Photo courtesy of Kumanan Kanapathippillai

The Sri Lankan government’s failure to respect human rights, democracy and accountability have caused alarm at home and abroad and may prove still more costly in various ways. After a recent decision by the European Parliament, the regime’s conduct may lead to losing largely tariff-free access to a major market.

The European Parliament is law-making and scrutiny body of the European Union (EU), which brings together more than two dozen countries. On 10 June, by an overwhelming majority, it passed a resolution on abuses in Sri Lanka. The European Commission (the EU’s executive arm) was urged to consider temporary withdrawal from a scheme enabling Sri Lankan trade under highly favourable conditions.

A “steadily deteriorating” rights situation

On top of the damaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, May and June 2021 have been grim months for many ordinary Sri Lankans. As the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a family whose teenage son died some years ago after being beaten by police, more people died in state custody in suspicious circumstances. Others languished in deeply unsafe prison conditions despite lack of evidence of wrongdoing.

The decision to allow a burning ship full of dangerous chemicals into Sri Lankan waters after other countries had turned it away resulted in ecological disaster. The long term consequences for fishing and the tourist industries, already badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, are yet to be determined. Households who have been struggling for a while to make ends meet will be especially vulnerable economically.

There had been little doubt that the government’s violations of human and democratic rights and good governance, including removing checks and balances on use of power by those in high office, have made matters worse. For four years, Sri Lanka had enjoyed advantages in trade with the EU, which had become its second-largest trading partner (after China), absorbing 22.4 percent of its exports in 2020. This was one of the international relationships to come under strain.

The EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) reduces or removes import duties on a wide range of goods. Standard GSP is open to low and middle income countries that do not have a separate arrangement with the EU, offering partial or full removal of customs duties on two thirds of tariff lines. GSP+ offers special incentives for sustainable development and good governance, so that these same tariffs are 0 percent if countries put into practice 27 international conventions related to human rights, labour rights, protection of the environment and good governance.

In June, Members of the European Parliament were faced with the question of whether these conditions had been met. The resolution on “The situation in Sri Lanka, in particular the arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act” pointed out that “The controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been in place in Sri Lanka since 1979 and grants the police broad powers to search, arrest and detain civilian suspects; whereas the wide-ranging powers provided for in the PTA have led to consistent and well-founded allegations of torture and sexual abuse, forced confessions and systematic denials of due process.”

In May 2017, Sri Lanka had “regained access to generous tariff preferences under the GSP+, on the condition that it replaces its PTA and effectively implements 27 international conventions”, including on human rights. Instead, things have got worse.

The PTA had 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.” In 2021 Regulations had been issued expanding the PTA, to allow for “two years of detention without trial for causing ‘religious, racial, or communal disharmony’.”

There were “clear signs of the accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka”, including appointment of military officials implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity; deaths in police custody and prisons; and “the reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society”; and “continuing discrimination against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities and communities in Sri Lanka, including Muslims, Hindus, Tamils and Christians.”

The threat of a proposed new law which might undermine freedom of expression was noted, along with use of counter terrorism in some instances “as a pretext on which to persecute members of ethnic and religious groups and civil society, including human rights defenders.” The resolution underlined the importance of a national reconciliation process which included investigating alleged human rights abuses and war crimes by senior figures on all sides during the years of armed conflict; and called for “a rigorous, impartial and complete investigation into the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in line with international legal standards.”

The point was made “that the continuance of GSP+ trade preferences is not automatic”; and the European Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS) were called on “to take into due account current events when assessing Sri Lanka’s eligibility for GSP+ status” and “use the GSP+ as a leverage to push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations and demand the repeal or replacement of the PTA.” If this did not work, as a last resort, they should “initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to Parliament on this matter as soon as possible.”

Stronger rights for workers were also urged, taking note of “the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the deteriorating labour rights’ situation in the country”; Sri Lankan authorities should “cooperate fully with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to strengthen the labour rights of factory workers, including health and safety conditions for garment workers in special trade zones”, “effectively implement and strengthen the National Policy on Elimination of Child Labour” and meet international requirements protecting freedom to join trade unions and undertake collective bargaining.

Responding to the resolution

In a statement, Josep Borrell, a European Commission vice-president, drew attention to the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution and reports by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and others, also mentioned in the resolution. These “indicated trends towards a deteriorating human rights situation, including those of the LGBTIQ community,” while “security forces continue to apply the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which deprives detainees of due process rights, authorises executive sanctioned detention without charge, and has facilitated the use of torture. Amending the PTA to bring it in line with international standards was a key commitment of Sri Lanka in the run-up to its readmission to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) in 2017.” He stated that “We will continue our open and critical engagement with Sri Lanka not only within the framework of the GSP+ monitoring, but in our regular bilateral dialogue” – a warning that action was needed.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s response was dismissive, claiming that the resolution “contains factual inaccuracies, and does not take cognizance of the multifaceted progress made by Sri Lanka in reconciliation and development”. The rosy picture painted of rights and freedoms under the current leadership was far removed from the more sombre realities faced by all too many Sri Lankans. Yet the pattern of denial has continued.

As power has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of the President and his close associates, they have come to rely on the Chinese regime and a handful of other leaders to shore up their control, whatever the long term costs to the country. The hardships faced by workers facing inadequate conditions), minorities and anyone else outside the inner circle may count for little to those in charge.

Yet in these times, as the economy faces tough challenges, disregarding the EU’s concerns – especially since these echo those of so many people inside Sri Lanka – is a risky approach. And if those whose social, economic, cultural and political rights are being violated increasingly recognise their common interests, calls for justice will be harder to ignore.