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Sri Lanka to hold ground at UNHRC vote on Oct 06: foreign minister

Mohamed Ali Sabry PC/Facebook

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has decided to hold its ground at the latest United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva, expressing strong opposition to a newer and tougher resolution to be taken up for a vote on Thursday October 06.

Noting that the odds are stacked heavily against the island nation what with powerful Western nations lobbying hard for votes, Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said on Wednesday that his government is particularly opposed to operative paragraph number 8, which he claimed is directly in confrontation with Sri Lanka’s constitution.

The paragraph reads: “Recognises the importance of preserving and analysing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka with a view to advancing accountability, and decides to extend and reinforce the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

Speaking to journalists in the run-up to the Thursday’s vote, Minister Sabry said over a Zoom call from Geneva that countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, who lead the UNHRC core group on Sri Lanka, are greatly influenced by domestic-level lobbying by pressure groups from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.

“This is not a fair reflection of the people’s will. This is heavy lobbying. This is geopolitics,” he said.

The composition of the UNHRC has changed and many countries that previously voted in support of Sri Lanka are no longer members of the council, said Sabry, indicating that the country will fare poorly at Thursday’s vote.

The minister complained that neither the West nor the diaspora groups are ever satisfied with the steps taken by Sri Lanka under successive governments to promote reconciliation through its own homegrown mechanisms and are determined to perpetually keep the “small country” trapped.

“Whatever you deliver, they will continue with a new theme and this will remain,” he said, falling back on Sri Lanka’s usual defence that human rights are being used as a tool of control.

With the exception of the Yahapalana government period from 2015 to 2019, Sri Lanka has, since 2009, taken a defensive if not confrontational approach to handling the UNHRC’s attempts to hold the state accountable for human rights violations alleged to have taken place in the final phase of a brutal 26-year with the separatist Tamil Tigers.

Minister Sabry said in September that Sri Lanka’s government under new president Ranil Wickremesinghe – who, incidentally, was prime minister in the Yahapalana government – does not want any confrontation with any international partner at the 51st UNHRC sessions but will oppose any anti-constitutional move forced upon the country.

Related:

Sri Lanka does not want confrontation at UNHRC, but will oppose anti-constitutional moves

In his address to journalists on the eve of the vote, Sabry said that Western machinations notwithstanding, Sri Lanka is committed to establishing a truth-seeking mechanism of its own and will go ahead with efforts at reconciliation that are in line with the constitution and do not violate the country’s sovereignty or the independence of the judiciary. Proponents of an external mechanism, however, have questioned the reliability of any internal investigation.

A truth-seeking mechanism that’s acceptable to the international community will be established after a rapport has been submitted by a presidential commission of inquiry, he said.

The Prevention of Terrosism Act (PTA), Sri Lanka’s controversial anti-terror law, already amended in April will also be repalced with new legislation, he added.

The PTA and its use in detaining anti-government protestors have also been highlighted in the new UNHRC resolution.

Sabry complained that countries like the US, the UK, Canada and Germany do not acknowledge measures taken by Sri Lanka over the years such as the rehabilitation and release of 12,9000 Tiger cadres who had surrendered to the army and the release of some 94 percent of Tamil-owned land previously occupied by the military.

The Tamil people of the country’s north and east, claimed Sabry, are not asking for a hybrid court or foreign judges but for employment opportunities and economic assistance.

The minister reiterated his government’s opposition to operative paragraph 8, which he called dangerous and a “targeted act against war heroes”.

“We cannot agree to this. We can’t do it even if we do agree,” he said, noting that having foreign judges investigate Sri Lankan troops or having troops prosecuted abroad would be a violation of the constitution.

“Since 2009, the peace benefits have been enjoyed by everybody, be they Sinhalese, Tamil, or Muslim. There has been massive development in various parts of the country. Until the unfortunate recent economic crisis, Sri Lanka was on a good path. People have now forgotten,” he said, adding that the dividends of peace are “everywhere”.

The latest UNHRC resolution on “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, sponsored by 26 countries, also makes reference to the country’s prevailing currency crisis.

Operative paragraph 13 calls upon the government of Sri Lanka to “address the ongoing economic crisis, including by investigating and, where warranted, prosecuting corruption, including where committed by public and former public officials, and stands ready to assist and support independent, impartial and transparent efforts in this regard.”

Minister Sabry said Sri Lanka objects to this too, on the grounds that the UNHRC has no jurisdiction on economic matters.

“We are all agreed that economic reform is needed. But is that the specialisation of the UNHRC? That’s the area of the IMF and the World Bank. We have been perpetually put here. They’re interfering in everything, whether it’s within their purview or not,” he said.

Next they’ll say they need to investigate cricket, he added.

“What we’re saying at this crucial juncture is [that Sri Lanka needs] unity international support. We don’t want division and polarisation in the council,” said Sabry.

“We have engaged the core group and told them that we need time and space to deliver,” he added. (Colombo/Oct05/2022)

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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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