By Nirmala Kannangara/Daily Mirror
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz in her first interview with the print media after the Easter Sunday attack exclusively told the Daily Mirror how the United States is committed to aid Sri Lanka to combat and defeat terrorism on the request of the Sri Lankan Government and how President Donald Trump offered the necessary resources in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks to conduct the investigation.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims of the attacks. These attacks were senseless, vicious and unprecedented. It was a heartbreaking moment for the whole world. I hope the investigation is going to reveal in due time the extent and nature of the relationships that this attack group may have had abroad, but it is going to be important to understand that this was a home-grown group. We are very pleased to be able to provide this assistance to a friend and partner in need through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),” she said. She further said how information-sharing is key in the face of these threats. “That is a critical element of our ongoing safety and security, not just for Sri Lanka and the United States, but for our friends and partners in other nations,” she claimed.
Meanwhile, denying the allegations levelled by the media concerning a permanent US base in Sri Lanka, the US envoy said the ‘Visiting Forces Agreement’ that the US have been negotiating with the Sri Lankan Government updates an existing agreement that dates way back to 1995.
“I know there has been talk in the press around concern of a permanent US base in Sri Lanka. This agreement would provide for nothing of that sort. It is about visiting forces here temporarily at the request and invitation of the Sri Lankan government for the conduct of exercises,” she added.
When asked on the process of relinquishing US citizenship which has recently seen wide discussion in Sri Lanka, she said that renunciation of US citizenship is an ‘administrative’ not ‘political’ process and is straightforward.
“As long as you have paid your taxes and have no criminal cases, the renunciation of American citizenship moves along. But for privacy reasons I cannot comment on any specific case,” she said.
When asked whether the reinstatement of an alleged ‘white van squad leader’ would complicate the ability of the US government to provide counter-terrorism assistance to Sri Lanka, envoy Alaina Teplitz said that such appointments were ‘deeply disturbing’.
“If true, this appointment is deeply disappointing in the sense that there are credible, proven allegations against this individual and this is a country and a government that has committed to addressing gross violations of human rights in the past. That means it’s not just about reconciliation, but accountability as well, which has to be respected,” she said.
Q To what extent does the US believe that the Islamic State was involved in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka and why might Sri Lanka have become a target?
First let me say that these attacks were senseless. They were vicious. They were unprecedented and our thoughts and prayers have been with the families of the victims of the attacks, ever since they occurred. It was a heartbreaking moment for the whole world. In the wake of the attacks, an investigation had to be undertaken and one is underway in Sri Lanka. We are really pleased to be providing support to the government of Sri Lanka at their request to help them conduct this investigation.
The Islamic State did make public claims about having been behind this. I think, however, you have to look at the global nature of this terror threat where groups have been radicalizing, whether inspired by the Islamic State or whether they get their inspiration from somewhere else, and the fact that the perpetrators of these attacks were all Sri Lankan.
I hope the investigation is going to reveal in due time the extent and nature of the relationships that this attack group may have had abroad, but it is going to be important to understand that this was a home-grown group. As such, the government, people and communities are going to need to think differently on how to confront this threat going forward.
Q What is the role that the US played in Sri Lanka since April 21?
At the request of the government of Sri Lanka, the United States has been providing support through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to Sri Lanka’s investigation. We are very pleased to be able to provide this assistance to a friend and partner in need. We plan to be supportive for as long as our assistance is required, doing things in the investigation like helping to process evidence. I hope there will be no need for such partnerships in the future but there can be threats out there. We look forward to maintaining a partnership in the years to come so that both of our countries can feel more secure knowing that we can work together to face those threats.
We have long been a friend and partner and we had a security partnership even before these attacks. We have been working to support Sri Lanka’s ability, for example, to better secure its maritime space, the seas around the island.
In fact, just this past weekend, in an example of that partnership, a former US coastguard cutter, now part of the Sri Lankan Navy, arrived, after sailing from Hawaii with its Sri Lankan naval crew. We are proud to have made this contribution but also prouder still that the Sri Lankan navy is going to be putting this resource to such good use in the future in ensuring the sovereignty and integrity of this country.
Q Did the US government send assistance unilaterally after the Easter attacks, or did the Sri Lankan government request assistance?
We came in response to the Sri Lankan government’s request. President Donald Trump offered all necessary resources or assistance to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government requested, and we delivered.
Q What is the role that countries like Sri Lanka, who have been victims of such terrorist attacks, can play in the global effort to defeat terrorism?
The global terror threat is different to some of the threats of the past. We must all collectively think a little differently about how we are going to counter the threat. Information sharing is key in the face of this threat. All nations may have a little of the threat picture, a piece of that puzzle, if you will. We have to share those pieces in order to understand that landscape or understand that picture. That is a critical element of our ongoing safety and security, not just for Sri Lanka and the United States, but for our friends and partners in other nations.
I know that democracies can be successful in combatting terrorism. We can work together. Our open societies are a great defence against the kind of terror and discord and disunity that terrorists seek to create. Going forward, in Sri Lanka, we want to be supportive of the government’s efforts to respond to the terror threat, and to do so in ways that respect democratic values here and respect civil liberties. I think that is entirely possible to do.
Q After the recent incidents, and during communal violence that took place last year, the government suspended access to American social media and messaging platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube in order to halt the spread of fake news and prevent communal violence. How can these companies be held accountable for preventing such abuse of their platforms so that such blocking is not necessary in the future?
The government’s response in the wake of the terror threats has been prompt and effective. It was solid. That is something to acknowledge. The emergency services and then this investigation and the bringing in of the correct people into custody so that people can be safer here. With regards to the shutdown of social media, I know efforts have been underway to improve security on those platforms. Violence can go viral on these platforms. I suspect that is always going to be a challenge and I know all these companies have been working hard on that.
There is always a fine line with allowing free speech, and the calming of speech and the rejection of extremism that could take place on these platforms were they still operable. The other communication and even basic messaging that needs to happen even from just to say to your friends and family that “I’m OK”, is going to be a challenge if these platforms are not functional. This is going to be an ongoing issue to discuss and work on, and I hope all the companies will remain as engaged and cooperative as they have been up to this point. It’s a key issue, and a challenging issue.
Q Several Americans were killed in the Easter attacks. What is the position of your government on prosecuting those murders in US jurisdiction? How will such investigations and criminal proceedings work in parallel with similar proceedings in Sri Lanka’s jurisdiction?
There were five Americans who lost their lives in these attacks and three were wounded. As a result, we are investigating for potentially bringing charges against any of the terror group that remain alive in US courts. However, Sri Lanka has the lead on this, and we are supporting their investigation and I am sure that the Sri Lankan government will be bringing charges against some of these people now in custody. Those cases will move forward. Our indictments in the US will be secondary to those.
The benefit to this two-track investigation, our support of the Sri Lankan investigation and a parallel effort to bring charges in the United States, is that we can bring even more resources to bear to help with that primary investigation that the government of Sri Lanka is undertaking. It must be made known to anybody who seeks to perpetrate attacks like this that they will be held accountable and that they are going to be held accountable the world over, really. We may not be the only other country that brings charges, because there were people of many nationalities who were killed and injured in these attacks.
Q How soon will this process be complete?
I couldn’t speculate. The investigation is ongoing, so it is difficult to say.
Q The US government has spoken strongly about supporting Sri Lanka and preserving normalcy. But the embassy has asked non-essential personnel to leave the country. Why?
In the wake of the terror attacks, we did take the step of ordering school-age children to depart the country. Adult employees and family members were given the choice of whether they were going to depart or not. From our perspective, we wanted to ensure that our children are not placed at risk at a volatile time when much was still unknown about the scope of the attack plot and the vulnerability of institutions in Sri Lanka. We do this as a precautionary measure. It is a mechanism we have used in many other countries in times of crisis. I hope that in the near future we will be able to welcome our children back to our embassy.
Q The process of relinquishing American citizenship has recently seen wide discussion in Sri Lanka. Under American law, at what stage does the US government consider a US citizen who has sworn an oath of renunciation as no longer being a US citizen? Is it as soon as the oath is sworn or is there any other procedure that needs to be followed before a US citizen is released from citizenship by your government?
There is an administrative process you go through. Once that process is complete, the person is no longer a US citizen. There is a long process to make sure the person is of sound mind and wants to make that decision. They file paperwork and work with the consular office at the embassy, where they go through many steps. Then the persons present themselves to the embassy and they sign legal paperwork. They read the oath of renunciation aloud to the consular officer. The embassy takes that packet and sends it to Washington DC just for final review. Then they confirm that the renunciation has taken place. If it is confirmed, it will be effective on the day the person actually swore the oath to renounce US citizenship.
(See box for the US Citizenship renunciation process)
Q A US citizen was recently sued in a California court over the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of ‘The Sunday Leader’ Newspaper. Is the US embassy and government aware of and monitoring this case?
We are aware of the case because there has been a public filing. We are not closely monitoring the case. It will follow its due course in the court system in the US. It is a civil suit brought by a private litigant.
Q If there is a civil case pending against a US citizen, does that prevent the US government from allowing such a citizen to renounce his American citizenship?
There are two issues there to address. We have a difference between civil and criminal cases that can be brought. A civil case has no bearing on a renunciation process. Separately, Renunciation of (US) Citizenship is an administration process. It is straightforward. As long as you have paid your taxes and have no criminal cases, then it moves along. For privacy reasons I cannot comment on any specific case, but it is pretty straightforward.
Q A Sri Lankan military intelligence officer, Maj. Bulathwatte, who was in charge of a team with allegations of abductions and murders of several journalists has recently been reinstated and given a special team responsible for counter-terrorism, frightening many police officers and witnesses who testified against him. Do appointments of this nature complicate the ability of the US government to provide counter-terrorism assistance to Sri Lanka?
If true, this appointment is deeply disappointing in the sense that there are credible, proven allegations against this individual and this is a country and a government that has committed to addressing gross violations of human rights in the past. That means that its not just about reconciliation, but accountability as well, which has to be respected.
I can appreciate that some people may have responded out of fear in the wake of these terror attacks and there has been some discussion in the public media about how safe people might have been in the past. That is a false confidence. This is a new threat. It requires people of integrity and it requires people with experience and a future looking focus to counter this threat. It also requires people who will respect the values of Sri Lanka, and international norms that do not support gross violations of human rights like those you have described.
Q A Member of Parliament recently made a very serious allegation in Parliament about a US official having attempted to influence the Sri Lankan judiciary for political reasons. What is the US Government’s position? What can you say about the history and practice of judicial study tours?
I would point you to the refutation of this allegation made by the Ministry of Justice and the judges who participated in the study tour. The person who made these allegations has made baseless allegations. More broadly speaking, for the last seventy years, the US has supported professional and study exchanges between the US and Sri Lanka, and they have covered an array of subject matter including investigative journalism and looking at emergency preparation. They have covered judges and judicial issues. The list is so long I don’t know where to begin. This is just part of what we have done as friends and partners over many years. When you understand that we are doing professional exchanges of this nature, and have been for years, on a huge array of topics, that allegation begins to look rather baseless.
Q What are the geopolitical interests of the USA in Asia?
I would look at it from a slightly different perspective. Not so much what the US’ specific geopolitical interests are but as a community of nations, our more global interests regarding a free and open Indo-Pacific space, the free transit of goods both by sea and air, and making sure there are laws and norms that allow nations to trade together peaceably and to get along, and that preserves these spaces for the transit of goods, and the transit of services. Our interest is in preserving that rules-based order, ensuring we have a chance to interact with other countries to our mutual benefit. Peace and prosperity are what we are all jointly working towards as beneficial outcomes for our countries. That’s how I see our interests. It’s around what is in the mutual interests of all nations.
Q Specifically, what is the interest of the USA in Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical position along a major sea lane?
There is no denying that Sri Lanka is in a very strategic location for exactly the reason you suggest, because the sea lanes pass by here. For hundreds of years it has become a path of trade and commerce heading between other parts of the world and the far east. So, it is very important in that regard and a lot of the economy here is linked.
Our interest in Sri Lanka as a friend and partner of this country, however, is not entirely around those sets of issues. Sri Lanka is a democracy. The US is a democracy. We partner with democracies worldwide. We have common interests around maintaining that rules-based order that can benefit all of our nations globally with free and fair playing fields. We also have interests around other issues of global stability and security, such as peacekeeping. Sri Lanka has been a troop contributing country. We have also wanted to support that effort to maintain stability in other parts of the world.
We also look at other security interests in the sense of ensuring the sovereignty of nations and making sure they can patrol and maintain not only the economic space around their countries but end transnational crime like global narcotics trafficking and human trafficking. We have common interests there. The bottom line is we have many, many more interests than Sri Lanka’s physical geographic locations. We have another common interest around human rights and dignity for all and we want to make sure that globally these values are respected.
Q Many political and military figures have spoken to the media about the proposed status of forces agreement between the Sri Lankan and US military. What is the truth about this proposed agreement? What are the benefits and drawbacks for both countries in entering into such an agreement?
The Visiting Forces Agreement that we have been negotiating with the government of Sri Lanka updates an existing agreement that dates all the way back to 1995. It will help to make it current. It is largely an administrative and logistical agreement that will iron out details relating to visiting forces engaged in exercises, for example, with the Sri Lankan military. Things like mutual recognition of professional licences, fees for professional support rendered, regulations for hiring foreign and local contractors, how US military personnel and civilian personnel can enter and exit Sri Lanka, the mutually agreeing what specific methods will be used.
Given that we conduct many joint exercises throughout any given calendar year as a part of our military-to-military relationship, it would certainly help both sides avoid a lot of case-by-case negotiations as we go from one exercise to another. I know there has been talk in the press around concern of a permanent US base in Sri Lanka. This agreement would provide for nothing of that sort. It is about visiting forces here temporarily at the request and invitation of the Sri Lankan government for the conduct of exercises.
Q Is it true that the US is concerned about China’s growing influence and presence in Sri Lanka? If so, why?
The US looks at partnerships in the region including with Sri Lanka with the idea that countries need to have many options, many friends and many partners. We ourselves have a relationship with China and we would expect that other countries in the region are also going to maintain relationships. The question for me is always what is the quality of those relationships? Are they ones where there is mutual respect for sovereignty? Are the relationships mutually beneficial in the sense that countries can work together for prosperity in the future? Are they transparent relationships? Are they equal relationships? These are the questions that any country should be asking about its partnerships.
Q Do you have any other comments you would like to share with our readers?
The US remains committed to the government and people of Sri Lanka as a friend and a partner. We certainly responded in the wake of the terror attacks, but we have been a steadfast friend and partner for many years. In that sense, our relationship has not changed. These recent events give us even more reason to want to deepen that partnership to ensure our mutual security, and to look at that prosperous future that we are both hoping for. There are economic challenges the country will be facing but we want to work with Sri Lanka to overcome those. Hopefully in the future we will be courting US investment and looking at ways that we can prosper together.
In response to questions relating to the procedure for a US citizen to voluntarily renounce his/her US citizenship, and at what stage citizenship is deemed to have been lost by the US government, the US Embassy in Colombo provided Daily Mirror with references to the laws and regulations of the United States pertaining to this subject.
According to these excerpts of US laws, regulations and administrative guidelines, a person loses US nationality upon an application receiving ‘approval by the Secretary of State’ after a long administrative process. Upon approval of the application, the relevant US embassy will provide the former citizen with a certificate of loss of nationality, as proof of no longer having US citizenship.
Section 349 (a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, codified at Title 8 of the United States Code, Chapter 12, Section 1481.
A person who is a national of the United States whether by birth or naturalization, shall lose his nationality by voluntarily making a formal renunciation of nationality before a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States in a foreign state, in such form as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State, with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality.
Section 358 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, codified at Title 8 of the United States Code, Chapter 12, Section 1501.
Whenever a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States has reason to believe that a person while in a foreign state has lost his United States nationality under any provision of part III of this sub chapter, or under any provision of chapter IV of the Nationality Act of 1940, as amended, he shall certify the facts upon which such belief is based to the Department of State, in writing, under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of State. If the report of the diplomatic or consular officer is approved by the Secretary of State, a copy of the certificate shall be forwarded to the Attorney General, for his information, and the diplomatic or consular office in which the report was made shall be directed to forward a copy of the certificate to the person to whom it relates. Approval by the Secretary of State of a certificate under this section shall constitute a final administrative determination of loss of United States nationality under this chapter, subject to such procedures for administrative appeal as the Secretary may prescribe by regulation, and also shall constitute a denial of a right or privilege of United States nationality for purposes of section 1503 of this title.
Title 22, Section 50.50 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations – Renunciation of Nationality
(a) A person desiring to renounce U.S. nationality under section 349(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act shall appear before a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States in the manner and form prescribed by the Department. The renunciant must include on the form he signs a statement that he absolutely and entirely renounces his U.S. nationality together with all rights and privileges and all duties of allegiance and fidelity thereunto pertaining.
(b) The diplomatic or consular officer shall forward to the Department for approval the oath of renunciation together with a certificate of loss of nationality as provided by section 358 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. If the officer’s report is approved by the Department, copies of the certificate shall be forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Justice, and to the person to whom it relates or his representative.