The Times

Sri Lanka is Ducking Human Rights Issues

October 8, 2009 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

To the Editor of The Times
From Mr. Julian Filochowski, John Battle, MP, Edward Mortimer, Professor Andrew Rigby, Clare Short, MP

Sir, Since your report on September 15 (“EU sanctions on Sri Lanka to hit ‘cheap’ clothing over human rights abuses”), diplomats in Colombo have been quoted (Reuters, Sept 29) as saying that the EU is likely to let Sri Lanka keep its “GSP Plus” concession, while recommending it be revoked if the country does not improve its human rights record. Meanwhile, on October 1, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador told the Human Rights Sub Committee of the European Parliament that his country will not respond to the “damning” human rights report (which concluded, as your correspondent said, “that the island no longer qualified for GSP Plus”) but “will instead continue to engage on the issues of concern with the European Commission”.

Clearly there is a lot of “spin” going on here. The government hopes it can bounce the EU into extending the concession simply by promising to keep talking, without directly addressing the very serious issues raised in the report. The Commission, which is due to discuss the matter next week (October 15), must not fall for this transparent gambit.

It is now five years since the EU granted GSP Plus terms to Sri Lanka – the only country in Asia and one of only 15 in the world that enjoys this unilateral trade concession – in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami. During those five years, the country has moved further and further from the rule of law, and the rights of its people have steadily deteriorated.

In order to renew GSP Plus, Sri Lanka has to show it has ratified and implemented 27 international conventions on core human rights, labour rights, the environment and good governance. The report, commissioned specifically by the EU to assess implementation, details the country’s systematic failure to protect human rights, including freedom of expression, and to adhere to basic humanitarian standards. Journalists, writers, academics, political and human rights activists have been assassinated, imprisoned or forced into exile; the UN is prevented from fulfilling its humanitarian protection mandate; the International Committee of the Red Cross is not allowed into some of the camps where 280,000 civilians are being detained; and Amnesty International is not even allowed into the country.

It would be a flagrant abuse of the GSP Plus facility if the Commission were to extend it under these conditions.