COLOMBO - Sri Lanka is in for some hard
bargaining when it negotiates a new aid pact in
2013 with the European Union, which withdrew a key
trade concession two years ago over this country’s
Bernard Savage, head
of the EU delegation to Sri Lanka and the
Maldives, says political differences do not affect
trade. "There are
no specific irritants [at the
moment] and I would like to stress that in the
normal run of affairs political differences do not
Savage told IPS in an
interview that the issue of withdrawal of EU trade
concessions was a specific case. "But, if you look
at the broad spectrum of trade relations ... that
was not affected by short-term considerations."
However, human-rights lawyer J C Weliamuna
believes that trade and aid are invariably linked
to human-rights and corruption - two sectors where
Sri Lanka has been asked to show tangible
"What is promised on paper [by
the government] is exactly the opposite of what is
implemented on the ground," the lawyer, a board
member of Transparency International, told IPS.
The EU is among Sri Lanka's largest
providers of development assistance, supporting in
the 2007-13 period projects dealing with water and
sanitation, housing, income generation,
infrastructure, schools, health facilities, food
security and others.
"The level of
assistance for the next program - 2013 to 2020 -
will be more or less the same. It won't decrease,"
Sri Lanka had won generous
tax concessions under the Generalised System of
Preferences Plus (GSP+) for the July 2005 - August
2010, but this facility was withdrawn over
unaddressed human-rights concerns.
investigations had found "shortcomings in respect
of Sri Lanka's implementation of three United
Nations human rights conventions - the
International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, the Convention against Torture and the
Convention on the Rights of the Child."
However, it was widely understood that the
concessions were withdrawn owing to Sri Lanka's
failure to address alleged war crimes during the
last stages of the country's ethnic conflict.
The impact of lost EU concessions is now
being felt, with garments exports to Europe
dropping by 15-20% in the five months up to May,
said Rohan Abeykoon, chairman of the Sri Lanka
Apparel Exporters Association. Garments, Sri
Lanka's biggest export item, account for more than
50% of exports to Europe.
"It's not the
job losses that we are worried about because there
is demand for labor, but lost contracts are
affecting small and medium-sized businesses,"
Abeykoon said. "Local companies are losing out
while those with multinational connections will
shift production elsewhere."
IPS that he has urged the government to reapply
for the facility, though there is no sign of that
happening yet. "With regard to GSP + we have had
no request from the government for a new
facility," Savage confirmed.
are also backing the call for a revival of the
concessions. Palitha Athukorala, president of the
Progress Union of Sri Lankan Apparel Workers, said
the government seems unconcerned and has made no
attempt to apply for GSP +.
[government] should ask for it. We are badly
affected, as small factories are closing and
workers are losing jobs," Athukorala told IPS.
Padmini Weerasuriya, coordinator of the
Women's Center, a non-government organization
active in the country's free trade zones, says
there are no job losses owing to the loss of GSP +
concessions, though this may change.
members [workers] have reported a drop in orders
which then affects other incentives outside the
monthly wage," she said. Unions have already been
campaigning for decent living wages.
the political front, Sri Lanka this month did a
major about-turn to invite the UN Human Rights
Council to visit the country to review the
human-rights situation. Earlier, Sri Lanka had
even refused entry to a EU team examining Sri
Lanka's application for a renewal of GSP+
The government has prepared an
action plan on human rights and sent it to Geneva,
five months after the UN passed a United
States-backed resolution urging Sri Lanka to
address alleged human rights abuses.
March UN motion had called on Colombo to address
violations of international humanitarian law;
implement the recommendations of a local
commission that probed the conflict; and encourage
the UN Human Rights office to offer Sri Lanka
advice and assistance and the government to accept
Sri Lankan President Mahinda
Rajapaksa has repeatedly denied claims of
large-scale civilian casualties during the last
stages of the battle against Tamil separatist
rebels that ended in May 2009.
relations with the West have forced the government
to rely on allies in the neighborhood like China,
Iran, Libya and India for war-related and
pressure and the March UN resolution - which was
backed by India - has forced Sri Lanka to make
conciliatory gestures to the West.
respected Sunday Times newspaper said on August 5
that the government's decision to implement the
full UN resolution and allow a UN team to visit
the country would pave the way for a long-standing
visit by UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi
Pillay, considered a vocal critic.
Weliamuna said issues in which the
international community is concerned - human
rights, declining rule of law, growing impunity
and corruption - are relevant. "The government
knows it cannot continue in this manner and is
trying to convince the world that it has changed,"
Abeykoon says the devaluation of
the US dollar in May, which pushed the rupee up to
130 per dollar, against 110 in February, has
helped the garment industry. "If not, our exports
[to the EU] would have worsened."
Savage, the GSP + is a "closed chapter", using a
phrase borrowed from Sri Lanka's external affairs
minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris. "The fact is GSP+
was withdrawn and Sri Lanka has not reapplied. We
need to move on," Savage said.