
Born in Colombo, her father’s occupation at the United Nations meant that her childhood was spent in New York – an organisation and city that would remain central to her eventual trajectory as a lawyer, human rights advocate, academic, and at present, a household name. While the melting pot of the United Nations International School was foundational to her understanding of racial and ethnic difference as a non-starter, she credits her roots in Nallur, Jaffna, for those early lessons.
Each April and August spent at her grandparents’ home; she listened starry-eyed to her granduncle’s stories of Gandhian resistance, the Indian Independence movement, and advocacy for the marginalised. These stories not only nudged awake a human rights consciousness at a very young age but ensured this consciousness was entrenched in principles of non-violence and humanism.
A humanist, academic and feminist
“So that’s why I get really startled when people say this is some Western imperialist project,” she opines, referring to the misconstruction of human rights advocacy and the Sri Lankan civil society apparatus at large. “One of the things I want to do as part of my writing is to recover and steer people towards that history,” she says, her hope that Sri Lankans can one day perceive how rights-based equality continues from a tradition of anti-colonial thought and resistance.
As a South Asian woman growing up in the United States, she was further conscious of the anti-imperial quality of movements about human rights – the Civil Rights movement, the wide opposition to the Vietnam War, and growing resistance against Apartheid in South Africa. “The commonality was humanism,” she observes, of calls for equality whether in the form of Gandhian non-violence or the civil disobedience of Dr. King. These early learnings, she maintains, have remained the guiding principle in her work advocating and protecting the fundamental freedoms of communities both at home and worldwide.
As far as people go, Dr. Coomaraswamy considers herself to be, “A very clinical, analytical person on the one hand, and someone who rages against the dying of the light on the other.” Her origins as a skillful lawyer trained in American law schools, including being a student of the late United States Supreme Court Justice and pioneer feminist litigator Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Columbia, melded with her identity as a passionate human rights activist and academic borne out of those early days in Jaffna to create this powerhouse of a duality.
She reminisces how Sithie Tiruchelvam, her close friend and founder of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, would jokingly refer to this duality as a sort of ideological schizophrenic drawing her atypical Sri Lankan experience and the various social and cultural junctures that have shaped her advocacy over time. She has always felt that this duality was the creative tension that gave energy to her work.
Satisfaction in discussing meaningful ideas
In 1994 Dr. Coomaraswamy was appointed United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women – the first under this mandate, and a position which would propel her name into international significance. Her appointment also marked the first time that violence against women was conceptualised as a political issue internationally.
She recalls the resistance from human rights and feminist quarters of the day at this departure from framing gendered violence as a matter of criminality instead of a matter of intersectional politics. During her time as Special Rapporteur, she created the due diligence framework, and over 20 years later, it remains the metric to evaluate a country’s response to addressing violence against women.
Under the leadership of Kofi Annan, she also served as an Under Secretary General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict from 2006 to 2012. “So I remember my first day, and I was thinking “This must be a really interesting moment.” I was surrounded with only two women, and the rest was men. Not all white, but many significantly so,” she recalls, a moment of particular salience of how her own identity as a South Asian woman who also belonged to a minority ethnic group fit into this global human rights apparatus.
The fieldwork was her favourite part of her time at the United Nations. She engaged in rigorous fact-finding and story-telling with the impetus to shed light on the diverse experiences of women and children living in landscapes of violence while also ducking the occasional warplane. An ardent feminist who, in her own words, is “wedded to the idea of intersectionality and the diversity in women’s experiences,” she opines that these missions only strengthened her conviction that these differences need to be problematised to achieve sustainable equality and justice for women everywhere.
Dr. Coomaraswamy is happiest in a small group of people discussing important ideas. The comfort and solidarity felt in discussions with like-minded people as daylight morphed into the quiet night, she says, remains to be where she did a lot of her learning. When she founded the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in 1982 with such a group, including the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, this solidarity, and comfort in the service of important ideas are what they emulated. The organisation originated as a space for seeking out solutions to the ongoing ethnic conflict.
Equally importantly, it was also a community with an incorruptible collective empathy – lawyers, anthropologists, historians, and scholars, drawing from very different vocations and walks of life, fulfilling a commitment to promoting peaceful coexistence. Recalling her work at ICES with her late friend Dr. Tiruchelvam, she states how it isn’t just about having an idea but also the dialectic to choose which idea would best apply in the service of equal protection of human rights. To Dr. Coomaraswamy, solidarity is pockets of people continuing meaningful conversations, friends with a strong sense of collective empathy traveling uphill towards equality while supporting each other on the way there.
To this day, Dr. Coomaraswamy remains steadfast that change can happen if enough people realise the power of empathy and solidarity. She fears fascism in all forms, everywhere, and is hopeful of the power of young people, their steadily growing human rights consciousness, and their fearlessness against the systems that oppress.
Joan Baez’s We Shall Overcome, a song from her youth that coincided with a time when the global discourse on human rights was taking shape, remains a distinct memory and as what she feels is a timeless message of encouragement. The message, she says, is, “That there’s hope. It’s a song for today, for Sri Lanka, that we should overcome. It’s not that we will conquer, we will kill, we will defeat, but that we should overcome. There’s an obstacle, and we will overcome it together. And at the end of it, we will be home.”
(The interview was conducted by Sharanya Sekaram and Shreedha Horagoda. Sharanya is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and Shreedha was an intern at Everystory Sri Lanka. The writer Saritha is a freelance writer and researcher, interested in feminism, queer liberation, and memory politics. Currently, she works as a social media analyst at Hashtag Generation, specialising in mapping trends in cyber sexual and gender-based violence on Sri Lankan social media.)