A major diplomatic dispute is in the offing with the District Court of Colombo ruling that four Norwegian foreign ministry officials, including its former Ambassador in Colombo, Hilde Haraldstad, are accountable for multiple banking transactions undertaken by local NGO, the Foundation for Co-Existence, in support of ‘˜peace projects” underwritten by the governments of Norway and the UK during the Eelam war.
Dismissing an application made by the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the Colombo seeking entitlement of diplomatic immunity the District Court has declared that the Ambassador could be sued despite his diplomatic immunity.
The Norwegian Ambassador and other Norwegian foreign officials had cited the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations-1961 and argued that they were covered by the diplomatic immunity and they could not be sued in Sri Lanka.
The ruling comes in the wake of Norway warning of breaking diplomatic relations if Sri Lanka went ahead with the case. The dispute has sent shock waves through the local NGO community, with Norway insisting those recipients of its funding should throw their weight behind them.
The Additional District Judge has said that first defendant Ms Haraldstad, fifth defendant State Secretary Espen Barth Eide, sixth defendant Deputy Director General Kjersti Anderson and ninth defendant Foreign Service Control unit director Erik Glenne, were liable in Sri Lankan court.
Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe had moved the District Court of Colombo against 11 Norwegian officials, including former minister Erik Solheim, who had spearheaded the Norwegian peace initiative here demanding compensation of Rs 98,528,065.69 on the basis he obtained bank overdraft facilities on the strength of the Norwegian undertaking. Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe served as the Chief Executive Officer Foundation for Co-Existence Limited and carried out Norwegian and British funded projects.
According to the plaintiff, Norway had failed to honour the tripartite agreement, signed in June 2008, under which the Foundation for Co-Existence was to be paid by both the Norwegian and British governments.
The signatories to the agreement were Tore Hattrem, the then Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, on behalf of Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tom Owen”Edmunds, Head of Political and Development Section of the British High Commission, on behalf of British High Commission in Colombo and Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, on behalf of the Foundation for Co-Existence.
There has not been any previous case similar to the ongoing legal dispute involving a local NGO and its foreign partners.
Norway was to fund the projects to the tune of 75 per cent with the remaining funding coming from the UK.
Having made some payments, in accordance with the agreement, Norway suspended further payments in early May 2009, just weeks ahead of the conclusion of the conflict. However, the UK met its full commitment in keeping with the agreement.
Norway had voiced its strong concern over the attempt to haul its representatives up before a Sri Lankan court. Norway through local lawyers representing the country’s interests asserted that all Norwegians cited as defendants enjoyed diplomatic immunity hence legal action could not be instituted against them.
Norway went to the extent of warning that diplomatic relations between the two countries could be at stake unless the case is dismissed.