14 August, 2022


As EU Parliament Considers Preferential Trade Status To Sri Lanka, Ensuring Human Rights Compliance Is Key

By Shreen Abdul Saroor

Shreen Saroor

You see a shirt. The price is right: you buy it. “Made in Sri Lanka,” it says.

What you probably don’t think about is the real cost of that shirt, or how a preferential trade scheme called GSP+ brings that shirt to European markets and implicates human rights in Sri Lanka. On 27th April the European Parliament voted to defeat a resolution to deny returning this preferential trade status to Sri Lanka.

In 2010, the EU withdrew GSP+ status for Sri Lanka due to its bleak human rights landscape. The Sri Lankan armed forces had just defeated the Tamil Tigers, bringing an end to a 26-year civil war. U.N. experts estimated that 40,000 or more died in the final months alone. The government that won the war held onto power tightly, amidst international alarm at widespread human rights violations against journalists, civil society groups, war-affected Tamils, and religious minorities. The EU told Sri Lanka that to maintain preferential GSP+, it would have to comply with the 27 international conventions covered by the GSP+ scheme, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). It told Sri Lanka that several sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which facilitated the country’s thousands of enforced disappearances, were incompatible with the ICCPR and needed to be repealed. When the previous government doubled down on its intransigence instead of complying, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status.

In 2015, a new Sri Lankan government took over. It reapplied for GSP+ membership and co-sponsored U.N. Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 to commit to creating four transitional justice mechanisms to comprehensively deal with the past and prevent future violations. Among other commitments, the government promised the EU and the Human Rights Council that it would repeal the PTA and enact new counter-terrorism legislation.

Despite promises, there has been little action. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights recently described Sri Lanka’s transitional justice measures since 2015 as “worryingly slow” and “inadequate to ensure real progress,” with government officials giving “unclear and often contradictory messages.” Of the four promised transitional justice mechanisms, only the Office of Missing Persons has legislation in place, but it remains inoperative and moves are underway to eliminate a core provision allowing foreign technical assistance. Officials have dismissed the report of public consultations task force the government itself set up, despite over 7,300 participants from all ethnic communities weighing in on the best way forward. Notably the PTA has yet to be repealed. The government claims it will be replaced with a new Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), but that legislation is being developed in secret without any consultation with the Sri Lankan public, or even its National Human Rights Commission. On 24th April Cabinet of ministers have apparently hastily endorsed the draft CTA just to placate EU members and secure GSP+. The draft CTA reportedly contains an overboard definition of terrorism-related offences, excessive powers of detention by police, and restricted legal access during the initial stages of detention – all falling well below acceptable international standards and the EU’s expectations for reinstating GSP+. Besides this draft that was approved on 24th April is substantially worse than a draft that had been presented to cabinet previously and it reintroduces offences relating to gathering confidential information, and makes speech that causes communal disharmony an offence. Meanwhile, the government is dragging its feet on constitutional reforms, causing moderate Tamil politicians to lose support against those hold hardline position and oppose engaging with the government. War-affected women are conducting street protests and hunger strikes to demand answers on disappearances and release of lands held by the military.

Hence, despite promises made, too little has changed in Sri Lanka’s human rights landscape since 2010. Nevertheless, on 11 January, the European Commission proposed granting Sri Lanka GSP+ membership. On 18 January, the Commission commended the Sri Lankan government for “committing to address historic and long-standing problems that have caused conflict and negatively affected the lives and living standards of all Sri Lankans.”

The war-affected community in Sri Lanka has voiced concerns over reinstating GSP+. When the root causes for GSP+ revocation have not been addressed, it seems counterproductive to reward the current government for mere promises made. Nevertheless, realistically speaking, GSP+ is now a virtual certainty. A majority of European Parliament would have to oppose the measure, an outcome that seems all but impossible, particularly given the decision to grant GSP+ status to countries with poor human rights records like Pakistan.

Accordingly, my colleagues and I must now reluctantly shift our focus to getting the most out of GSP+. The European Commission stated that, “as is the case for all GSP+ countries, the removal of customs duties for Sri Lanka would be accompanied with rigorous monitoring of the country’s progress in the area of sustainable development, human rights, and good governance.” If GSP+ is to return to Sri Lanka, the question becomes how to design a rigorous monitoring system to help Sri Lanka deliver on its human rights commitments, including repeal of the PTA, compliance with the ICCPR and CAT, and full implementation of U.N. Human Rights Council resolution 30/1.

Under the GSP Regulation, GSP+ beneficiaries must ratify and implement 27 international conventions and comply with reporting and monitoring requirements under each of those conventions.[1] Beneficiary countries must also comply with the European Commission’s monitoring process, known as the GSP+ “scorecard.” When a country joins GSP+, the Commission lists its shortcomings under the 27 conventions and tracks annual progress in those areas. As part of its monitoring process, the Commission engages with a “wide range of stakeholders”—“not just the central government, but local or regional authorities, civil society (e.g., social partners, non-governmental organisations), business associations, and local offices of international organisations.” By reaching out to “local stakeholders, particularly during GSP+ monitoring visits” the Commission’s monitoring system helps local actors “play a constructive role in assisting local, regional, and central authorities to meet their commitments under the conventions.”[2]

In principle, this framework could help advance human rights in Sri Lanka. In designing a monitoring system for Sri Lanka, the European Commission should insist on engagement with actors outside Colombo—including war-affected communities in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Each review period, in preparing Sri Lanka’s GSP+ scorecard, the Commission should send a team to a field visit to the former war affected areas. The Commission should track the government’s progress on U.N. Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 and on its implementation of recommendations made by its own consultation task force on transitional justice. The Commission should actively seek input from the National Human Rights Commission, civil society, war-affected women, and human rights groups on the ground and elevate their concerns in order to press the Sri Lankan government for compliance with its human rights obligations. The Commission can also help the government explore pragmatic options to connect trade benefits with human rights. For example, the Commission could work with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to help Sri Lanka fund a reparations scheme through some of the tax savings from GSP+ membership.

Ultimately, if the goal of GSP+ is to promote sustainable development, human rights, and good governance, the European Commission must undertake rigorous monitoring with local stakeholders to ensure that Sri Lanka stays on the right track. It must realize that transitional justice and full implementation of the ICCPR, CAT, CERD, CEDAW and other human rights treaties covered by the GSP+ scheme go hand-in-hand. Human rights conventions recognize that victims have a right to remedy; Sri Lanka must likewise deliver on its promises to provide its many victims with truth, justice, guaranteed non-recurrence and reparations.

This brings me back to where I started. That shirt—“Made in Sri Lanka”—what’s the true cost in terms of human rights? How can the EU make sure it sees the benefit of the bargain if it restores GSP+ status to Sri Lanka? The last two years should make the EU wary of mere promises from government officials. Unless the EU demands an effective monitoring system that engages with civil society and war-affected communities, there is little reason to believe that Sri Lanka will deliver on its human rights commitments if it is awarded GSP+.

[1] GSP+ membership requires countries to maintain ratification, and ensure effective implementation, of 27 conventions on human rights, labour rights, environmental protection, and good governance. In the area of human rights, member countries must ratify and implement the ICCPR; CAT; Genocide Convention; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

[2] Source: European Commission’s January 28, 2016 report to the European Parliament, available at http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2016/january/tradoc_154180.pdf.

*Shreen Saroor is a human rights activist working with war-affected women in Sri Lanka’s north and east

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Latest comments

  • 4

    The European Commission can bark a lot and keep nipping at one’s heels all the time but it is absolutely incapable of delivering a sharp bite in the fleshy part of the leg!

  • 5

    In view of the following three statements :

    “In 2010, the EU withdrew GSP+ status for Sri Lanka due to its bleak human rights landscape”
    “Hence, despite promises made, too little has changed in Sri Lanka’s human rights landscape since 2010”
    “Nevertheless, on 11 January (2017), the European Commission proposed granting Sri Lanka GSP+ membership”

    One is constrained to ask two questions :

    [1] Is the EU sincerely and honestly concerned about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka ?

    [2] Do the decisions of the EU regarding the granting GSP+ status lend credence to the popular belief that what occurred in 2010 was the planned first step in the implementation of the regime-change programme in our Motherland which reached fruition in January 2015 ?

  • 1

    Shreen, it is good to see you back as a northerner and Muslim who speaks for everyone. The rest of us tend to be frogs in wells, complaining about others without looking inside our own well.

    What we have to put right in our country is for our own sakes, and not on account of GSP+

    • 1

      Rajan Hoole

      “Shreen, it is good to see you back as a northerner and Muslim who speaks for everyone. The rest of us tend to be frogs in wells, complaining about others without looking inside our own well.”

      It comes from the Tribal and Castism Tradition.

      Get the people pot of those “traditions” and the Tribe and Caste becomes Lanka, the Land of Native Veddah Aethho occupied by the Paras who currently practice Tribalism and Castism.

      That is what Shreen Saroor is trying to do. Hats off to her.

  • 5

    “”As EU Parliament Considers Preferential Trade Status To Sri Lanka, Ensuring Human Rights Compliance Is Key”

    Politically Correct but Lankan values differ from European values.
    We see an abundance of it in the EU.

    Market Economy is Correct.
    Being a muslim (buy & sell) at SL what are you about?
    All 3 are racist to the core- Sinhala Party, Tamil Party, Muslim Party are present.

  • 2

    The Govt is waiting until the 15th May 2017
    by which time the GSP+ will be effective ..as per the Deputy Finance Minister …

    In the meantime the Govt is gearing up by installing the dismantled OPPRESSIVE MACHINERY….BAN all strike action. The Govt replaced PTA with CTA with few amendments to appease EU for GSP+ ….it is the same wolf..

  • 1

    The minds of Tamils and Sinhalese, become stiffened by a learnt regressive behavior called Sinhalese/Tamil culture and are unable to yield/upgrade to Human Rights standards.Logic is never applied to that.

    We are a pious people taught by our religious mythology-

    Dutugemunu killed Tamils so we must continue it. Krishna made caste sacrosanct so we must oppress. These are our sacred rules not to be broken. Break it and you are not Sinhalese/Tamil. It keeps us as barbarians in the 21st century.

    Sri Lankan people have not the ability or desire to think and change for the better.

    Hope GSP+ will elevate our souls.

  • 1

    Human rights was hardly a topic early/mid last century.

    21st century is all about human rights. Remember the Colombo 2013CHOGM? It was almost exclusively about human rights. By the way Australian PM Tony Abbott was the only person who said something to the effect that a little bit of human rights violation is OK so here are a few fast boats to do that. Australia has earned the ire of the world over the refugee concentration camps.

    The recently arrived refugees netted by Lankan Navy are Myanmar Rohingyas. Why are they fleeing? Izeth are you there? Say something. Rizwi Mufti think outside your “perfect” MMDA.

    EU’s stand on human rights is laudable. They have been yellowcarding but may redcard one of these days.

    Thank you Shreen Abdul Saroor for the timely warning.

    Agree with Rajan Hoole “What we have to put right in our country is for our own sakes, and not on account of GSP+”

  • 1


    If you don’t want to buy beautiful Made in Sri Lanka, Shirts, coats or Panties it is fine. Don’t for a moment think you are trying to spite the Government or the Sinhalese people.

    You are hurting your OWN people. Here is a typical scenario:

    Suppose there are 3 Sri Lankans suffering from malnutrition. One a Sinhalese, one a Tamil and the other a Muslim. The government has 1 loaf of bread to distribute. Guess who gets the loaf?

    Think about it each time you boycott Sri Lankan made stuff.

  • 0

    It is stupid for Sri lankan govt to bend to European union. Sri lankan journalists, in other web pages too, have discussed in detail what the EU is doing and how EU has neglected the Various simila United nationa resolutions on similar issues. EU is well known as a gathering of of past and now feeble and weak colonial masters who are trying again to be a power.

    Then can dictate to countires like Sri lanka where incompetant braindead who are other wise unemployed are governing the country

    Even with GSP and selling the country to corrupt EU, by bending to EU, Sri lanka’s total exports to EU is $1.3 billion while EU sends $ 2.6 billion or more worth of, I think mostly cars and machinary, to Sri lanka.

    there are not Sri lankan journalsits, except one woman with lots of guts, who have a backbone to write against how hypocritical the EU is

    • 1


      My recommendation is that the government increase the embarkation Tax and introduce a new landing Tax for all expatriates who happen to be Tamils and Muslims.

      For one thing, they are not needed back in SL. Secondly, they proudly boycott Sri Lankan made products overseas and yet very hypocritically come and visit SL. Why don’t they boycott SL altogether? So much the better.

      Maybe they can even boycott this website, Colombotelegraph. After all, it’s the Colombo telegraph and not some Allah Hoo Akbar’s telegraph.

  • 3

    Shamal perera

    Are you writing this from Angoda or any other mental hospital ?

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