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Mounting international pressures call for less confrontational approach

by Jehan Perera

(June 29, Colombo,, Sri Lanka Guardian) The international pressures on Sri Lanka have been suddenly ratcheted up with the almost simultaneous announcement of the appointment of a UN panel of experts to advise the UN’s Secretary General on possible alleged violations of humanitarian laws in the last days of the war and the EU setting out a list of 15 conditions for Sri Lanka to retain its GSP Plus concessions. The public response of the government to these threatening developments has been to condemn them, to deny that they will have a major impact on the country’s well being, and to pledge to resist all externally determined conditionalities.

Rejecting the 15 conditions set out by the European Union for the extension of benefits of the GSP Plus tariff concession on the grounds that such demands constitute a violation of the country’s national sovereignty, the government has also announced that it will deny visas to the three members of the panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary General and questioned the credentials of the experts. The Sri Lankan government's position is that both the EU and UN Secretary General are interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state and that this is unacceptable.

Members of the government from the President downwards have been strong in their objections of the EU’s conditions. Most of public opinion appears to be in favour of the government’s position that this type of external intervention is unfair and needs to be resisted. Those with a different opinion appear to prefer to adopt a low profile as they fear they will be branded as traitors if they dissent. The government’s capacity to mobilize the power of nationalism to defeat its opponents is without precedent. This was seen both in the war against the LTTE as well as in the series of elections that followed.

Certainly, the government is not one that is inclined to give in to foreign pressures. This was seen during the period of the war. The government came under considerable international pressure to negotiate with the LTTE especially during the last phase of the war when its defeat was imminent. But the government resisted these pressures to fight the war to a finish and rallied the support of the majority of the Sri Lankan population to endure the costs. Especially within the country, the government’s experience has been to defeat and bulldoze any opposition to it rather than to negotiate differences and arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement.

Confrontational Strategy

The problem with this confrontational strategy is that it is not likely to work in relation to parties that are immeasurably more powerful than the government. The EU and UN systems would be examples where a strategy of confrontation is less likely to succeed. Although the government appears to be placing much confidence in its relationship with countries such as China, Iran and Russia, it needs to consider the reality that the EU and UN are more important to those countries than is Sri Lanka. China has a very strong commercial relationship with Sudan. But when Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, China failed to utilize its veto power in the UN Security Council to protect its ally.

In this context, without seeking to insulate the country from international concerns, it is important that the government ensures the continuation of trade concessions with the EU while positively re-engaging with the international community on governance issues. During the past several months the government has taken a considerable effort to retain the GSP Plus concession, repeatedly sending delegations of its senior officials and even religious dignitaries to dialogue with the EU on this matter. There have been improvements that have accompanied these dialogues. The government has stepped up resettling persons displaced by the war and rehabilitating and releasing former LTTE cadre and recently appointed a Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation.

As a democratic country which has subscribed to the UN Declarations on Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, Sri Lanka is obliged to comply with their obligations to which it has signed up to. The EU only announced its decision to suspend the GSP+ trade concession to Sri Lanka following an investigation by the European Commission, which identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka's implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme. These were the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention against Torture (CAT) and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC).

Sri Lanka is the only country in Asia and is only one of 16 countries in the world that enjoys this special status with the EU, in which more than 7,200 products categories are allowed duty-free into the EU. The EU process is clear and it is well known that the Commission is obliged to start an investigation if there are doubts that the conventions have not been implemented. There have been several reports by UN rapporteurs on the human rights situation. In the Sri Lankan case the investigations were launched at least eighteen months before the end of the war with the LTTE. The government weakened its case at that time by refusing permission to the EU to send in its investigative team to make field level findings regarding the ground situation in relation to these international conventions that the government has signed.

International Obligations

The 15 conditions being put forward by the EU they are aimed at addressing some of the general problems of internal governance and human rights within Sri Lanka in accordance with international covenants that Sri Lanka has already signed. In addition, the issues raised by the EU have also been raised by the democratic Opposition and civil society groups within Sri Lanka itself. These 15 conditions include many reasonable ones such as taking steps to ensure that the key objective of the 17th Amendment to Constitution, namely to provide for independent impartial appointments to key public positions, is fully safeguarded through a Constitutional Council that adequately reflect the interest of all political, religious groups and minorities within Sri Lankan society.

Other EU conditions include the repeal of those sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act that are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or to make amendments to them that make them compatible with the ICCPR, adoption of the planned amendments to the code of Criminal Procedure, which provide for the right of a suspect to see a lawyer immediately following arrest, publication of the complete final report of the 2008 Commission of Inquiry into Serious Human Rights Violations, publication or making available to family members a list of the former LTTE combatants currently 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.

None of the EU conditions relate specifically to human rights issues that arose during the last days of the war, but are applicable to good governance for the entire people. These are what a democratic government ought to provide for its people. Instead of outright rejection of them the Sri Lankan government is still positioned to respond to them in a positive manner. The response made by Sri Lanka's Ministry of External Affairs, pointing out the inapplicability of some of the EU requirements, could provide a model for a continuing dialogue with the EU on the need to modify its requirements. If there are some conditions that the government feels it cannot accede to for good reasons that are in the country's national interests, these could be explained and the EU will need to be open minded in seeing the Sri Lankan government's point of view.

There are two benefits that could accrue to Sri Lanka by responding positively to the EU and in a phased manner that is reasonable following discussions and agreement with the EU. First it can retain the GSP Plus concession which is of major importance to the Sri Lankan economy and to its working people. Second, and as important if not more important, it can send a message to the larger international community that the Sri Lankan government is genuinely responsive to concerns about good governance and human rights as it affects its own people, and also is prepared to live up to its international commitments. This may also strengthen the government’s position to positively engage with the UN and seek to broaden the mandate of its own Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation in return for not appointing a separate UN Commission.

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