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Tuesday July 23rd, 2024

EU to review Sri Lanka’s access to GSP+ trade concession amid rights abuse concerns

Sri Lankan Garment Factory/apparelresources.com

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)

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Sri Lanka to introduce digital program for foreign workers facing problems

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will introduce a digital program via smart phones for migrant workers to report any concerns while employed abroad, Minister of Labor and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara said.

“We will have a digital program that is accessible from their smart mobile phones where domestic workers can notify us if they have not got their salary or if they have fallen into some trouble,” Nanayakkara said in parliament on Tuesday.

Sri Lanka has sent 301,000 domestic workers and 360,000 skilled workers abroad, Nanayakkara said.

Several workers, especially domestic workers, face abuse at the hands of foreign employers.

Nanayakkara said that the government only receives 0.001 percent of complaints with regard to abuse.

“We can only act on complaints received from people who go through legal channels. We are educating those who go through the Foreign Employment Bureau on how to escalate complaints.” (Colombo/Jul23/2024)

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Sri Lanka cabinet approves apology from Muslims for COVID-19 cremation ahead of election

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposal to tender apology for the grievance caused for ethnic minority Muslims due to the cremation of bodies during the Covid-19 pandemic, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said.

The move comes ahead of the upcoming presidential poll in which Muslim votes are likely to become crucial for all candidates.

The government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa led by current ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) forced Muslims and Christians to cremate the dead bodies of those who died of Covid-19 in 2020.

The   Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which includes Islamic states globally raised the forced cremations issue at the 46th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in February 2021 after the SLPP government rejected repeated requests by local and global Islamic bodies.

The policy was later reversed, but the move hit diplomatic ties with Middle Eastern and OIC nations which is the highest source of employment for Sri Lankan expatriates.

Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa later said the decision was based on expert advice. Rajapaksa who was seen as an anti-Muslim leader was heavily criticized for his decision ahead of 2020 parliamentary polls while his elder brother and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declined to discuss the issue with Muslim parties which asked to reverse the decision.

Hundreds of Muslims were cremated during the Covid-19 period before Rajapaksa government allowed a separate burial ground for Muslim Covid-19 victims in the Eastern town of Oddamavadi.

“A joint Cabinet Paper presented by Ministers Ali Sabry, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe & Jeevan Thondaman apologising for the grievance caused to the Sri Lankan Muslim community due to the cremation of bodies during the Covid-19 pandemic, approved by the Cabinet,” Minister Sabry  tweeted quoting Cabinet Spokesman.

Already President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Estate Infrastructure Minister Jeevan Thondaman had tendered an apology in the parliament. The latest cabinet move is a formal and official apology.

BURIAL OR CREMATION

Along with the apology, the Cabinet approved proposed law on burial or cremation of dead bodies on religious discretion.

“As stipulated in the guidelines published by the Ministry of Health on the Clinical Management of COVID19, cremation was made compulsory in removal of the dead bodies of the persons who died due to the COVID-19 virus. The decision created displeasure among the various religious groups and human right activists especially Muslim religious persons,” a government document on the cabinet decision showed.

“The studies made in this respect have been confirmed that the faeces and the urine are the primary source of transmission the virus but not with the safe burial. Therefore, in order to prevent arisen of such condition in future, attention has been drawn to introduce a law, a certain person or relations to be selected the burial or cremation of the dead person at their discretion.”

“Further, it has been seemed that introduction of new laws is appropriate to donate the dead bodies to the Medical Faculty, if necessary.”

“Accordingly, Cabinet of Ministers has approved the joint proposal presented by the Minister of Justice, Prison affairs and Constitution Reforms, Minister of Foreign affairs to instruct legal Draftsman in order to prepare a draft for the introduction of new law.”

Rajapaksa’s arrogant policy led the OIC and Middle East nations to reject Sri Lanka’s repeated requests for credit lines and loans to buy oil before the country collapsed following an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022.

Minister Sabry faced harsh criticism from human rights defenders and from members of the Muslim community for what they claimed was his silence in the face of the inhumane, unscientific decision by the Rajapaksa government.

The Rajapaksa government’s stubborn insistence on cremating Muslim and Christian victims of the Covid-19 virus was against the communities’ religious beliefs and drew widespread condemnation and concern of Muslim countries and leaders.

Rajapaksa, after the economic crisis hit the country, was forced to flee in the face of massive protests against him in July 2022. (Colombo/July 23/2024)

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Fireworks erupt in parliament over Sri Lanka’s VFS Global controversy

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s parliament erupted in heated debate after government legislators raised a privilege issue against Committee on Public Finance Chair Harsha de Silva, who last week tabled report on a controversial visa deal with the IVS-GBSVFS Global, consortium.

Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa questioned the propriety of raising a privilege issue against a Committee chairman, who was acting under powers derived from the Constitution, saying it amounted to challenging the Speaker himself.

Related Sri Lanka visa deal with IVS-VFS be cancelled or revised, forensic audited: COPF Chief

Sri Lanka’s Department of Immigration had awarded a visa issuing monopoly to IVS-GBS-VFS Global without tender which was charging 25 dollars per visa compared to an earlier 1 dollar by Mobitel, and it should be terminated or revised, de Silva said presenting a report earlier this month.

Privilege Over VFS Report

State Minister Shehan Semasinghe said de Silva had presented a defective and false report misleading parliament saying among other things that the report was unanimously approved by the COPF membership.

As a result, privileges of 16 members had been broken, and misleading a parliamentary committee was a punishable offence and de Silva should be referred to the privileges committee.

De Silva said he severally and individually rejected the charges and all views of the members were attached to the final report and he would stand down as COPF chair until the matter was decided.

“This was not done secretly. There were three weeks for members to respond,” de Silva said.

“There was a debate about the tourism arrival numbers, which was included. If I am to be imprisoned, do it. I am not afraid. Give me an opportunity and I will show how each word is true.

Semasinghe said there was no desire on the part of government members to remove de Silva from the COPF.

Government member Nimal Lanza said that he was under the impression that tourist arrivals had fallen due to the VFS deal but there was an increase this year. There was no desire to imprison de Silva, he said.

Verbal Exchange

Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said five years of data was given, and there was an increase in tourism arrivals. And after April there were 53,000 tourists under new categories, which brought revenues of 1.4 billion rupees.

The report was also attached as an addendum, de Silva said.

Minister Alles questioned why the Deputy Speaker was allowing a debate over the VFS deal which would now attract media headlines.

“If you are allowed, all our members must be allowed to speak,” he said.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said if competitive tenders were called, there would not have been a charge of 25 dollars per visa as Mobitel was charging only one dollar.

Premadasa said he was responding due to charges made against de Silva and claims that he had committed a punishable offence. The opposition leader questioned how his microphone was muted.

Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa said while it was fair to allow de Silva to respond to the initial charge, a long debate should not have been allowed on the matter and also the contents of the report.

“The second bad precedent is this. It is not important whether it is Harsha de Silva or not. There are many committees. Can the Chairman of a Committee be called over a privileges issue?

“Under the Constitution there are powers to make standing orders. It is implemented through the 1953 Privileges Act. The Chairmen have certain powers. The Chairman has acted under the limits of his powers.

Parliament Undermined

Minister Rajapakshe said while there may be errors in a report, the Parliament’s powers were diminished if privilege questions were raised against Chairmen of a committee who carried out there duties.

“There may be errors in the report. We have seen that. But I am raising a question on the constitution.

“In this way, in whatever Committee, if he did his official duties, if he is made an accused in another committee of the same parliament and there is an investigation, it is the parliament’s power that is degraded.

“So it is the confidence people have in the parliament that is reduced. There is a legal question here. The Chair should consider whether it is possible to raise a question like this

“Ultimately the final responsibility of all these Committees rests with the Speaker. It is the Speaker’s powers that are delegated to the Chairman of a Committee.

“So, this challenge is made against the Speaker. How is the Speaker doing this?

“If the next day, the COPE, or COPA issues a report, someone asks to put him in the punishment log (dandu kanda) or to do whatever and calls him to the privileges committee.

“What are you going to ask at the Privileges committee? What punishment are you going to give? (Colombo/July23/2024)

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