Hopes rise GSP wine will soon fill Lanka’s export chalice but there’s  many a slip between champagne coupe and lip Poor Professor Peiris! Once he was the savant of property law churning out volume after volume on the land rights of the people. Now he is the servant of fallen politicians, the porter of past [...]


GSP sour grapes: GL tries alchemy to turn Rajapaksa copper to gold


Hopes rise GSP wine will soon fill Lanka’s export chalice but there’s  many a slip between champagne coupe and lip

Poor Professor Peiris! Once he was the savant of property law churning out volume after volume on the land rights of the people. Now he is the servant of fallen politicians, the porter of past president Rajapaksa, tasked to carry his bags whenever given a freebie to Bangkok.

And last Sunday he was at it again, handling the Rajapaksa luggage, this time trying to whitewash and iron the soiled and crumpled clothing in the ex-presidential backpack and have it customised for public presentation. Apart from his menial duties, he had also assumed a new role to assist him in this chore — that of an alchemist trying to turn Rajapaksa copper to gold, to make a virtue of Rajapaksa’s sack of follies.

G.L. PEIRIS: New role for professor turned politician turned Rajapaksa ‘Man Friday’

Whilst the rest of the nation was hailing the EU Commission’s decision to restore GSP Plus to Lanka soon, G. L. Peiris was busy trying to defend Mahinda Rajapaksa for losing it. At a news conference held following the EU Commissioner’s January 11th announcement, Professor Peiris declared, with all the bluster he could muster, that Mahinda Rajapaksa did not barter the sovereignty of this country in return for a mess of GSP pottage. That he was the saviour of Lanka’s sovereignty and, by the stance he took on the GSP issue, prevented the nation from falling victim to international machinations.

He said: “The former president had the opportunity of regaining the GSP+ facility during his tenure if he had agreed to the conditions laid down by the European Union at the risk of compromising the country’s sovereignty. We are in favour of Sri Lanka regaining this facility but opposed to selling our nation. We will not let foreign countries interfere in the internal affairs of this nation. It is a threat to our sovereignty.”

Of course, he, pan in hand, was only cleaning up the litter left in the wake of Rajapaksa’s statement last Friday that GSP was no big deal and that when it was denied by the EU during his regime, “the country didn’t suffer any loss”.

The country didn’t suffer any loss? Tell it to the birds.
As Rajapaksa himself should know it was at the start of his first term as president in 2005 that the European Union introduced a special incentive scheme called the Generalised Scheme of Preferences or GSP to 49 developing nations. Sri Lanka got the benefit of approximately 7000 items declared as having duty free and quota free access to all the European Union countries.

But Lanka lost this special privilege which had boosted its exports in many fields of industry, notably the garment sector, the bicycle export sector and the fishing sector, when an EU investigation concluded that the then Lankan government had failed, despite many prodding, to implement three conventions it had signed on human rights issues, namely, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child,.

This was the reason given in the statement the EU issued when it suspended the facility in 2009. The statement also added, that “At the same time, the Commission is determined to pursue its dialogue with Sri Lanka on the substantive human rights problems identified in the report and the steps that Sri Lanka can take to address them.” When the Rajapaksa government failed to address these issues satisfactorily, the EU withdrew the GSP preference to Lankan goods in 2010.

In its immediate wake, the Government and the garment industry were upbeat and were patting themselves that removal of the GSP had not affected exports in the slightest but had only increased it. More than fifty per cent of the country’s garment exports were to the EU and with pride it was announced that despite the withdrawal of the duty free status, the total garment exports had risen by another 3 per cent, increasing earning to US$ 1,678 billion. But the following year there was more good news to trumpet. In 2011, earnings from textile and garment exports to the EU increased by 25.1%, while overall exports rose 24.9% to US$ 4.191bn, surpassing the US$ 4bn target set by the apparel industry.

But alas, two years later from August 2012, the crunch came. And it has been a downward spiral ever since. Apparel exports to the EU, in terms of value, increased by 1.2% in January 2012 compared to January 2011, but dropped marginally, by 0.6%, in February – and continued to drop at an increasing rate from then onwards.

This led to a grave crisis in the country’s topmost export sector, the garment industry. Having lost the duty free tag, Lanka’s garment factory owners found their apparel ware no longer competitive with Bangladesh and Vietnam emerging the clear beneficiaries of Lanka’s pariah status.
It was only because the garment industry had been long established and mature that enabled it to survive the long seemingly unending drought. But it was at great cost. It lost the opportunity to grow in the rich European markets and was compelled to yield its top spot in Europe to other third world competitors solely because the GSP facility was lost. During the heady years of the GSP facility, the garment sector grew 18 percent annually. After the GSP was removed, the growth rate dropped by half.

For the bicycle exporters it was a disaster. It had been the third largest exporter to Europe. And, not having the maturity the garment factory owners had, for many it was kaput even as it was for the fishing trade.

As the CEO of the Shippers Academy, Rohan Masakorala, said at a Colombo forum in 2012: “The cost of market access due to the loss of the GSP+ could be considerable over a term, and some in the industry have indicated as much as US$ 1bn as an opportunity cost over the next few years.” And as the president of the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association, Rohan Abeykoon, said at that time : “There is no-one out there in the industry that does not want the GSP+ back, but the question is whether the Government would re-apply for the GSP+.

The Rajapaksa government didn’t bother to re-apply. Perhaps the loss of GSP to the country was a boon in disguise to the Rajapaksa regime. They no longer had to keep up pretences. They lost the need to address and adhere to human rights concerns, supervised by a foreign monitor. What was the loss of a few billion dollars more to Lanka when they could rule the country as they pleased? Especially with Tiananmen-Square-blood-smeared China, which didn’t give a toss about human rights violations, ready to act as financier of the Rajapaksa regime’s dynastic ambitions, in order for that nation to add another pearl to their Indian Ocean necklace with which to strangle India?

Now with hopes risen that EU’s GSP wine will soon start to flow and fill Lanka’s export cup, the GSP grape seems to have suddenly gone sour for the joint opposition. For G.L. Peiris, it is not even to be tasted but to be spat out abhorred. As he posed the question at his press conference: “Are we going to sacrifice our sovereignty for the sake of GSP? Are we going to allow other nations to interfere into the sovereign affairs of this nation for economic gain? Are we going to be ruled henceforth by Brussels and not by our Parliament? Mahinda Rajapaksa could have got the GSP but did not wish to sell the country’s sovereignty to gain some economic benefit? “

Forty four years ago on 1st January 1973, when Britain entered the European Community, the nation, upon whose empire the sun had never set, was prepared to compromise on its sovereignty to gain access to the vast market that lay beyond the English Channel. It did so for economic gain. In the course of time, its borders were opened for citizens of EU nations to enter freely, the national law became subservient to the community law, the final court of appeal became not the House of Lord, nor its Supreme Court established in 2005 but the European Court of Justice, the government had to obey regulations issued by the EU Parliament in Brussels, purely due to the economic gain it would derive even at the cost of its sovereignty.

True, at a referendum held last year whether Britain should remain in the EU or quit, the British people narrowly voted for Brexit, despite the urgings of the British government and world leaders, including the American president, to vote to remain. But the people, swept by a populist movement, decided to leave. As a result, the pound fell and Britain’s economy suffered, and will no doubt suffer, at least for some time, in the foreseeable future. At least the people had decided their own fate – and not the Government – even as they had voted to stay in the Community in the 1975 referendum.

But, if a nation which once had ruled the waves and waived the rules, whose poets had hailed it as the sceptred isle, could bite its stiff upper lip and suffer loss of face and pride with its lowered international status for forty three long years in order to better the financial lot of its citizens, do you think Peiris, a Rajapaksa acolyte, is justified in saying that ‘the Rajapaksa regime could have got the GSP status if it had wished but did not want it at the cost of compromising Lanka’s sovereignty’. In reality, can a pauperised nation exist exclusively on a staple diet of sovereignty in its begging bowl?

And what would have caused this supposed loss of sovereignty that was more valued than economic gain to this beggared nation? Implementing, as the EU demanded then in 2009 as the quid pro quo for grant of GSP, three international conventions Lankan Governments had already signed on human rights issues – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child which would have served only to strengthen the human rights of Lankans, though weakening immeasurably the power of dictatorial governments.

In the case of Lanka, the GSP if granted, will not only bring much needed foreign exchange to the nation – the Finance Minister stated last week it would earn the country 2 billion dollars in the first year – but also protection for the citizens’ human rights, especially with EU observers monitoring the progress made by the government to ensure that peoples’ fundamental rights are not violated now or in the future. If that be a compromise on sovereignty, then so be it. Isn’t it far better to compromise sovereignty and gain such human rights protection than leave this Government or any future government as the sole custodian of people’s human rights? Especially when successive Lankan governments have, again and again, demonstrated an almost habitual tendency to lean towards authoritarianism and travel down the dictatorial path as their term in office progressed?

Of course the GSP privilege doesn’t come alone. It comes attached with strings. Even now, as it did then, the GSP plus comes with a list of conditions aimed at ensuring Human Rights. As the EU said on Wednesday, past Lankan Governments have signed 27 international conventions relating to international human rights, labour rights, environmental standards and good governance. If the present government desires to become eligible for the grant of the GSP facility, the EU requires that the government ratifies and implements these conventions.

And why ever not? Why did Lanka’s governments sign these conventions in the first place if it did not mean to ratify them or implement them? Was it another instance of expediency? To satisfy the co signatories and defer fulfilling the pledges to another day in the hope tomorrow will never come? And that’s not all. The GSP concession, even if granted, will be continuous only if the government keeps its pledges and assists the EU to monitor its progress on implementing the conventions. The then Government rejected the EU conditions. The present government has welcomed it.

Of course, it does not mean that all conditions can be met or have to be met. During negotiations, it would have to be pointed out that conditions that rebel against the cultural traditions of the nations would not be tolerated by the majority of the people. The EU should be persuaded to understand that it would be unfair to expect the government to agree to conditions that directly fly in the face of the religious, social and cultural and sentiments of the people. It will be left to Lankan negotiators to convince EU states of this.

But neither the Lankan government nor the people should rush to uncork the bubbly. There is many a slip between the champagne coupe and the lip.
In the statement issued on Wednesday, the EU said they have supported the leadership shown by the government in committing to address historic and long-standing problems that have caused conflict and negatively affected the lives and living standards of all Sri Lankans. “This includes the undertakings made, for instance, in the resolution that Sri Lanka co-sponsored at the UN Human Rights Council,” the EU stressed.

The bone of contention will probably be the issue of foreign judges on the hybrid war crimes tribunal. President Sirisena has recently stated he will not agree to this condition even though Lanka initially agreed and, along with America, even co sponsored the resolution which contains it in October 2015. The Lankan negotiators will have to persuade a majority of EU member states that it will be inimical to Lanka’s interest to undermine the confidence in the local judiciary to act impartially and independently. One silver lining of hope in an otherwise gloomy cloud is whether the Trump administration will persuade the UN Human Rights Council to arrive at a solution to overcome the impasse.

Much will also depend on the Geneva session this March when the Lankan issue will be considered and no doubt the EU will await its outcome before forwarding the GSP recommendation to the EU parliament for final GSP approval.

At the press conference G. L. Peiris also said that the present government is pawning the country for economic gain. Didn’t the Rajapaksa regime do the same? At least the present government is only leasing the land. The former regime not only leased land but gave the Lankan Sea to the Chinese to build a port city on Lanka’s shores and then proceeded to give the Chinese 50 hectares of it on a freehold basis. The present government managed to rescind it but ended up with having to give nearly all the land on a 99 year lease, thus effectively enabling the Chinese to have a de facto permanent presence in the island, thanks to the Rajapaksa folly of accepting this unsolicited project.

Didn’t the Rajapaksa regime do it for economic gain and hail the benefits it would bring to Lanka? Hasn’t the port city project not only compromised the sovereignty of the nation but also placed at risk its territorial integrity?

But as G. L. Peiris goes on in this manner and dabbles in alchemy, intent on creating gold out of base Rajapaksa copper, he should bear in mind the ultimate fate that befell all alchemists throughout the course of history. Some were labeled as fraudsters, some accused of chicanery, the use of trickery to achieve a political, financial, or legal purpose and some were condemned as mad men insanely pursuing the unattainable. Some miracles, even scientific ones, are just not possible.

And as for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s atrocious claim last Friday that the country did not suffer any loss with the loss of GSP, he should realise that the EU’s removal of the facility was the kick starter to the economic downturn of the country. It was the albatross on the state ship’s mast that heralded the worst was yet to come. It led not only to the loss of a few billion dollars that garments, bicycles or fish to Europe would otherwise have brought to Lanka. It led to the almost total isolation of Lanka, both politically and economically. It affected the entire Lankan economy and the total loss suffered as a consequence of the Rajapaksa government’s intransigence in addressing human rights issues, can never be quantified.

If not for the Rajapaksa government’s downfall in 2015, and the fortuitous emergence of the present government wedded to just governance, a political and economic apocalypse, brought about by economic sanctions and trade embargoes would have been the bleak and desolate fate of Lanka’s verdant landscape today. Those sycophants who cry “Bring back Mahinda’ and crave for the return of his corrupt regime to plunder the nation’s coffers even more, should be mindful that, had the regime continued without a break, there would have been nothing left to pillage, for the treasury, like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, would have been starkly bare even of the simple bare necessities of life.

Human rights and environment transcend sovereignty of nations
As far as G. L. Peiris’ assertion, made at Sunday’s news conference, that the EU granting the GSP facility to Lanka dependent upon the government fulfilling its obligation to implement the human rights conventions already signed, was an attempt to ‘interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation and an attack on Lanka’s sovereignty’, it is time to edify the professor turned politician turned Rajapaksa’s Man Friday, that the concept of national sovereignty has undergone radical change and the world today is no longer what he has read of it in musty tomes long years ago cloistered in his University College library.

GAMBIA’S JAMMEH: UN authorises foreign military intervention to forcibly evict the defeated President

In the manner that no nation can today use the shield of sovereignty and indiscriminately pollute the environment on the basis it has the sovereign right to do as it pleases on its broad acres, no government today can wear sovereignty as a defensive coat of armour to ward off justified international concerns as to violations of the fundamental human rights of its citizens.

In the global village of the world, the state of planet earth and the human rights of the people who inhabit it have become the common concern of all. And no government can claim exclusive sovereignty over its territory and its citizens when it violates the well being of either. The rest of the world has a compelling duty on behalf of both to transcend outdated concepts of sovereignty of nations and set things right.

For instance this week, Gambia’s ex-President Jammeh, who came to power in 1994 after he staged a military coup and remained in power for 33 years as president, refused to step down after he lost the presidential election held in December. He claimed it was rigged and called for a fresh election, saying he “rejected the election result totally.” The UN Security Council, however, did not accept his view but voted to send in the troops and remove him forcibly and install the victor Barrow as President. It backed an effort by West African states to remove Jammeh forcibly. On Friday Senegalese troops stood poised on Gambia’s borders to invade the country and evict Jammeh if he refused to go. Could Jammeh claim that the international community had no right to do so, that it was interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign Gambia?

Perhaps it’s time for Professor Peiris to retire to his study and, away from the madding strife of politics, to read the latest editions of the books on the modern concept of the sovereignty of nations. Thus enlightened, instead of being a barrow boy selling alchemy concoctions, he might, who knows, perhaps even end up putting his scholastic talents to good use, and write another doctoral thesis: a new expanded modern day version of Paine’s Rights of Man?

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