Peace guru declares war, demands Rs 94 mn from Norway

But, govt. says respondents have diplomatic immunity


by Shamindra Ferdinando

 The government has intervened in a simmering legal battle between Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe and the Norwegian government over alleged non-payment of funds amounting to nearly Rs. 94 million owed to the NGO guru, in accordance with a tripartite agreement signed at the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo in June 2008.

The Solicitor General on Monday (11) told the District Court of Colombo that those cited as the first to tenth respondents in a case filed by Dr. Rupesinghe enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Solicitor General Y. J. W Wijeyatilleke’s, position was conveyed to the Court by Legal Affairs Advisor to the External Affairs Ministry Thusantha Wijemanne.

The Island revealed the dispute in a front-page lead story headlined ‘Norway in unprecedented legal wrangle with NGO guru’, with strap line ‘Warns irreparable damage to diplomatic relations’ on its Feb 9, 2013 issue.

Having received fresh submissions, the Court announced that the case would be called again on April 2, 2013.

Earlier, the Solicitor General told the District Court that the case could be heard in Sri Lanka. The Solicitor General’s decision followed Foreign Secretary Karunathilake Amunugama withdrawing a letter submitted by the Legal Affairs Advisor of the External Affairs Ministry declaring diplomatic immunity for those cited in Dr. Rupesinghe’s plaint.

The Foreign Secretary referred the case to the Solicitor General, who informed Court that the case could be heard in Sri Lanka. However, the position was changed on Monday on the basis of what the Solicitor General called fresh material made available to the Attorney General as regards the case.

Dr. Rupesinghe, on behalf of the Foundation for Co-Existence, made submission to Court that Norway owed as much as Rs 94 million for a project carried out in the Eastern Province to promote peace and harmony among the three communities living there. Dr. Rupesinghe alleged that Norway had declined to meet its obligations in accordance with the contract, though the British did. The British government is party to the agreement which covered a three-year period.

The signatories to the agreement are 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.

The agreement was finalized about a year after the government liberated the Eastern Province. There hasn’t been any previous case similar to the ongoing legal dispute involving a local NGO and its foreign partners.

Norway was to fund the project 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.

Sources said that the Norwegian Embassy had taken up the position that any attempt to summon Norwegian officials and diplomats before the District Court of Colombo would cause irreparable damage to diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Embassy has warned such a course of action could lead to Oslo breaking diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka. However, sources in Norway said that the warning seemed to have originated at the Colombo Mission without consulting the Foreign Ministry.

Among the respondent’s cited in the petition are International Development Minister Erik Solheim and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store.

Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, during the period from 1997 to 2009, revealed Norwegian funding (2001 to 2004) for a range of NGO-run projects, with Rupesinghe being identified as the recipient of the Lion’s share of Norwegian funding amounting to US $ 6 million (NOK 35 million). According to the report, Norway had paid US$ 28 mn (NOK 201 million) for peace building, rehabilitation and reconciliation efforts during the period of 2001-2004. The report commissioned by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry revealed of the NOK 210 millionn, ten Sri Lankan partners received over NOK 200 million during the period of 2001-2004.

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