By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka secured a timely victory in the European Parliament when a motion to deny the country of the benefit of the GSP Plus tariff concession was defeated by a large majority of 436 to 119. There were doubts about the outcome of the vote as a visiting EU delegation last month issued a critical report on the country situation. The delegation had focused on economic and labour issues and found there were many deficiencies in the law and in its implementation on the ground. They reported that they had found a number of workers who have been objects of labour rights violations, including harassment to trade unions, illegal dismissal of trade union leaders, sexual harassment and labour rights violations within the free trade zones. The report has also touched on shortcomings on the enforcement on other human rights issues, in particular the use of torture and the rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.
Due to its victory in the international arena, the government will be able to go into its May Day event with a greater confidence and ability to show its strength. It will be able to argue that the economic situation is improving even if the visible signs of development are yet to manifest themselves. The loss of the GSP Plus concession in 2011, due to the previous government’s inability and refusal to meet the EU’s human rights requirements struck a significant blow to the economy. Many smaller factories, especially in the apparel manufacturing sector, had to close down leading to economic dislocation for small and middle level entrepreneurs and their workers. During discussions with the EU the government has assured that 50 percent of the money received through the GSP Plus would be spent on the 2.4 million strong labour force.
It is reported that the EU will impose conditions on the grant of GSP Plus even as it awards the tariff concession once again to Sri Lanka. The conditions imposed by the EU reportedly include reducing the number of deviations from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); repealing those sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Public Security Ordinance which are incompatible with it or amending them so that they become compatible with the international covenant; and amending the Code of Criminal Procedure providing for the right of a suspect to see a lawyer immediately following arrest; publishing or making available to family members of a list of former LTTE combatants currently held in detention as well as all other persons detained under Emergency Regulations; and granting of access to all places of detention for monitoring purposes to an independent humanitarian organisation, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
As in the case of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council for which the government got an additional two years of implementation time, the implementation of the government’s pledges to regain the GSP Plus concession has been slow. Even changing laws has become difficult for the government. One of the key requirements for regaining the EU tariff concession is to replace or amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act with an alternative national security law which gives improved protection for human rights. The proposed Counter Terrorism Act which is the alternative to the PTA has been on the drawing board for about a year but is still far from being finalized for ratification by Parliament. An early version of the draft law was widely criticized by human rights organizations for being even more restrictive of civil liberties and human rights in some aspects than the PTA.
At the root of the problem of implementation and weakness of political will to engage in reforms that involve questions of human rights and national security is the reality of a government that is a coalition of two parties which are headed by two leaders. It is nothing to be surprised that these two leaders have visions that are different and cater differently to the prejudices and sympathies of the larger population. On the positive side, both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe believe in non violent conflict resolution. On the other hand, they both need to find ways to deal with ethnic fears and prejudices without giving in to them, while making every effort to reassure the communities that they themselves are not hopelessly biased one way or the other.
Unless the government engages in course correction it is likely that it will come under increasing pressure from the ethnic and religious ethnic and religious communities who constitute 30 percent of the country’s population. The recent hartal in the North and East that was led by civil society groups and the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) was no longer a fringe manifestation organized on the margin. In the past the TNA distanced itself from the activities of the TPC and even criticized them. On this occasion, however, the TNA has given support to the protest. The one day hartal in which shops closed all day and transport services did not operate followed weeks of protests by families of the missing and also by unemployed graduates in the North which had not yielded any positive result.
Apart from the support from mainstream Tamil political parties for the hartal, the other new element on this occasion was the support given to the hartal by Muslim political parties. Muslim public opinion is increasingly questioning the government for supporting Buddhist nationalists in their campaigns against the Muslims. They point out that leading members of the SLFP component of the government are now accommodating the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which has attacked Muslim mosques and properties in the past, and which carries out a strident campaign against Muslim expansion. Last month a total of 38 mostly Muslim organizations and 2680 individuals endorsed a statement that called on President Maithripala Sirisena to review and revoke the gazette notification no. 2011/34 declaring vast tracts of lands owned by the people of Musali division in the Mannar District as a forest reserve.
The petition also stated that as a result of the gazette notification a number of villages in Musali inhabited by Muslims would be seriously affected. The mounting grievances of the ethnic and religious minorities who were strongly in support of the government and helped to bring it to power by their votes at the elections in 2015, induced them to join the protest in defence of their rights. Apart from the problem of missing persons which mainly affects the Tamil community, both Tamils and Muslims in the North and East have felt under siege as land that they inhabit is being claimed by Sinhalese nationalists. Buddhist temples and statues are now sought to be put up on these lands even though they are currently owned by Tamils and Muslims.
Due to the slow implementation of its commitments to the international community, and inaction in resolving the problems of the ethnic and religious minorities who voted for it, the government is going to face increased pressure from both international and domestic actors. The government would do well not to repeat the mistake of the previous government, headed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, which held to the theory that resolving economic problems and assuaging ethnic majority nationalism was the way to remain in power. The joint Tamil-Muslim hartal in the North and East is an incipient sign that the grievances of the ethnic and religious minorities are getting merged together. Economic and ethnic problems need to be resolved together, in tandem, and not one after the other, so that all communities feel that they are being treated fairly as equal citizens of one country.