Edward Mortimer, CMG, public domain, UN Photos

In memory of Edward Mortimer (1943-2021)

July 7, 2021 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

Edward Mortimer, who recently passed away at the age of 77, was integral to the creation of the Sri Lanka Campaign, playing a key role in the campaigning activity that took place in the aftermath of the civil war in 2009 and serving as the organisation’s first chair from its formal establishment in 2010 until 2015.

He was a journalist at the Times from 1967-1987 (including as a leader writer from 1973) and chief foreign correspondent at the FT from 1987-1998. In that time he wrote seminal books on the politics of Islam and the French Communist Party. From 1998-2006 he was Kofi Annan’s chief speechwriter and Director of Communications from 2001. After the UN he served as the Chief Programme Officer of the Salzburg Global Seminar until 2012 and was actively involved with a number of different organisations including Minority Rights Group, the Children’s Radio Foundation, and of course the Sri Lanka Campaign.

Here some of the people he worked closely with over the course of his time at the Sri Lanka Campaign share their memories of him.

Dr Raj Thamotheram, Co-founder of the Sri Lanka Campaign:

Edward was a very important mentor for me at so many levels.

He moved naturally in official circles but was also open to engaging with “outsiders”. I was a completely unknown campaigner when I first contacted him, but he still took my call and over the coming years helped me improve how I engaged with busy, demanding journalists. At the height of the Cold War, he took the work we did (in the Nuclear Freeze campaign and then at Saferworld) seriously and gave our reports profile in the FT. Graciously in a testimonial for me he did on LinkedIn he captured the role of civil society actors beautifully, “perhaps [they] contributed something to the end of the Cold War”. On big issues, who can ever tell? But what I learnt from Edward was that the important thing was to try.

Edward had very clear values which he expressed eloquently on paper and in person. Although I never knew his father (the Bishop of Exeter), Edward seemed to be a secular version of him. But what was really distinctive was that he acted on these values even when it was inconvenient to do so.

For example, he believed strongly in the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine – that there exists a universal obligation to prevent atrocities from occurring. Indeed, I later came to understand – from others and in a few stories, he told in private many years later – that he was a key “behind the scenes” actor on this significant development which was way ahead of its time. But unlike many other western advocates of R2P, he prized consistency. So, when I informed him of the gross human rights abuse happening in Sri Lanka and explained to him the importance of the UK government’s non-response, he truly stepped up.

He knew it would be a thankless task since the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice (SLC) would be attacked by all key parties. I suppose being a Liberal Democrat helped him, but I think even he was surprised by the bystander behaviour of those who he respected. One senior colleague warned him to be careful about associating with someone who could be a hidden Tamil Tiger sympathiser (i.e., me!) but I think that clinched his decision to chair the SLC.

His support was invaluable. We asked one of the Sri Lanka Campaign’s inaugural board members, Prof. Craig Scott, to sum up the difference he made, and his contribution:

The world – and I mean that literally – has lost one of the last half-century’s greatest humanitarians, public servants, intellectual leaders, and tireless advocates for human rights and global justice. It was my great privilege to work with Edward Mortimer in 2009-2012, when we were both co-founding directors of the Sri Lanka Campaign. When I was asked during the final days of slaughter in Sri Lanka’s civil war to help launch SLC, my instinct was to say yes – but I also knew I had to make a good judgment about what could be accomplished if I did say yes.

Any caution was thrown to the winds when I learned Edward had put his hand up to chair the initiative. As each week, month, and then a couple of years passed, I had a front-row seat on how fundamental human decency, razor-sharp intelligence, endless competence, and practical wisdom can all reside in one person.  We met in person but once – when I detoured to Salzburg in the summer of 2009 to meet with him to discuss the SLC’s direction and early tasks.  I experienced the twinkling subtle humour of which so many have spoken since his passing, as well as the quiet grace and warmth with which he spoke and engaged everyone from his family to a visitor to restaurant servers.  And, while I did not fully know how to describe it at the time as these were early days of our work together, I realize now that I also saw how a man of heart and a man of steel came together in Edward’s “capacity for indignation”, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno put it.

I cannot stress how generous he was with his connections, not only for the Sri Lanka Campaign but regarding the climate crisis or responsible investment. He was always willing to consider “opening the door” with others who he thought should be interested. I remember one occasion when the UN system was about to make a serious mistake in its approach to the newly developing field of responsible investment because of intra-UN in-fighting and personal ego of some key individuals. When, as a last resort, I informed Edward, he moved quickly into action and the result was that Kofi Annan played a significant role in the early branding on the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. How easy it would have been for him to look the other way on something he had no responsibility for.

Over the decades he also became a good friend. He was extremely modest about his many achievements. And he was deeply concerned about his family and shared some of his painful personal experiences with me, which helped me cope with mine. And he had a most wonderful sense of humour. With all the risks that were present this year, I wanted to thank him for everything he had done for me but also for so many others. His reply was typical:

“This unsolicited flattery is very worrying. Either you know that I’m starting chemotherapy tomorrow and fear the worst; or you want something…”

He was both a true English gentleman and a committed European and internationalist too. He saw absolutely no challenge being all three. His passing reminds me about how little the world has learnt and, in some very important ways, the UK especially has gone backwards in the four decades that I have known him. As he said in 2014 when giving a lecture at UK’s House of Lords:

“Today, Europe faces a stark choice: will its leaders be like the “sleepwalkers” of 1914, who blindly fell into decades of war and destruction? Or the architects of 1814, who had a clear vision of the future for Europe? Or, will it be something else entirely?”

I will miss him greatly. But he has inspired many others and now it’s our responsibility to protect.

Fred Carver, first Campaign Director of the Sri Lanka Campaign (2011-2016):

The Sri Lanka Campaign took a gamble in hiring someone as callow as me to be their first ever member of staff, and thus their inaugural Campaign Director. But from the very first day I, and therefore the campaign, was taken seriously and treated as an equal by those with vastly more experience. This was down to Edward’s championship, and his example.

The son of a bishop and the product of Eton, Oxford, Britain’s newspapers of record, and the UN, Edward’s empathy for outsiders most certainly did not come from personal experience, but he had an utter distain for deference and hierarchy, and I later learned that I was one of many young and inexperienced people who gained access to rooms we would never have dreamed of entering because Edward insisted, we had a right to be there.

He was incredibly well connected and incredibly generous with his contacts. From the 38th floor of the United Nations to the heart of the Vatican, to kindred spirits in the media and civil society across the world, from “Arch” (Desmond Tutu) to Zeid, he was our secret weapon. Our voice wasn’t a particularly loud one but he could ensure that it spoke into the ear of the person who could make a difference.

But, unlike so many in a position of influence, he did not censor himself in order to maintain his extraordinary levels of access. Unfailingly principled, and in his own quiet way a genuine radical and risk taker, he was happy to annoy friends and former colleagues when the occasion demanded it: whether castigating former UN colleagues for their treatment of critical bloggers, or former FT colleagues for publishing advertorials for military run tourism, or academic colleagues for disinviting civil society activists from academic conferences at the request of the Sri Lankan military. His charm and conviction helped draw the sting, but when being outspoken did come at a cost to his standing it was one he paid gladly. He was someone who believed the purpose of achieving a position of status was to do something positive with it.

As Natalie Samarasinghe lovingly points out in her tribute to him for UNA-UK, he was absolutely atrocious at the actual job of chairing the board of the Sri Lanka Campaign. “Board meetings” would consist of long, rambling, convivial conversations on the broad subject of the situation in Sri Lanka over dinner and wine. Occasionally he would remember an agenda item and announce “Pope’s visit!” or “Galle!” with a start, and I’d have to scramble to recover my notes from underneath the salad bowl and try to plough through as much business as I could before someone else remembered an anecdote about Harold Pinter and derailed us once again.

But these were foibles, not dysfunction. The real governance of the organisation took place over email, where he was constantly available and unceasingly generous with his time.  He gave incredible advice, and was a wonderful editor, but he had a lightness of touch which allowed others to contribute their opinions to just as great an extent and which ensured that the voice of the author was always present in the words we published. He was also incredibly loyal to, and supportive of, me, only half-joking when he said the primary job of the chair is to support the Director in all circumstances.

His influence was probably most keenly felt in our media work, in the membership and reach of our advisory council, in our advocacy in New York, in our engagement with the Elders, and in our work with the Catholic Church. But there was nothing the Sri Lanka Campaign did during our time in charge which did not bear his imprint.

He was incredibly supportive of my decision to leave, and worked diligently to ensure a smooth succession. He ended up leaving first, handing over at our fifth anniversary event in the summer of 2015 and I have never seen him so touched as he was by our leaving gift – a simple framed letter of thanks from various Sri Lankan civil society activists for his support for their work. He also coached me into getting my next role (at UNA-UK). Fittingly my last day at the Sri Lanka Campaign, in the autumn of 2016, was the day of Edward’s last board meeting, in the house of his successor as chair, Charu Lata Hogg. António Guterres had been chosen as Secretary-General earlier that same day and so Edward had to do an interview for the BBC from a radio truck parked outside Charu’s house while the rest of us enjoyed our pudding. A perfectly Edward-like blend of business and pleasure, gossip, and strategic communication.

We stayed in touch and he remained one of the people I turned to most frequently for advice – not only on the UN but on balancing career and caring, and on being the sort of troublemaker people feel they have to listen to. More than anyone I owe him my career, and he has done more than anyone to shape how I conduct myself in those positions.

A few years ago, I went to visit him in Burford, where he gave me a tour of the church which had played various cameo roles in the history of England, mostly involving various members of the great and the good, but also as the place where the Leveller uprising finally came to an end. “It’s quite a surprising place to find such radicalism”, he noted. This was true of more than the church.

Charu Lata Hogg, Chair of the Sri Lanka Campaign

Edward handed over the position of chair of SLC to me in 2015, a task I undertook with the full realisation that I could never fill his shoes. In the early days, he gently steered me into the role, offering regular guidance on the phone, being present at board meetings, reviewing and editing documents with the lightest touch, but always leaving a note or a meeting richer, with his involvement. SLC grew from being an idea to a mighty, micro international rights organisation, thanks to the intellectual and political weight that Edward brought. He recognised talent and brought in Fred, who ran the organisation with integrity and prowess.

I too became the beneficiary of Edward’s generosity. His belief in supporting unrecognised causes translated into personal support to an organisation I simultaneously set up. Forever curious, always empathic, Edward came to talks and lectures I was speaking at and opened doors wherever he could.

Edward will be deeply missed by all of us at SLC, and I will consider it a privilege that he was part of all our lives.

Edward Mortimer is survived by his wife Elizabeth (Wiz), daughters Frances and Phoebe, sons Horatio and Matthew, and seven grandchildren. He will be greatly missed by everyone at the Sri Lanka Campaign, and we will take his memory with us in our work.