Sri Lanka’s Acting Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and ex-Major General in Sri Lankan Army (SLA), Shavendra Silva, has invoked Article-31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Immunity as his defense to war-crimes charges leveled against him by two Tamil plaintiffs in the District Court of Southern District of New York (Case 11 Civ. 6645), court records show.
With no declared formal intervention by the U.S. State Department, and despite earlier pronouncements that Silva will defend his actions in the Court of law, the ex-General appears to have thought it prudent to hide behind “absolute” immunity defense his counsel claims the General is legally entitled to.
Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Immunity
Silva’s counsel mentions in a letter to the Court that filing an official Motion to Dismiss will “dignify the alleged attempts at “service” on the Ambassador,” and therefore, they were requesting their letter to be treated as a motion to dismiss, which the Court granted.
The Plaintiffs are expected to file a reply to the motion to dismiss by the 8th of November, and Defendant’s reply, if any, to be filed before the 17th November.
The defense argues that pursuant to a UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities, and to an agreement UN and the US regarding the Head Quarters located in New York, Mr Silva has the same Immunities accorded to diplomats, and that Mr Silva is entitled to such immunity as defined by the Vienna Convention.
The defense also argues that such immunity is “absolute,” and therefore, precludes any civil action from proceeding against a currently-serving diplomat, regardless of the nature of the alleged crimes.
The defense cites four previous cases in support of its immunity argument.
While the question of immunity is a difficult hurdle to overcome, the defense’s argument is clearly less than persuasive. First, there are no binding Supreme Court cases cited by the defense on the issue of immunity. The second circuit case cited involves functional immunity, and can be distinguished from Shavendra case where the issue is one of crimes against humanity committed while the defendant was not a diplomat, and no functional immunity applies here, legal sources in Washington said.
Further, courts have said the purpose of the immunity “is not to benefit individuals but to ensure efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions.” In Shavendra’s case, the likely argument presented by the plaintiffs is, Colombo purportedly sought to exploit the immunity provision to sanitize an alleged war-criminal. Plaintiffs are likely to highlight Switzerland’s warning to ex-General Jagath Dias on imminent war-crimes investigations, and Colombo recalling the General, as an appropriate example of Colombo’s efforts to send alleged criminals as diplomats, legal sources added.
“Legal scholars have argued that diplomatic immunity, which supports personal inviolability, may not prevail when the defendant has committed international crimes. When establishing the hierarchy between norms granting immunity and norms protecting fundamental values such as human life, the immunity norms always lose. Further, diplomatic immunity is a functionality based principle based on “reciprocal compromise,” and cannot be categorized as jus cogens, or compelling law. U.S. jurisprudence will inevitably move towards a position where sanitization of genocidaires, such as Shavendra Silva, is legally prevented by narrowly interpreting the doctrine of immunity,” spokesperson for the US-based activist group, Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), said.
Ali Beydoun, lead counsel and director at American University’s Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic, filed the civil action against Mr Silva on behalf of Tamil plaintiffs Vathsala Devi and Seetharam Sivam