By Jehan Perera –
The EU parliament’s resolution to withdraw its GSP Plus import duty concession to Sri Lanka comes as a body blow to the country at a time when it is economically on the brink. The EU sanction has come much faster than anticipated, if it was anticipated at all. Government spokespersons have tried to make the case that the EU parliament’s resolution is an unjust one. According to them, GSP Plus is about economics and should not involve human rights. The problem is that the purpose of GSP Plus is very different and the government leaders who got it wrong in 2010 when Sri Lanka lost it last, have got it wrong again. The EU has explained GSP Plus as an incentive and a reward to those countries that are committed to improving the human rights situation within their territories. The support that is given to a country’s development is an outcome of respecting and promoting human rights.
The disregard of the purpose of the EU’s GSP Plus duty concession goes back to the last election. Nationalism in the country reached a peak during the presidential elections of 2019. The winning election campaign emphasized that Sri Lanka would no longer bow its head to the dictates of those in the international community who wished to impose their will upon Sri Lanka. They said that national security and national security came first, even though the ethnic and religious minorities feared that their rights would be trampled upon. A large majority of the Sri Lankan electorate endorsed this view. The new government leadership with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm, were impelled to give expression to a Sri Lankan nationalism that was prepared to take on those in the international community which was depicted as seeking to dictate terms to Sri Lanka.
However, the price of a confrontational approach is likely to be very high. If the EU withdraws GSP Plus from Sri Lanka, it will mean that Sri Lankan exports to the 27 countries that comprise the EU will be taxed at regular rates at the point of entry into the EU. This will drive up the prices of Sri Lankan exports in the EU markets and reduce the demand for Sri Lankan goods. The last time this happened in 2010 the price that Sri Lanka had to pay was very heavy. Many factories and commercial enterprises had to close down and thousands of workers lost their employment. Sri Lanka also lost a significant amount of foreign exchange that could have helped to balance its payments such as the repayment of loans. Even after the government change of 2015, and its pledges to follow the EU guidelines on human rights, it took a further two years until GSP Plus was restored.
The EU resolution has set out several conditions that need to be met by Sri Lanka if the GSP Plus concession is to be kept. Many of the conditions imposed follow on the conditions set out in the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March this year. The EU resolution of June 10 expresses “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, which is an observation earlier made by the UNHRC and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) pointing to the arrests of lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and poet Ahnaf Jazeem, among others, who are in detention for over a year on charges that they had links to the Easter bombing. These two detentions have been denounced by national and international human rights organisations but to no avail.
The resolution also notes the continuing discrimination against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities. At the UNHRC in Geneva, the government denied this and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was eloquent in affirming with heart-stirring words that “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multicultural people of Sri Lanka, closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people. It is therefore our strong conviction that the aforementioned actions within the framework of Sri Lanka’s domestic priorities and policies, are not only realistic but also deliverable.” The problem is that this is not the reality on the ground.
The reality on the ground is that wounds of the country’s 30 year war have not healed. The attempts to promote healing have lacked commitment. Thousands of acres of land in the North and East still continue to be under military control. This is land that was once lived on and cultivated by Tamil people. Today it is being used by the military, some of it being cultivated, some it used for recreation purposes including hotels, and some of it for security purposes. Thousands of families still await news of the whereabouts of their loved ones despite an Office on Missing Persons which has yet to give a ruling on even a single missing person although four years have elapsed since it was set up. There are also still a few hundred persons in detention for a large number of years, some exceeding a decade in prison without trial.
As seen above, the EU resolution makes particular mention about replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act with a national security law that will conform to international standards. In addition to all those incarcerated in the aftermath of the end of the war 12 years ago, there are a large number in custody in the aftermath of the Easter bombing. Several of the long term prisoners arrested under the PTA and held without charge or being produced before courts are said to be members of the LTTE. After the Easter bombing another large number of people have been held in custody without trial or charges against them including the former head of the Jamaat e-Islam which is a benevolent social service organization devoted to the social upliftment of less privileged sections of society. Those who know Rasheed Hajjul Akbar say this is a travesty of justice. Unless corrected, these injustices will sear into the people’s consciousness and create long lasting enmities.
One of the worst features of the PTA is that it makes it impossible to bail out detainees if the government is opposed to granting them bail. The detainees can be held indefinitely in custody. The danger of giving this power to the government can be seen in the case of the arrest and detention of police crime buster Shani Abeysekera who was held in custody for over a year. During this time he contracted Covid and suffered a heart attack. In a landmark case the Appeal Court granted him bail. In the course of its judgment the court said “The allegations against the suspect Shani Abeysekara are a result of falsification and embellishment and a creature of after-thought.” This case highlights the importance of revising the provision in the PTA that can delay detainees from being brought before a judge and being bailed out regardless of the approval of the government.
Bringing the PTA into conformity with international standards by amending or repealing it would be a confidence building measure. The accompanying measures such as releasing all those held without charge or trial for many years would increase the trust level that the government is serious in its commitment to the protection of human rights and induce the EU to hold back on its plans to withdraw GSP Plus from Sri Lanka. This could also pave the way for the government to engage in successful dialogue with the TNA when it takes place hopefully soon despite last minute postponement of planned talks last week. Underlying the EU resolution and the UNHRC resolution that preceded it is the issue of the long unresolved ethnic conflict. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former president and present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who took leadership in ending the 30 year war have an opportunity to perform another historic task. This is to seal a long lasting settlement of the ethnic conflict that has eluded Sri Lanka for the past 60 years and restore the lost prosperity and hope we had at independence.