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Sri Lanka likely to face more scrutiny in September UNHRC session

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka may have to convince the international community more on its human rights efforts before another resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in September as the island nation has been asked to do more to address past alleged rights abuses.

Before the Sri Lankan delegation left to Geneva to participate in the 49th UNHRC session, the government attempted to activate some of its domestic processes including the Office of Missing Person (OMP) and the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR).

The government also tabled an amendment to the country’s anti-terrorism law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA,) in parliament and released a number of people arrested under the PTA including lawyer Hejaz Hizbullah and poet Ahnaf Jazeem, long demanded by international rights groups.

However, it also faced new allegations that were forwarded at the latest UNHRC session including the government’s alleged failure to find the masterminds of the 2019 Easter Sunday attack and the alleged muzzling of opposition legislators and minorities critical of the government.

Apart from these, individual complaints by Sri Lankans also have been sent in a confidential manner to the UNHRC about how their fundamental rights are being breached under successive governments, sources who were aware of such complaints told EconomyNext.

Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church leader Cardinal Malcom Ranjith’s meeting with the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has sought to change the perception of Catholic nations, especially in the Latin American belt, a source who has the knowledge on the meetings said.

According the resolution passed at the UN body last year, Bachelet has received a mandate to collect evidence of crimes allegedly committed during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, which ended with an upsurge of alleged civilian deaths attributed to both the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Many rights activists and some Western nations still see Sri Lanka’s measures including proposed amendments to the anti-terror law, reactivating the work of the OMP and ONUR as attempts to hoodwink the international community.

However, none of these measures managed to convince the UN and international community.

No credible road map

Bachelet on Friday’s session in Geneva said there have been some recent signs of increased engagement by the government with her office and certain steps to initiate reforms.

“I encourage the Government to take further steps to address the fundamental problems with the PTA, as well as undertake the deeper legal, institutional and security sector reforms that are critically needed, to put an end to impunity and prevent any recurrence of past violations,” Bachelet said.

“Regrettably, the past year has also seen further obstruction and setbacks to accountability. Victims and their families continue to be denied truth and justice.  And the Government’s response to criticism has constricted democratic and civic space, including for essential human rights advocacy.

“Two years after the expression of commitments to pursue an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process” before this Council, the Government has still not produced a credible road map on transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP)-led coalition, which earlier opposed all views on addressing past rights abuses from the West, the UN, and global rights groups, has been on reverse gear since the country started to face an economic and debt crisis.

The European Union has threatened to withdraw Sri Lanka’s access to the GSP plus trade concession worth over 500 million US dollars if Sri Lanka does not fulfil its commitments including repealing the PTA as it agreed to in 2016.

Some western nation including Canada and the United States have already imposed targeted sanctions on military personnel who are accused of war crimes.

“The current Government has not only demonstrated its unwillingness to pursue accountability – it has incorporated military officials implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of Government, reinforcing a narrative of impunity,” the UN rights chief said.

Though Sri Lanka started to address most of the rights concerns, it hardly had the time to reconcile with minorities which have accused the SLPP-led coalition of not taking strong action against racism and targeted violence against minorities since it came to power.

Visible ethno-religious nationalism

“The expression of ethno-religious nationalism in State institutions has become more visible, increasing the marginalisation and fear of minority communities, and undermining reconciliation,” Bachelet said.

“Since the end of 2020, we have noted a significant increase in land disputes, mainly related to Buddhist heritage conservation or forestry protection, that are exacerbating grievances of minority communities and creating new tensions.”

The UN rights boss also questioned the independence of country’s key commissions and institutions after the passage of the 20th amendment to strengthen the powers enjoyed by the president.

“I am also deeply concerned by continued reports of surveillance, harassment and intimidation of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists by police and intelligence services,” Bachelet said.

“Repeated incidents of deaths in custody and in alleged armed encounters with police are alarming. We also continue to receive allegations of ill-treatment and torture by police and military. This highlights the importance of fundamental security-sector reforms.”

She also said the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and religious leaders also continue to call for justice, reparation and a full account of the circumstances of those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment.

Cardinal’s request

Bachelet’s comments on Easter Sunday victims came after Sri Lanka’s Malcom Cardinal Ranjith personally visited Geneva and placed his statement officially to the UNHCR on the plight of the victims in the attack along with a request to ensure justice.

The Cardinal said the Easter Sunday attack – which killed 269 including 47 foreign nationals from 14 countries – first appeared to be the work of Islamic extremists but subsequent investigations indicated that “this massacre was part of a grand political plot.”

He said the SLPP-led government has failed to mete out justice to the victims despite repeated requests and there are attempts to harass and intimidate those who clamour for justice instead of uncovering the truth behind the attack and prosecuting those responsible.

Many rights activists say the Cardinal’s request could become a game changer in the future in forcing Sri Lanka’s government to address alleged past human rights violations, given the likelihood of Catholic-dominated nations will now also call on the government to address UNHRC demands.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Core Group said its concerns over surveillance and intimidation of civil society persists and detentions, threats and intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders continue while the proposed changes to the PTA are very limited and its longstanding concerns still remain.

“The new ‘One Country One Law’ taskforce risks undermining Sri Lanka’s pluralist society. We urge Sri Lanka to ensure that this taskforce’s work is inclusive and non-discriminatory,” the UK’s Global Ambassador for Human Rights Rita French in her statement on behalf of  the core group said.

Alarm bell rings

Human rights activists and officials who visited Geneva said the sessions on Sri Lanka for the first time saw Christians and Sinhalese speaking against human rights violations by an incumbent government for the first time.

Opposition legislator Harin Fernando and Cardinal Ranjith were given 1.5-minute slot each under the NGO time slot where 10 NGOs were given the opportunity to speak.

“It is an alarm bell for Sri Lanka,” said a rights activist based in Geneva told EconomyNext.

“Now pressure is mounting on Sri Lanka as most countries spoke on Monday asked it to address concerns.”

Sri Lanka for its part said there were serious anomalies and weaknesses in Bachelet’s report presented to the Council.

However, some diplomats based in Sri Lanka say Sri Lanka’s credibility among the international community has eroded due to its past record and another resolution is likely in September depending on the government’s responses to UNHRC’s call to address human rights abuses.

Sri Lanka responds

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister G L Peiris criticized the UNHRC’s move to find evidence against the government’s past human rights abuses.

“The fundamental deficiency is its intolerably intrusive character, impinging as it does on core functions and responsibilities of organs of the Sri Lankan State, overwhelmingly mandated by the people of our country at three successive elections” he told the UNHRC,” he told in his statement addressing the Council.

“Despite our rejection of the resolution, we will continue our voluntary international undertakings on human rights and engage with the United Nations, including with this Council,” he said.

“We are dismayed by the High Commissioner’s unwarranted onslaught on seminal institutions of our country which function under the aegis of Sri Lanka’s Constitution and legal system, emanating from a rich and varied cultural heritage, and are subject to stringent review processes which form an integral part of our tried and tested laws.”

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said the country “received overwhelming support from countries of the Global South who expressed support for the Government’s significant efforts towards reconciliation and reiterated the importance of objective and constructive cooperation as the fundamental basis for multilateral engagement”.

“Of the 45 countries that spoke at the Interactive Dialogue, 31 spoke in support of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka received cross-regional support from a broad spectrum of states of South, South East and Central Asia and the African Group,” the Foreign Ministry said in its statement. (Colombo/Mar08/2022)

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  1. Sriyani Mangalika says:

    The problem is with tone of communication of GOSL rulers with difficult English. Really problem is not towards a solution even attitude towards people is like that. We are all human with feelings.

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  1. Sriyani Mangalika says:

    The problem is with tone of communication of GOSL rulers with difficult English. Really problem is not towards a solution even attitude towards people is like that. We are all human with feelings.

Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.

Related

Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.

TOUGH REALITIES

“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE EARNERS

From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.

DISPERATE TO LEAVE

In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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