The European Parliament’s resolution on Sri Lanka on June 10 was the second international stricture against the country imposed this year in the light of human rights situation in the country. The first one was the resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March.
The European resolution was adopted by 628 votes in favour of it in the 705-member legislative assembly of the regional grouping. Only 15 votes were cast against the resolution while, 40 legislators abstaining. It “calls on the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to use the Generalized System of Preferences+ (GSP+) as a leverage to push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations and demand the repeal or replacement of the PTA, and to carefully assess whether there is sufficient reason, as a last resort, to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status and the benefits that come with it.”
Interestingly, the European resolution is based on the above UNHRC resolution and the report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented in the UNHRC during the same session in March. Another matter that had been taken into consideration when passing the resolution was the extraordinary gazette that had been issued under the highly controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 12 for “De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology.”
"The European Parliament throughout its resolution mainly stresses the need to “repeal the PTA and replace it with an anti-terrorism legislation which adheres to international best practices.”
Notwithstanding the their purpose, the regulations published in the gazette provided for the suspects surrendered or arrested by police for “commissioning of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups,” to be referred to rehabilitation centres, without a trial by a court of law. The European Parliament throughout its resolution mainly stresses the need to “repeal the PTA and replace it with an anti-terrorism legislation which adheres to international best practices.”
The resolution says “PTA has been systematically used for arbitrary arrests and the detention of Muslims and minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Ahnaf Jazeem, a 26-year-old Muslim teacher and poet, and Hejaaz Hizbullah, a well-known lawyer for minority rights and the rule of law” and “urges the Government of Sri Lanka to immediately give those detained a fair trial on valid charges and, if there are no charges, to release
It is the request to the European Commission by the European Parliament to withdraw duty concessions offered to Sri Lanka that has been stressed by the Sri Lankan politicians and the media rather than the reasons for it cited by the Parliament, leaving for anybody to justify the their own stance for or against the resolution.
This is the second time that Sri Lanka was deprived of the GSP+ concessions, the first time being in 2010, during Mahinda Rajapaksa administration on similar grounds. That time the decision followed an exhaustive investigation by the European Commission, which had “identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions” - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) - relevant for benefits under the scheme. As the case with the current resolution,the investigation then had relied heavily on reports and statements by UN Special Rapporteurs and Representatives, other UN bodies and human rights NGOs and identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of relevant conventions. The European Commission (EC) later stated in a letter to the Sri Lankan government that the GSP+ preferences could be extended for a limited additional period, subject to a clear commitment by Sri Lanka to fulfil 15 conditions all of which are related to human rights.
"The 20th Amendment to the Constitution was passed on October 20 last year reinforcing the executive presidency by way of bringing the independent commissions under the President and turning the Constitutional Council a
They included reduction of the number of derogations to the ICCPR, taking steps to ensure that the key objective of the 17th Amendment is fully safeguarded, repeal of the remaining part of the 2005 Emergency regulations, notably those Regulations concerning detention without trial, repeal of those sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which are incompatible with the ICCPR, making available to family members a list of the former LTTE combatants held in detention as well as all other persons detained under the Emergency Regulations and taking steps to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment, among other. However, the government rejected them claiming that “imposition of a series of conditions, the cumulative effect of which is clearly inconsistent with
Sri Lanka s sovereignty.”
Following the United National Party (UNP) led government reintroduced the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and took a conciliatory approach towards the UNHRC, Sri Lanka regained access to tariff preferences under the GSP+ on May 19, 2017, on the condition that it replaces PTA and effectively implements 27 international conventions, including human rights conventions.
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution was passed on October 20 last year reinforcing the executive presidency by way of bringing the independent commissions under the President and turning the Constitutional Council a toothless tiger. Citing this, the European Parliament resolution says “the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has been steadily deteriorating, with the new government rapidly backtracking on the limited progress achieved under previous administrations and the space in which civil society and an independent media can operate in the country is rapidly shrinking.”State Minister of Money, Capital Markets and Public Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal on Monday said the government was working out strategies to position itself to export Sri Lankan products in a competitive business environment rather than depending on trade concessions such as GSP+. That means the government is not prepared to budge in respect of the PTA or any other issue cited in the European resolution.
And whatever the merits and the demerits of the resolution, the government is going to lose a huge amount of foreign exchange at a time when a pandemic is also ravaging the economy. As the resolution itself put it, the GSP+ scheme has made a significant contribution to the country’s economy, from which exports to the EU have increased to EUR 2.3 billion, making the EU Sri Lanka’s second-largest export market. Media had quoted Colombo based brokers CT CLSA Securities as saying in a note to clients that Sri Lanka had full duty benefits for over 7,000 products and about 60% of the benefits were used by the apparel sector. It also had pointed out that if EU GSP+ preferences are revoked, it could impair the regional competitiveness of the Sri Lankan apparel sector as competing countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Vietnam benefit from similar preferential trade agreements with the EU.
Expecting an annulment of the 20th Amendment now by the present government is not practical, whatever the political or economic cost incurred by the country would be. However, there seems to be issues where it can make amends which could lead to mend fences with the institutions and outfits concerned about human rights. For instance, though one cannot demand the immediate release of a person arrested under the PTA, it is incomprehensible as to why people arrested under itor any other law should be kept in prisons for years, without being charge-sheeted. And also it is puzzling as to why a person should be sent for “rehabilitation” without being tried by a court of law.
However, the European Parliament’s concern about “the growing role and interference of China in Sri Lanka” cannot be justified as a human rights parameter and prompt one to question whether it would express the same concern about the growing role and influence of the US in countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia.