By Harsha Gunasena –
On February 10, 2020 the European Commission issued a Joint Report to the European Parliament and the Council on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences covering the period 2018-2019 on Sri Lanka.
The European Union granted GSP+ concession to Sri Lanka on the understanding that Sri Lanka would honor 27 international conventions Sri Lanka has already signed. However, the EU has withdrawn the GSP + concession in 2010 on the grounds that Sri Lanka has not adhered to three conventions out of those 27 conventions, namely International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Convention on the Rights of the Child
According to the EU concessions under GSP+ there were no import duty for many goods imported by the EU from Sri Lanka. Exports to the EU from Sri Lanka accounts for around 1/3 of total exports of Sri Lanka. The government at the time did not take any initiative to get the GSP + concessions back in the pretext that the country will have to sacrifice its sovereignty in fulfilling the conditions attached to those concessions.
The only condition imposed by the agreement was that in return Sri Lanka should execute the 27 international conventions Sri Lanka has already signed.
If the EU had to offer additional economic concessions for Sri Lanka to adhere to the international conventions it had already signed, what was the international credibility Sri Lanka had. If the conventions were signed, requirements of those must have been implemented. Those conventions were of human rights, labour rights, good governance, sustainable development and environment protection of Sri Lanka and its citizens. The beneficiaries of implementing these conventions were Sri Lankan citizens and eventually Sri Lanka, not the citizens of the EU. Not only that, the beneficiaries of the concessions also were Sri Lankan citizens and Sri Lankan economy, not the EU.
Sri Lanka at this point said that by getting the concessions and implementing the conventions, its sovereignty would get affected and therefore it would refrain from getting the concessions
The EU in fact advocated on behalf of the people who were suppressed in their own country. They are upholding the rights of the minorities and the weak. It can be ethnic minorities, women trade unions or the children.
In a Democracy there are three main pillars, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. In addition to that there is Media. There are checks and balances operating in a constitution to ensure that one pillar of the Democracy does not dominate the other two pillars. This is to ensure that the people who hold the sovereignty are served better. This is a situation where checks and balances come from outside of the Democracy to safeguard the people who hold the sovereignty from the trustees those very people have appointed.
One may ask what the EU gets out of this. The EU gets the satisfaction of implementation of the values they appreciate in Sri Lanka as well.
The previous Government reversed the process, regained the GSP+ concessions and started fulfilling the requirements outlined in those conventions and thereby Sri Lankan citizens got double benefits, benefits of GSP+ and the benefits of implementation of those conventions.
The report of the European Union was released in order to evaluate the progress of the past two years. The period of coverage of the report was mostly the tenure of the previous government. It praised the positive steps taken by the government and at the same time it pointed out the areas to be focused.
“Sri Lanka has taken several positive steps: the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations are in place; the accession to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) came into effect; the adoption of Enforced Disappearances Act and the Right to Information Act reflect strong commitments to democracy and transparency. Yet, progress is fragile, especially with regard to accountability. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, the situation of minorities has become tense. Prevention of torture is on the agenda, but actions need to be stepped up in terms of accountability.”
“Overall, the human rights and good governance situation in Sri Lanka has improved since 2015. Still, several concerns remain.”
The report pointed out that it was crucial to preserve the civil society space and the capacity of human rights defenders to pursue their regular activities following the election of the new President in November 2019. It also emphasized the importance of maintaining continued engagement with the UN as well as to demonstrating full commitment to the implementation of the Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights.
In the meantime, the Sri Lankan government announced that it will withdraw from the co -sponsorship of the Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 with immediate effect.
Several other highlights of the report were as follows
A progress in the areas of eradication of child labour, labour rights, laws against domestic violence and the quota for women elected in office in Local Government bodies and Parliament.
Concern about possible abolishment of the 19th Constitutional Amendment, which reformed the executive Presidential system and enhanced the independence of certain institutions that are instrumental for democracy and justice.
The presidential pardon granted to Ven Gnanasara sent a worrying message to Sri Lanka’s judiciary and to the country’s Muslim community who have been victims of mob violence instigated by Gnanasara Thera. It commented about the arrest of Shakthika Sathkumara as well.
The fact that a non-governmental organization working on freedom of religion had documented 86 incidents targeting Christians, including threats and disruption of religious services. A Methodist prayer center was pelted with stones and firecrackers.
The attempt by the previous government to introduce a new Act repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but the new government announced that the existing Act will continue until such time an improved Act is introduced.
Commenting on the release of Land belonging to the Tamils in the North, the report mentioned that according to the Foreign Minister’s statement as of 12th March 2019, the Government has released 88.87% of state land and 92.16% of private land held by security forces
The reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) has progressed. However, a Cabinet-approved proposal to amend the MMDA setting 18 years as the minimum age of marriage for both men and women still provides for 16 to 18-year-olds to wed with Qazi4 permission. Muslim women activists continue to highlight other issues with the reform proposals.
Urgent attention was needed in respect of violence against children including corporal punishment, sexual exploitation and abuse and economic exploitation,
Although the Constitution of Sri Lanka provides for the right to equality without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, or place of birth, there was no effective legislation and remedies. There was no specific anti-discrimination law in place, nor a law guaranteeing prohibition of discrimination with respect to employment and occupation.
There was no legislation ensuring equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value and no effective protection of workers against sexual harassment.
Report praised Sri Lanka being the first South Asian nation to publicly destroy ivory obtained through elephant poaching.
All the comments made in the Report about the rights are within the scope of the 27 international conventions Sri Lanka signed and did not go beyond those.
Report pointed out the economic benefits Sri Lanka got as a result of GSP+ concessions.
“Sri Lanka’s overall trade grew by 3% between 2017 and 2018 to € 29.1 billion, with an overall trade deficit of € 9 billion. In 2018, the EU was Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner with 16% of the total (€ 4.7 billion), ahead of India (14.6%), China (13.4%) and the USA (10.2%). The EU is by far Sri Lanka’s main export destination with over 30% of the total (€ 2.8 billion), followed by the USA (26%) and India (6.6%). In terms of imports, China is the largest source with 19%, followed by India (18.5%) and the EU (9.2%)”
“A majority (84% in 2018) of Sri Lankan imports to the EU are GSP+ eligible. However, the utlilisation rate (the proportion of EU imports from Sri Lanka that actually benefitted from GSP+ preferences) has room for improvement at under 60%. Nonetheless, there has been an upward trend in utilisation rates over the past three years. Sri Lankan imports under GSP+ are concentrated in apparel and clothing (54%) and rubber (19%). “
We know the slow phase under which the previous government operated in implementing these basic rights of the people. On one hand we should be ashamed of the current situation where we have to secure the basic rights of our own citizens as a democracy under the supervision of the UN and the EU. In fact, the UN and the EU work hard to safeguard the sovereignty of our own citizens whereas certain parties with vested interests within our country are obstructing this process in the very notion of protecting the sovereignty of the country. This Report elaborated the widespread nature of the effects of 27 international conventions Sri Lanka signed and it quantified the economic benefits Sri Lanka obtained. It reveals that the responsibility of the current government is to take forward the work carried out by the previous government rather than reversing the trend and obstructing the process.