The strains of the popular song ‘Sarame’ was heard from a radio blaring in a neighbourhood residence. The song about the ubiquitous sarong in Sri Lankan society sung by Sunil Perera, Desmond de Silva, Annesley Malawana and Rajiv Sebastian is also popular on social media platforms. Aldoris, the ‘choon paan’ karaya in his modified tuk-tuk [...]

Business Times

Human rights haunt Sri Lanka


The strains of the popular song ‘Sarame’ was heard from a radio blaring in a neighbourhood residence. The song about the ubiquitous sarong in Sri Lankan society sung by Sunil Perera, Desmond de Silva, Annesley Malawana and Rajiv Sebastian is also popular on social media platforms.

Aldoris, the ‘choon paan’ karaya in his modified tuk-tuk was at the gate offering breakfast pastries to the neighbourhood. “Me, mila adika wena vidihata, apita ape saramath wekunande wei-wage (At the rate prices are going up, we might have to sell our sarongs),” joked Aldoris.

This drew laughter from Kussi Amma Sera and Serapina. Mabel Rasthiyadu was busy at home and hadn’t joined the gang on this bright Thursday morning.

“Api harima amaru kaalekata muna denne. Den megollo gas mila wedi karanna hadanawa (We are going through a difficult period and now they are also trying to increase gas prices),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Vasangathaya madiwata, jeevana viyadamath dara ganna beri wenawa. Wena wena prashna rashiyakuth thiyenawa (On top of the pandemic, the rise in the cost of living is becoming unbearable. There are many other problems too),” noted Serapina.

I was so absorbed in their conversation that I failed to hear the phone ringing in the first instance. It was after a couple of minutes that I realised it was our home phone that was ringing. It was Kalabala Silva, the often agitated academic, on the line.

“Hello Kalabala, what’s the urgency (of this call),” I asked. “I wanted to discuss the European Parliament (EP) resolution against Sri Lanka, seeking a gradual withdrawal of the GSP+ concessions,” he said. “Yes that’s a big blow and I hear the government is carefully weighing its options,” I replied.

“It’s not going to be easy as our apparel exports depend on these duty free tariffs. On the other hand, isn’t it unfair for the EP to be pressing Sri Lanka during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis,” he asked. “You may be right but as pointed out by a rights lawyer during a TV discussion on Wednesday, Sri Lanka was using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to punish a suspect lawyer without bail or trial for the past 10 months and is also holding other suspects too in prolonged custody. Furthermore, concern has been raised that suspects were coerced to make confessions (in the probe in the Easter Sunday bombings), which also prompted the latest action by the EP,” I said, ending our conversation after a long discussion on rising fuel prices and the internal conflicts in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna over the fuel price hike.

The EP’s resolution on June 10, by a majority decision, urges the European Commission to consider temporarily withdrawing Sri Lanka’s access to GSP+ concessions. While it is said that Sri Lanka had failed to adhere to the 27 international UN conventions that it has ratified, the EP was particularly critical of the use of the PTA in jailing people for prolonged periods without bail or trial. Another aspect of the resolution was concern being raised over China’s growing role and influence in Sri Lanka’s political and economic landscape.

It was the Business Times that first alerted Sri Lanka to a possible impact on GSP+ over human rights violations in an April 4, 2021 story headlined, “Sri Lanka comes under EU scanner for human rights”.

That report said that the European Union (EU) following the passage of the UN human rights resolution against Sri Lanka in March in Geneva would monitor the reports from the UNHRC in Colombo in view of the trade concessions granted to Sri Lanka under the GSP+ scheme.

“While the UNHRC resolution 46/1 does not have an immediate and direct link with EU-Sri Lanka trade relations, the Office of the UN High Commissioner’s reports are an important element for GSP+ monitoring,” the EU Office in Colombo said in a statement to the paper. “The trade preferences that Sri Lanka currently enjoys under GSP+ are conditional to the implementation of 27 international conventions related to human and labour rights, as well as environment and good governance,” the EU stated.

According to Export Development Board Chairman Suresh De Mel, they are studying the matter and the impact particularly on exports in the case of a withdrawal of GSP+ concessions. “We are studying the matter and the impact if any,” he said. While GSP gives part concessions to Sri Lankan goods, GSP+ provides duty free access to a host of Sri Lanka exports and any withdrawal would be a severe blow to the two main sectors, lead to job losses, affect Sri Lanka’s competitiveness in global markets and impact its foreign exchange earnings.

In 2010, Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status was revoked, five years after first being granted following adverse reports on allegations of human rights abuses at the end of the country’s civil war. Subsequently, in May 2017, it was restored after the government agreed to abide by human rights, environment and labour rights as originally agreed.

Ministers like Ajith Nivard Cabraal (who made the same case in 2010 as the then Central Bank Governor) believe that Sri Lanka should not be dependent on trade concessions and needs to diversify its markets to other non-EU countries.

That’s easier said than done. The EU (including the UK) in 2020 was the most dominant region for Sri Lankan exports, accounting for about 32 percent of total exports and consisted mainly of garments (about 44 percent of total garment exports), according to the Central Bank.

Together, the US and the EU accounted for about 57 percent of the total export earnings of Sri Lanka in 2020, which makes it imperative that Sri Lanka has excellent diplomatic relations with these two regions.

According to official data, textiles and garments exports which totalled US$5.6 billion in 2019 dropped by 21 percent to $4.4 billion in 2020 due to pandemic-related issues.

While the timing of the issue, one may argue is unfair, Sri Lanka cannot avoid global scrutiny of its human rights records after agreeing to adhere to basic human rights as a condition to receiving GSP+ benefits, when they were first granted.

Sri Lanka is said to be the third country this year to be subjected to a European Parliament resolution criticising its human rights record, after similar resolutions against the Philippines and Pakistan.

While I wound up my column, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room with another mug of tea saying, “Sir, it didn’t rain today”. I nodded and thought about the crisis after crisis that the government is facing amidst the pandemic.

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