Experts need to make a call on US SOFA: M.A. Sumanthiran

By Skandha Gunasekara

The Government is hoping to enter into a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US, which has come under heavy criticism from other host nations on its impact on a nation’s sovereignty. TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said that such agreements were “part and parcel of existential realities of smaller states”.

Below are excerpts of his interview with The Sunday Morning:

Does Sri Lanka need to enter into an agreement such as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)?

Well that’s a matter for defence experts to make a decision on.

But we are already in similar agreements with the US such as the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA), so do we really need the SOFA?

It does seem like overkill but that’s up to the defence experts and I am no defence expert.

Will Sri Lanka’s sovereignty be violated through this agreement which has clauses giving diplomatic immunity to all US personnel based in the island under the agreement?

No, I don’t think so. These have all become part and parcel of existential realities of smaller states. Sovereignty is not just a concept that is pure and can be seen as totally unaffected by anything else around it. Sometimes in order to preserve it, sovereignty itself may have to make provisions like this.

Many developed nations, such as Japan and South Korea, who host foreign military personnel under SOFA, have repeatedly raised concerns over the agreement – particularly about the immunity of foreign servicemen from local laws. How can Sri Lanka avoid such problems?

Well, as I said, there is no black and white in this. It all depends on how you judge what is most desirable for your country at that point in time.

But isn’t America benefiting from the SOFA, especially when one considers the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to America?

Of course America will benefit more than Sri Lanka will benefit from the SOFA. That is the reality. The question is whether Sri Lanka also benefits. That’s the only question. That they would benefit more is a known fact.

Wouldn’t entering into agreements such as the SOFA further entangle Sri Lanka in the geopolitics of superpowers such as China and the US?

Yes and no. that’s why I’ve been saying right along that there is no black and white answers to this situation. The overall impact is what needs to be assessed and a decision taken.

If this agreement is debated in Parliament and a vote is taken, how will the TNA cast its vote?

I don’t think it will come to a vote.

If it does come to a vote?

It doesn’t have to come to a vote. This is something that the executive does.

Apart from a parliamentary vote, what is the position on this agreement?

We will express our views on what is favourable and highlight matters that are not favourable.