Desmond de Silva QC, or Sir Desmond as he is now known, was at the Buckingham Palace in London on February 21 to receive the accolade and the insignia of the Knighthood that was conferred upon him by the Queen in Britain's New Year Honours. In fact the honour of Knight Bachelor, which he now enjoys, is perhaps the oldest title in Britain.
Sir Desmond, who was educated at Trinity College and in England, is the only son of the late Fred E. de Silva, PC who was a former Mayor and MP for Kandy who later became Sri Lanka's Ambassador to France and Switzerland. Desmond's grandfather was the well-known George E. de Silva, one of the many who fought for Sri Lanka's independence.
Perhaps one of the high profile Queen's Counsels in Britain, Sir Desmond was recruited by the international community to help set up and run an international war crimes tribunal to deal with the horrors of a decade long civil war that ruined Sierra Leone and had destabilised much of West Africa. When he was appointed the Chief Prosecutor of the Tribunal he became one of just four international chief prosecutors in the world!
Appointed by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General, Sir Desmond enjoyed full diplomatic status as that of an Under Secretary General of the United Nations and on many occasions had to deal with member States of the Security Council in discharging his functions to the UN backed Court.
It was because of legal arguments deployed by him before the Special Court for Sierra Leone that the Court decided that the recruitment and use of child soldiers in war was a crime in International Law and had been so before the signing of the Rome Statute that created the International Court in The Hague.
This was the first time in legal history that the use of child soldiers, the scourge of wars in Africa and Asia, had come before an International Court.
Sir Desmond played a significant role in other ground breaking areas that will have worldwide implications because they now form part of the jurisprudence of International Law.
Returning from his international duties, he has resumed his role as a Head of Chambers in London. At Oxford University he was elected senior member of St. Anthony's College and was much in demand as a participant in legal fora in the United States.
In 1980, he contested in a by election for the largest ward in the City of London.
Not only was he elected, he did so with a huge majority. He remained an elected councillor for the City of London till 1995 when the sheer pressure of his Court work drove him to give it up. Throughout this period he was also on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's "Think Tank".
Coming from a distinguished legal and political family in Sri Lanka, Sir Desmond has never lost his love for the country. He is the first to admit that his current international duties have prevented him from visiting Sri Lanka and his family home in Kandy which his sister has turned into a exotic hotel. Taprobane Island off Weligama which he inherited from his father has been given out on a long lease.
This former soldier, city father, diplomat, international lawyer and noted wit, is married to Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia and they have one daughter, Victoria.
Sunday Times Mar 4 2007
Helga Blow Perera, sister of Sir Desmond de Silva recollects her brother’s illustrious career
Desmond de Silva was on the Queen's New Year Honours list this year and was knighted on February 21, by Queen Elizabeth II. Sir Desmond is the only son of Frederick and Esme de Silva.
Frederick de Silva was a former Councillor, Mayor and M.P. for Kandy. He was appointed to U.N.E.S.C.O. by the international community, apart from his official duties as Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France. A President's Counsel, he was Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya at the time of his death.
Desmond is the grandson of George E. de Silva who campaigned fiercely with other eminent freedom fighters for an independent Ceylon together with his wife Agnes Nell, a committed fighter for women's rights.
News of Sir Desmond's knighthood came to the Kandy Times from his sister Helga de Silva Blow Perera of Helga's Folly fame who casually mentioned that her brother was being knighted. Though reluctant to talk about it at first Helga was persuaded to share some memories of their early life in Kandy.
Desmond was born on December 13, 1939 and started his schooling at Hillwood College, Kandy before going on to Dulwich College Prep. School in England. He returned to Kandy to study at Trinity College and later left Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon in 1958 to study law at Cambridge University.
He became a Barrister of the Middle Temple in 1964 and a Q.C. in 1984. In the Army with the 3rd Carabiniers (3rd Dragon Guards), he served as a Council Member in the City of London from 1980 to 1995. The United Nations appointed him as the Chief Prosecutor to the International War Crimes Tribunal and he played a significant role in
|Family picture at
Christmas: Princess Katerina and Desmond de Silva
with their daughter Victoria
many groundbreaking trials. The Times of London in its issue of May 25, 2004, featured Desmond, in an article written by Frances Gibb under the heading "A job worth taking a £950,000 pay cut for." It said “Desmond de Silva in Sierra Leone - The high-society QC determined to see war criminals brought low." He took up this job for $75,000 a year giving up most of the perks he enjoyed in London as a very successful criminal lawyer. Said Helga, "Dangerous job but then we are prone to jump in, where angels dare to tread sometimes."
Desmond was given full security and all his comforts. Nevertheless, he was shot at, imprisoned and poisoned. They tried bribing Desmond with diamonds, adds Helga.
"Desmond used to call me
before leaving England on his various missions and I would ask him why go? He
said nothing but I could see his face through the telephone just smiling."
In the interview with Frances Gibb, Sir Desmond has stated "I can't even go to the beach without a guard with a machine gun." Many shunned this job. But he wanted to bring to book those who committed atrocities during the Civil War in Sierra Leone.
|Desmond and Helga: Memorising kavi before leaving to school|
He was also offered the job of prosecutor for the Iraq War Crimes Tribunal but declined. Desmond became a famous defence lawyer of 'infamous celebrity cases', says Helga, mentioning the case of Mariette Bosch who was convicted in Botswana of murdering her best friend.
Desmond prosecuted Army officer Roderick Newall who together with his brother killed his parents in Jersey. This case was written about and made into a film. Desmond also defended Lord Brockett in the Ferrari car insurance fraud case.
There are many more cases and Helga recalls how he had won defending well known sportsmen - goal keeper Hans Seger's match fixing trial in 1997, Ron Atkinson in 1998, Lee Bowyer who was accused of affray and John Terry in 2002. Helga says she learns about Sir Desmond's successful trials from newspaper clippings sent by her friends in London.
"We had a happy childhood," recalls Helga. "Desmond always kept an eye on me and was my chaperone at all times_ where ever I went he came too. Friends of my first husband used to tease, asking what arrangement he had made on our honeymoon!" "Whoever I went out with not only had my brother to entertain, but had to organize a partner for him too. An expensive exercise! Thinking back I was a nightmare, rebelling just for the sake of rebelling. A nightmare for my brother to have a little sister who did not take instructions kindly," she says.
Desmond listened to my parents, agreed with them but went his own way at times, she says. "Our parents never stood in judgement of us, encouraging us to do what our conscience dictated, no cheap popularity. We never heard the words 'what will people say'. Your conscience you live with, that is all-important. Never mind what others think as long as others do not get hurt."
|Engagement of Desmond and Princess Katerina|
"Yes, at times I was a little jealous of Desmond who was allowed to do things that for me was No! No! I was a girl!"
“Desmond was always good at debating. Our father used to ask questions about current happenings and our thoughts on the subject. Desmond was always good at this. I made it a point to disagree and then sometimes was not able to explain why," says Helga.
Helga, recently had come across a letter written by her brother to their parents when they were away from home which says "I ate all my dinner but Helga was very naughty and also left all her spinach". "He was more obedient,” she says.
Desmond is married to Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia (niece of Prince Phillip and one of Queen Victoria's great grand daughters) and has a daughter, Victoria.
Sir Desmond has strong ties with the land of his birth, especially Kandy where his sister lives. Desmond inherited the famed Taprobane Island in Weligama from his father who bought the island in the 50's. The island was made famous by the Frenchman Count De Mauny (designer of furniture and gardens) who built the existing Palladian style house in the 30's. The house is now leased to English businessman Geoffrey Dobbs.
I asked Helga her thoughts on her brother being knighted. "It is always nice to be appreciated. Our parents wherever they are would share my thoughts and naturally we are proud of him. It's nothing to do with titles. Many, many, many have titles. My brother wants to see justice done, that is all."
"We were not brought up to think of titles as something special (we already have some knocking around the family tree, legal and natural!), she says. Our family is mixed in every way - religion, race, colour and caste. What we give back to this world before leaving it for our next adventure is all important," says Helga.