The government’s willingness to address the issue of the PTA follows the EU Parliament’s unexpected resolution that calls for the withdrawal of the GSP Plus tariff concession, though as a last resort, in the event of Sri Lanka not abiding by its commitments to the protection of human rights. The wording of the EU resolution leaves open the possibility of salvaging the GSP Plus, the importance of which has been articulated by the country’s exporters, particularly the apparel and fishing industries. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage who met senior representatives of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) Sri Lanka, the Seafood Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL) and trade unions, had reassured them of the government’s commitment to ensuring that the EU GSP+ would continue to remain beneficial to the country.
The exporters have pointed out that the EU market is just too important to lose as the prices paid by the EU are more than double that of purchasers in other countries. It is not only the fate of Sri Lankan exporters that hangs in the balance. The media reported a government decision to restrict imports of so-called luxury goods that included mobile phones and electronics. While the government has formally denied this, such news indicates a catastrophic collapse in public confidence in the economy. On the other hand, if Sri Lanka become truly a country that treats all its communities equally, and abides by the rule of law, foreign investors. Including the large and prosperous Diaspora can be invited to invest in the country and bring in the much needed foreign exchange for the country’s development that benefits all communities.
The government will be aware that a mere tweaking of the PTA will be insufficient to secure the GSP Plus concession from the EU. This is why the Foreign Ministry statement goes on to mention that the government had released 16 LTTE prisoners and has informed the EU of the release of Rs 79 million to the Office of Reparations in June to settle 1,230 processed claims for reparation and that an additional Rs 80 million was released on 29 June to settle a further 1,451 processed claims, out of a total 3,389 processed claims. The GSP Plus is given as an incentive to countries that have committed themselves to implementing 27 international human rights agreements. This goes far beyond the redesign of only the PTA and release of prisoners detained under it, who in any event, should not be there in the first place having been subjected to coerced confessions, not charged or brought before the courts of law or who have had their cases delayed for too many years.
The 27 human rights agreements that the EU expects beneficiary countries to be following include those focusing on human rights, which are the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981), Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). Those relating to labour rights include the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98), Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (and its 2014 Protocol), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105), Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111).
There are also conventions relating to the environment, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973), Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987), Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (1989),Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000), Stockholm Convention on persistent Organic Pollutants (2001), Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1998). Finally, there is the category of protection of good governance, which include the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971)’ United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988) and the United Nations Convention against Corruption.
Despite this plethora of international agreements relating to human rights, labour rights, environment and good governance, at the root of the EU’s concerns is the lack of progress in addressing the consequences of the country’s protracted ethnic conflict. This led to three decades of war, and now to 12 years of post-war peace in which the root cause of unequal and discriminatory treatment remains unaddressed. The government has an uphill task to convince the international community about the sincerity of its intentions. This is a government that was elected to power in a highly polarizing and nationalistic election campaign which depicted the ethnic and religious minorities as potential threats to national security and national sovereignty that needed to be neutralized. It is also the government that was in place following the end of the war in 2009 until 2015, which may have been the best time to settle issues once and for all, but which did not take up the challenge.
The irony is that as a result of its antecedents, which brought it to power, the government is finding it difficult to convince the ethnic and religious minorities within the country, let alone the EU, that it is sincere in its commitment to peace, reconciliation and human rights. The unfortunate reality is that the government has a dearth of credible champions within its fold who can articulate a message of peace and reconciliation in a convincing manner. Those champions of the past decades, including Prof G L Peiris, Prof Tissa Vitarana, DEW Gunasekara and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, have receded to the background in terms of their contributions to peace and inter-ethnic justice. But the appreciation of their past commitment suggests that they can play a role if called to man the breaches by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They have the intellectual capacity to realise that simply changing the PTA and releasing prisoners is not sufficient to show change of heart, but there needs to be a demonstrable commitment to ensuring that all sections of the people are treated equally.
An important task therefore devolves upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to articulate the change that is necessary as no one can doubt his bona fides in relation to preserving national unity, national sovereignty and national security. The foundational principle for his government’s approach could be the speech he made at his inaugural swearing in, when he said that he would be the president of all Sri Lankans, including those who did not vote for him. The essence of human rights, and of the 27 international covenants that the EU wishes Sri Lanka to comply with, is the concept of equality and equal treatment before the law, irrespective of race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation, caste or political party. A genuine reconciliation process with devolution, associated with changes to legislation in this regard that ensure equality treatment to all, may be able to change the stands taken by most countries than any other singular alteration.