Two weeks ago, the wife of a US official based in the UK killed a teenage motorcyclist in a road accident while driving away from a Royal Air Force base where her husband was stationed. Although the police here said that Anne Sacoolas, the driver of the vehicle, had told them she would be available [...]


US abuses diplomatic status: Lessons for Sri Lanka


Anne Sacoolas was driving on the wrong side of the road when the fatal accident took place

Two weeks ago, the wife of a US official based in the UK killed a teenage motorcyclist in a road accident while driving away from a Royal Air Force base where her husband was stationed.

Although the police here said that Anne Sacoolas, the driver of the vehicle, had told them she would be available if required she fled the country claiming diplomatic immunity, very probably under instructions from the US Embassy in London.

Whether she would ever return to the UK to stand trial under UK law is most unlikely given the stated US position that it does not waive the diplomatic immunity of its officials. The diplomatic status of her husband and her should provide some evidence as to where they stand.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated a few days ago that he was ready to take the case up with President Trump if no progress is made to return Anne Sacoolas to the UK. Whether Trump’s words are worth anything US allies who have been let down will be able to answer, the latest being the Kurds who battled against the ISIS in Syria.

Evidence gathered by the Northamptonshire police indicates that she drove 400 yards on the “wrong side of the road” — that is on the right-hand side as in America — instead of the left, and is believed to have crashed into the 19-year-old motorcyclist who died in hospital.

The Royal Air Force base leased to the US is where her husband is serving. It is known to many people here as a “spy” station at which communications are monitored as the British communications station in Hong Kong.

This should serve as a good lesson for the Sri Lanka Government and its diplomatic officials, some of whom are known for their proclivity to serve US interests. That, of course, is if our political leaders and the ancillary officials serving in the capital and abroad that hang around them ready to pick up the crumbs of servitude realise what they are entering into.

Interestingly Jonathan Sacoolas, the husband of Anne Sacoolas, was not on the UK official diplomatic book among the long list of US officials. This could well mean that he and his dependants may not have the same level of protection from prosecution by claiming diplomatic immunity. This is probably why the family was whisked away from the UK.

It is quite a change from an incident I am personally aware of when I was news editor of the Sunday Observer. It happened somewhere in 1975-76 when a senior French lady diplomat — No 2 at the French mission — was involved in a fatal motorcar accident. She was held at the Kirullapone police station until French officials intervened.

I had a call informing me of the accident. The diplomat had full immunity unlike it seems, the Sacoolas family. Paris refused to waive her diplomatic immunity but she stayed on in Colombo just in case she was needed.

The fact that Anne Sacoolas was quickly flown out of UK suggests that her immunity claim was rather shaky. These US officials including civilians and their dependants are protected under the Visiting Forces Act (1952) and reinforced by further legislation in 1964.

Sri Lanka’s own Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with US was first signed in 2007 by Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary and expanded in 2017 by the Yahapalana government without the new agreement being presented to the cabinet, parliament and the people.

What was under negotiation between US embassy and our foreign ministry was a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) until it was exposed by the Political Editor of the Sunday Times throwing a cat among the pigeons and detailing the confidential negotiations which considered along with ACSA and the Millennium deal would have seriously encroached on Sri Lankan sovereignty and security.

One does not have the space to spell out in detail the terms of some provisions of SOFA which President Sirisena put a stop to. The US embassy hopes to take it up again after the presidential election knowing that its links with both sides will allow the US to further its interests.

After all it knows that it is not only political torch bearers who are crawling around willing to do their bidding. There are those including some career officers who delude themselves that only they know what diplomacy is all about, parading along the corridors their Republic Square ministry or in their missions abroad like some modern-day Otto Bismarck or Klemens Metternich and sticking their noses in the air.

Fortunately for some, alert parliamentarians and the journalistic instincts of this newspaper, the secretive attempts of the US embassy to push through another military pact over and above the ACSA that had already granted enough concessions to America’s military adventurism in this part of the world came unstuck — for now at least.

What sticks in the craw besides the secret deals going on under the table is the invitation to the US Peace Corps to return to Sri Lanka after it was packed off by the Sirima Bandaranaike government somewhere in the early 1970s.

If our diplomatic panjandrums do their homework they would surely know that individually or collectively Peace Corps volunteers have been kicked out of several developing countries for espionage activities or involvement in domestic politics.

Among the privileges extended to them include tax free and other concessions and import of personal goods and equipment etc. It is as though the teaching of English requires sophisticated equipment unless it is to correct American spelling into the Queen’s English and the American accent into something more comprehensible. Still the larger question remains. Who in this government invited them back?

Although the full details of the proposed SOFA pact still remain largely confidential what is now known should surely ring alarm bells among those in this country concerned about its sovereignty and security.

Among the privileges that the US embassy’s diplomatic note to our foreign ministry on SOFA asked for is the right of US military personnel to carry weapons and be subject not to Sri Lankan jurisdiction but to US law in the event of some crime or criminal activity. They will be beyond Sri Lanka’s jurisdiction even if one of them kills or wounds a local person with his weapon unlike Anne Sacooslas which was admittedly an accident but one for which she is responsible.

Those stationed in Sri Lanka will be using their US driving licences which need not be produced before any local authority. Nor would their passports or other travel documents be inspected when they travel abroad. Their vehicles on Sri Lankan roads cannot be inspected or boarded. They could kill anybody and get away with it as they would just wave their diplomatic papers.

There is also a clause that exempts US vessels and aircraft being boarded and inspected by Sri Lankan authorities. It also exempts equipment and other articles and material being used under this agreement, from inspection within Sri Lanka.

To put it rather crudely these privileges in theory allow the US to plant a nuclear weapon in President Sirisena’s back garden or carry on board a US vessel and none of our sleuths will be any the wiser.

American ambassador Alaina Teplitz might think that she can hoodwink the Sri Lanka people as President Trump, now being investigated for impeachment, does to his own people and drops friends and allies all over the White House floor, does by describing the SOFA as one of not too much consequence and not one that compromises Sri Lanka.

If that Ambassador Teplitz thinks this is all harmless may be she has read the wrong script which Sri Lankans should read assiduously and rebel against any attempt to seal it.

A consequence of SOFA and ACSA collectively is to enmesh Sri Lanka in big power geopolitics at a time when the Indian Ocean is a vital sea lane for Pacific nations. In a narrower context US personnel will be able to get away with murder because Sri Lanka has no jurisdiction over them.


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