Colombo, Economy, Foreign Relations, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


It is worth clarifying here the situation regarding the EU GSP+ facility, given the confusion prevailing in the mainstream media.

The EU has NOT threatened trade sanctions against Sri Lanka. The GSP+ facility is an extra privilege granted to developing countries which abide by certain human rights norms. If it is withdrawn, the EU will continue to trade with Sri Lanka, but its imports from Sri Lanka will have to compete with imports from other countries likeIndia and China which do not enjoy the GSP+ facility. This means their quantity will decline, and there would be job losses for workers and revenue losses for the government.

Is this fair? The lengthy EU report on Sri Lanka produces mounds of evidence that Sri Lanka is not complying with the human rights norms which are compulsory for receiving GSP+ privileges. Take just three out of the many more instances cited there. One is the detention of around 280,000 displaced civilians in IDP camps for months on end. The government claimed it was housing them until their own habitats were demined, yet refused to allow them to stay with relatives in safe places. It claimed it was screening them to find LTTE cadres, yet released on bail two top LTTE cadres who had been with Prabakaran right to the very end. There was no one in the camps closer to Prabakaran than Daya Master and George Master, so if they could be released, why not the entire camp population?

Recently, under extreme pressure domestically and internationally, the government has started releasing IDPs from the main camps. But many of these people are simply shifted to smaller detention centres, and others are being subjected to forcible disappearances after going home. Why are they being victimised like this? The detention of human rights defender Sanatha Fernando of the National Christian Council for 250 days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act gives us a clue. What was Mr Fernando’s terrorist act? Apparently he was on his way to India with documents in his luggage concerning the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni. According to this definition of terrorism, all the IDPs from the Vanni are, indeed, potential terrorists, because they have all been witness to the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni. Unless and until those who refuse to keep their mouths shut can be incarcerated or killed, the rest cannot be released.

Unfortunately for the government, the EU does not agree with this definition of ‘terrorism’. This brings us to another instance of failure to comply with the GSP+ requirements: threats, assaults and murder of journalists who refuse to toe the government line. According to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Lasantha Wickrematunge was with the terrorists because he was not with the government and said so openly. Again, the EU does not agree that journalists who criticise the government can be assaulted, jailed and killed with impunity. And a third case: the failure to arrest and bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes, even when plenty of evidence against them is available. The cold-blooded murder of 17 unarmed ACF workers in 2006 is a case in point. Far from attempting to bring the killers to justice, the government is guilty of concerted attempts to protect them by interfering with investigations of the case, which makes it complicit in this war crime.

The report cites numerous other cases, producing enough evidence to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the government of Sri Lanka is not compliant with the norms on the basis of which the GSP+ facility is extended. For it to insist that it should get the facility regardless, is like a degree candidate who has failed the exam insisting that he should get the degree regardless. No doubt the consequences of the loss of the GSP+ facility will be bad for ordinary people in Sri Lanka. I have worked with women garment workers, and have friends among those who organise them; the last thing I want is for them to lose their jobs. But the solution is not for the EU to make nonsense of this privilege by giving it to undeserving states, but for the public in Sri Lanka to put pressure on the government to comply with the human and democratic rights demanded by the GSP+ facility.

Ah, but this would undermine the sovereignty of Sri Lanka, say the government’s acolytes! Would it really? With all its faults, the current constitution of Sri Lanka says that sovereignty resides with the people, and, indeed, this is the definition of democracy: rule by, of and for the people. If the people are to exercise their rule – i.e. their sovereignty – then they must have access to all the human and democratic rights specified by the EU as a condition for extension of the GSP+ facility. Conversely, denial of these fundamental rights – freedom of movement of the Vanni IDPs, freedom of expression of journalists, the right to life of the ACF workers – is an attack on the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka. We have a paradoxical situation here, where the international community is standing up for the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka while our own government is attacking it!!

This is a case of double standards, says the government. The EU is complicit in even worse violations of human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is absolutely true. But let us follow through the logic of this argument. Our government says that since the EU is involved in committing human rights violations, it has no right to criticise the government of Sri Lanka for doing the same, because that would be a case of double standards. By the same token, since the government of Sri Lanka is involved in human rights violations, it has no right to criticise violations committed by the EU, US or anyone else, since that, too, be a case of double standards. One could then go one step further, and say that since the Sri Lankan government has criticised the Western powers for their human rights violations despite the fact that this involves double standards, it cannot complain if the Western powers criticise human rights violations in Sri Lanka despite the fact that this too involves double standards! The only way to break out of this conundrum is to denounce such violations wherever they occur and whoever commits them. Fortunately for us, we still have citizen journalist sites like Groundviews where we can do this.

One way in which the government and its supporters tried to avert the EU report and discredit it after it came out was by alleging that Sri Lankans who might have supplied evidence of rights violations committed during a war against a terrorist group to the international community were traitors and supporters of LTTE terrorism. Are they serious? What if we rewind twenty years, to a time when another government was confronting another terrorist group, the JVP? At that time, a certain human rights activist named Mahinda Rajapaksa was presenting to the UN Human Rights Commission evidence of the human rights violations committed by the government of Sri Lanka in the course of its war on the terrorist JVP. This person is now our president. So what are we conclude? Is our president a traitor? A supporter of terrorism? Could the government please answer this question?