By Jehan Perera –
The EU has downsized its list of conditions for Sri Lanka to regain the GSP Plus benefits that it lost in 2011. At that time the EU set out a list of 15 conditions that the government had to meet if it was to retain the GSP Plus benefits. The previous government flatly refused to move on them citing national security and national sovereignty as the reasons. Ironically when the new government made public its intentions to reapply for the GSP Plus benefits, the EU set out 58 conditions. But now it is reported the country will now only have to fulfill 15 of them. These 15 conditions include provision for independent and impartial appointments to key public positions, to repeal those sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or amending them so as to make them clearly compatible with it, to respond to a significant number of individual cases currently pending before the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances; and to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment.
It calls upon the Government to take the legislative steps necessary to allow individuals to submit complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR and to the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) under Article 22. Sri Lanka acceded to first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997. In the same year the Government of Sri Lanka recognized the competence of the UN Human Rights Committee to receive and consider communication from Sri Lankan citizens. The Supreme Court said that the President had gone beyond her powers as acceding to the protocol. This is the issue on which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has spoken out against the decision of the Supreme Court in 2006 which said that incorporating the ICCPR into domestic law would require not only a 2/3 majority in Parliament but also passage at a referendum.
The willingness of the EU to downsize its demand on the present government could be due to its recognition of the pressures that the government is under. The shift from the longer list of 58 conditions to the revised one is reported to be due to concerns about Sri Lanka’s economic situation and about the legality and fairness of imposing more stringent criteria on the new government than what was required of the previous government. The new government has pledged to undertake three major sets of reforms and each of them is highly controversial. These are with respect to reducing the budget deficit, post-war accountability and constitutional reform. In each of these areas the centrality of the international community and the pressures it is imposing on the government have the potential to be used to raise up issues of nationalism. If the debate should shift to give primacy to nationalism, the government will be at a severe disadvantage.
The Joint Opposition which is led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a proven track record of mobilising nationalist sentiment. During the course of the war and thereafter in the immediate post-war years it utilised the power of ethnic nationalism to gain a stranglehold over politics within the country. It described the international community and the ethnic minorities as national security threats and utilised the power of the security forces to govern the country and to intimidate its political opponents. By way of contrast the present government does not falsely emphasise issues of national security and exaggerate the threats to the nation, and instead has reduced the role of the security forces in governance and restored a sense of freedom to all sectors of the population. If nationalism should become the main issue the government will find it difficult to hold back the advance of the opposition.
The vulnerability of the government’s position at the present time is that the three major issues it is grappling with are linked to pressures from the international community. The dominant issue at the present time in the public consciousness is the Value Added Tax which is extremely unpopular with the general population and also the business community. It has driven up the cost of living significantly and eroded the purchasing power of the people. It has also enabled the Joint Opposition to mobilize the discontents of shop owners in different parts of the country to protest against the tax which they find difficult to absorb as they have to compete against the informal business sector such as pavement hawkers who are not caught up in the VAT payment scheme. This discontent has permitted the Joint Opposition to ride the wave.
The government has explained the need for the additional tax revenue on the grounds that it has to repay the loans it inherited from the previous government, which borrowed heavily from international partners to put up white elephant projects. But the political implications of the present government having to deal with the financial profligacy of the previous government can be detrimental to its survival. A parallel may be drawn to the General Election of 2004 which ended in the defeat of the UNF coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. One of the features at that election was the fall of traditional UNP bastions in the Western Province including Colombo suburbs. At the 2004 elections the main theme of the opposition was that the UNP government had been too subservient to international pressures. The two main issues at that election was the Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE which was backed by the international community and the economic belt tightening blamed on the World Bank and IMF.
Once again, the opposition is making a strenuous effort to portray the international community as dictating terms to the government. This opposition effort is given traction by the fact that significant international pressure is indeed being brought to bear on Sri Lanka to deal with outstanding issues of post-war accountability. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has expressed his concern that Sri Lanka should honour its commitment to having international participation the accountability process. International human rights organisations and the Tamil Diaspora have joined the TNA which is locally based in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces in demanding a hybrid court system to deal with politically controversial issues such as who would be entrusted with the responsibility for ascertaining whether and in what circumstances the alleged war crimes took place. They have made it clear that they believe international participation should take through foreign judges sitting in judgment on cases involving war crimes.
Likewise the government’s proposed constitutional reforms have the devolution of power as a key component. The demand for a federal solution and for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is an indigenous demand that has arisen from within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. However, the ethnic majority community continues to stand opposed to a federal solution as they have been conditioned over many decades to believe that federalism is the equivalent of separation. The fact that this demand is supported by the Tamil Diaspora has enabled nationalists to argue that this too is part of an international conspiracy aimed at dividing the country.
It is in this context that the EU’s reduction in the number of conditions to achieve GSP status needs to be viewed. The reduction in the direct and visible international pressure on Sri Lanka in its efforts to resolve the problems it faces will strengthen the government’s credibility when it denies that it is being subservient to international interests. In the meantime those processes aimed at giving more ownership of Sri Lanka’s reforms to Sri Lankan people needs to be strengthened. The process of consultations that the government has planned with civil society organisations to ascertain public sentiment and influence public opinion on the constitutional reforms and reconciliation processes is important. It is an area of communication, awareness creation and advocacy that needs to be supported.