ECONOMYNEXT – A European Union (EU) delegation arrived in Sri Lanka Monday (27) morning to assess if the bloc should withdraw the country’s largest trade concession that has helped the island nation’s top export garments, amid renewed concerns over human rights abuses against ethnic minorities.
The five-member EU delegation will meet officials including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all key stakeholders to assess the progress of Sri Lanka’s pledges to comply with 27 international conventions in return for the Generalized Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+) trade concession.
The European parliament in June adopted a resolution to consider withdrawing the over 500 million US dollar worth trade concession.
The European parliament’s key demand was for Sri Lanka to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), arguing that the legislation has been systematically used for arbitrary arrests and the detention of Muslims and minority groups in Sri Lanka.
International rights groups have asked the EU to demand Sri Lanka to comply with its obligations to continue the trade concession.
“Under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan government has suppressed civil society, silenced protesters, targeted vulnerable minorities, further misused the abusive PTA, and reversed any progress on accountability for war crimes,” EU director at Human Rights Watch Lotte Leicht said in a letter last week.
“The EU should call out these blatant violations of Sri Lanka’s obligations under the GSP+ rules and be clear about the consequences if human rights violations and impunity for war crimes persist.”
The Rajapaksa government has denied the allegations.
The EU is the second largest export destination for Sri Lankan products, and GSP+ has helped the country’s exporters to consolidate their position.
Around 7,000 Sri Lankan export items were covered under GSP+, of which around 60% were apparel, 11% were rubber products, 9% were gems and jewellery, 3% agriculture and around 17% other products, including wood products, toys and tableware.
Two key incidences
The EU delegation visit comes after two key incidents of alleged human rights violations in the last two weeks.
Lohan Ratwatta, a state minister under President Rajapaksa administration, has been accused of threatening 10 ethnic minority Tamil detainees with a gun while forced to kneel down.
Ratwatta has resigned from the Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation State Minister portfolio, but still remains as the State Minister for Gem and Jewellery.
Ratwatta has denied the allegation though he admitted that he had gone to the prison. The government has appointed a commission to probe the matter.
In addition to this, an opposition Tamil legislator has said he was dragged by the police vehicle when he, in solo, tried to commemorate the death of a Tamil Tiger rebel in public while maintaining all COVID-19 health guidelines.
“The police kicked the camphor lamp I lit to commemorate the death of a Tamil youth by his shoe, dragged me into the police jeep saying that commemoration is banned,” Selvarajah Kajendren, Jaffna district opposition MP told the EconomyNext.
“Lighting camphor lamp is one of our religious traditions to commemorate deaths. I see police kicking this by his shoe as a refusal of my freedom of expression and religious rights,” he said.
“Then they did not show the court order which said there is a ban on the commemoration. They arrested me for commemorating the death of a banned organisation’s member, but they filed a case against me under breach of quarantine guidelines.”
Police Spokesman Nihal Thalduwa, however, said the arrest was made to be a staged drama as the MP struggled without obeying the order.
“By coming to commemorate the death of a banned organisation member, he broke the quarantine law and that is why he was arrested,” Thalduwa told EconomyNext.
Later the MP was released on bail after being asked to be present in court on October 27.
The two incidents took place when international attention was on Sri Lanks for its past human rights records as the United Nations Human Rights Council continued to assess the country’s progress in addressing alleged past abuses.
Vital for exports
The EU delegation also comes two weeks after the United Nations Human Rights chief raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s conduct over addressing past alleged human rights violations and said the world body will initiate maximum information gathering this year over said violations.
Sri Lanka benefits from the GSP+ concession, an incentive scheme tied to the improvement of human rights and good governance. The scheme offers tariff cuts to support vulnerable developing countries.
Some politicians in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) have said the country should not always depend on trade benefits and the export industry should increase their productivity to overcome the situation.
However, exporters have said GSP+ has given great relief given the higher cost of production in Sri Lanka.
The EU has consistently warned Sri Lanka it must meet 27 international human rights conventions to retain its GSP Plus status. The island nation lost the concession in 2010 because of human rights violations and civilian deaths in the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers, which ended with the separatists’ defeat.
Sri Lanka regained the same concession in 2017 but it has come under pressure again from Western nations and rights groups because of renewed allegations of human rights violations since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected.
Suspension of the preferential tariffs could hit Sri Lanka’s booming textile industry hard. In 2020, the country earned 3.9 billion US dollars from exports of clothing mainly to EU markets, apparel being the largest source of its foreign currency earnings. Exports fell almost by a quarter last year due to the pandemic impacting manufacturing.
Economy and reconciliation
President Rajapaksa’s government has said it is ready to engage with the United Nations but would not cooperate with an external initiative to address allegations of human rights violations.
At the UN General Assembly last week, he asked the UN to facilitate Sri Lanka to deal with its own issues by allowing the parliament, the judiciary and its range of independent statutory bodies “to exercise their functions and responsibilities”.
The President also expressed his government’s intention to engage with the Tamil diaspora, an idea that was strongly opposed by his ruling SLPP when it was in opposition from 2015 to 2019.
President Rajapaksa’s move comes as the country is facing an impending economic crisis with a sharp fall in state revenue due to the pandemic and risk of possible sovereign default amid difficulties in borrowing foreign currencies through external commercial loans due to high risk premium.
This has prompted the Rajapaksa administration to urge all countries to look at Sri Lanka as a trade and investment destination.
Foreign Minister G L Peiris when he met Lord Ahmad, British Minister of State for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, over the weekend on the sideline of the UN session in New York, discussed trade, investment opportunities available in the Port City and elsewhere and matters relating to development and reconciliation with particular reference to relations with the diaspora, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Minister Peiris briefed Lord Ahmad in detail about the substantial progress on the ground in a variety of sectors by domestic institutions, despite constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In a meeting with South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, Peiris said Sri Lanka had closely looked at South Africa’s rich experience and unique history in the areas of reconciliation and truth. He also briefed Pandor on Sri Lanka’s own initiatives, including its own Office of Missing Persons and Office of Reparations and their contribution towards Sri Lanka’s post conflict development and national unity. (Colombo/Sep27/2021)