No one pretends the situation is perfect

  • What we want in return is for Sri Lanka to honour the commitment that it’s already made on human rights, labour rights and environmental standards
  • EU consumers demand high standards and we make no apology for that

The European Commission, the legislative body of the European Union, granted GSP Plus status to Sri Lanka, providing enhanced market access to the EU under the special scheme which came into effect last week. While the government hailed the opportunity for economic development, political and civil society groups have pressured the European Parliament to debate the restoration of the GSP Plus tariff preferences to Sri Lanka, scheduled to take place on May 31 in Brussels. Against this backdrop, the Dailymirror approached Political, Trade and Communication Section Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Counsellor Paul Godfrey, to discuss the importance of the GSP plus concession and matters related to Sri Lanka’s commitment to international conventions. Excerpts of the Interview;


Q The GSP  plus concession has been restored following repeated requests from our government. On what basis did the European Commission decide to consider the request?
The approval for the application by the Sri Lankan government for the re-admission for the GSP  plus scheme is on the same basis as any other government that chooses to apply. First of all you need to be a lower middle income country as classified by the World Bank, which currently means approximately that the Gross National Income is between US $ 3,000 to 4,000. There are eight other beneficiaries around the world including Peru, Armenia, Mongolia and some others. The reason for agreeing to grant the concession is that the government agrees to the progressive implementation of international conventions of which Sri Lanka is a signatory and in almost all cases is a long standing signatory. These are often agreements that a number of different governments have signed and ratified, going back even to the late ‘70s.


What we want to see from the Sri Lankan government is that they use the opportunity provided by GSP plus to address some of those issues in a coherent and jurable way so that we have a sustainable foundation for Sri Lanka’s long term development

There are 27 conventions in total. 19 of them relate to Human Rights, six that relate to Labour Rights and then there are two that relate to environmental concerns. When you make an application you need to agree to the progressive implementation of those conventions being monitored between the EU, the government and indeed civil society. This is a regular process of monitoring that needs to show that the government is living up to its commitment. Precisely through that process the GSP plus access was withdrawn back in 2010, because of serious shortcomings identified by the EU in three particular areas. The previous government showed no interest in addressing these issues, so the decision was ultimately made to remove Sri Lanka from the list of GSP  plus beneficiaries.


Q There has been considerable speculation over the developments that led to the restoration of this concession since the EU delegation’s visit in October 2016. Has the present political atmosphere influenced the decision to restore GSP  plus? 

Very much so. In February 2015, soon after the government came into power, there was already an approach from the government to say that they were interested in re-applying for the GSP  plus concession. Since mid-2015, there has been a succession of dialogues spanning for more than 18 months that have ultimately resulted in this application being approved. We had a number of informal discussions in the run up to Sri Lanka actually making the application in July 2016. These were really about  conveying to the government about the things that Sri Lanka needed to do in order to have a successful application. So obviously from our side it’s about looking at the human rights situation, the willingness of the government both to acknowledge where there are issues and also to put in place a series of actions in order to address them.


We are however very much supportive of the Human Rights Council Resolution and we fully urge the government both publicly and privately to make good on its commitments

QWhat should be our way forward from this point onwards?
In any country, whether it’s a EU country or some of the countries that are generally seen as more advanced in terms of human and labour rights, such as Norway or New Zealand, there is always room for improvement. Clearly in Sri Lanka, as the EU Commissioner said, no one is pretending that the situation is perfect. There are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed. What we want to see from the Sri Lankan government is that they use the opportunity provided by GSP  plus to address some of those issues in a coherent and jurable way so that we have a sustainable foundation for Sri Lanka’s long term development.

QThe GSP plus concession was withdrawn on allegations of grave human rights violations, labour standards and other concerns. Does this mean that the EU is satisfied with our status at present?
When we assess the application the precise terminology is that there needs to be no serious shortcomings identified against the 27 conventions. So yes, through the approval of the application there were no serious shortcomings to be identified. What I see is also a big difference where this government has repeatedly indicated its interest in improving the situation further. As I said earlier, we don’t think the situation is perfect. There still are a number of areas that are concerns. But this government has committed to undertake action to improve those and we will maintain a dialogue with them about how best we think the government could progress.


Disappointing that we haven’t seen the Office of Missing Persons get off the ground despite the passing of the legislation

QThe EU’s trade policies have been often referred to as a “carrot and stick” approach to trade. What is your response to these allegations that the GSP plus is a political tool?
If you take almost any other international actor, their interest in trade agreement with Sri Lanka or any other country, is about agreeing a mutual trade access. In very simplistic terms, if you have a trade deal with Australia, China, United States, in almost all cases, the deal is that ‘we will give you access to our market, if you give us access to your market’. With the EU, we’re not asking for market access. There is no request for market access. What we want in return is for Sri Lanka to honour the commitment that it’s already made on human rights, labour rights and environmental standards. It’s a development mechanism. It’s about the way that the European Union, the biggest donor in the world, can help developing countries build a really sustainable foundation for long lasting development. That’s what this is about and that’s why there is a specific concession for lower middle income countries. For low income countries, we have the ‘Everything but arms’ agreement which applies regardless of the human rights standards. But when you already move into ‘lower middle income’ status it’s been a challenge to many countries to really consolidate and build on that process.
What we obviously hope for in Sri Lanka is that it would continue to develop economically and end up in a situation where it is an upper middle income country and in time a high income country. That’s the process that we’re looking to embed and support.


Govt. showed a clear difference of approach in the treatment of all Sri Lankans on an equal basis.

QWhen a country like ours subscribes to an international convention, these conventions have their own compliance mechanisms. What is the requirement of the EU setting up a parallel mechanism to monitor compliance?
We certainly are happy to work with local structures that are identified, for instance on human rights. We would see the Human Rights Commission here being a very important partner. You would be aware that an independent Human Rights Commission was something that was only put in place by this government. We now have a number of local counterparts both through the Commission and civil society to get a holistic view as to where the government is implementing the commitments it has made. That certainly is the key element for us, to see that the government is moving forward on these issues on a progressive basis.

QFor a developing country like Sri Lanka there are sometimes political costs that would outweigh economic benefits of better market access to the EU. Do you think that the implementation of the EU framework in developing countries is practical?
We think it is practical. No one forced Sri Lanka either back in 2004 or last year to make the application for the concession. If Sri Lanka had said ‘we don’t want to abide by the commitments’ then there is no deal on our side. It is entirely a choice of the government of Sri Lanka to make the application. Now obviously having made the application, part of the application is that you agree with the process that goes along with it. You can’t become a member of a club and say “I’ m sorry I can’t play by the rules”. We now expect that the government will agree with the monitoring process in moving forward. For us the progressive implementation is not something within EU interests, it is in the interest of all Sri Lankans. These are fundamental principles of international human rights law, fundamental labour rights and environmental sustainability. It is in the interest of Sri Lankans ensuring that these standards are implemented rather than just in the interests of the EU.


QSri Lanka is riddled with a financial crisis in addition to issues in human rights and labour sectors. How would the GSP plus concession help these areas?

The GSP plus in and of itself has a certain value. But really the opportunity lies in three specific areas. First of all, clearly the removal of import duty is something that helps the competitiveness of Sri Lanka in the export market. On average you’re looking at about 11 percent reduction in duty. Now in the EU Sri Lankan goods are an eleven percent cheaper than they were last week. That’s already quite a serious concession when you’re talking about exports being worth of three billion euros in the region, a year.
The second area is the opportunity it gives for diversification. This is a concession that applies to around more than 6,000 products that now have duty free access to the markets. Around 60 percent of the Sri Lankan exports are textiles or apparel. Other significant chunks are taken by products such as rubber and machinery. So there is plenty of potential for Sri Lankan companies and entrepreneurs to develop their business. We want to see particularly Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) taking advantage of this to develop for instance the market for Sri Lankan cinnamon. For those people who know, it is rightly seen as the best cinnamon in the world. But I don’t think that it’s a widely understood or communicated feeling. That is one example with real potential. Sri Lankan crabs are already something that has a great demand for regional markets such as Singapore, which could be expanded. I think there are a number of high quality products, not just in the food area,where there is a real potential to develop.
Lastly what we want is to make sure that this development is not only about business and growth in economic terms. We want to try and ensure that it is built on sound foundations. To give the society as a whole, a platform to move forward. So this is a concession that benefits all Sri Lankans, it’s not something that only benefits a section at the top. That for us is a very important reason as to why we have this concession in place.

QHow confident are you that Sri Lanka would successfully direct a sustainable export diversification programme?
I think the opportunity is clearly there. In the first instance people obviously think of the import duty benefits because those are very easy to quantify. I think what we now need to see is the government making sure that they use the opportunity to support diversification and export orientation. This government has made very clear that it is committed to growing the export market and having an export led growth. But if you talk to any businesses here, there are still a number of barriers both formal and informal that need to be looked at in order to maximize the potential for growing Sri Lanka’s exports.

QHow difficult would it be for SMEs to overcome the technical obstacles and meet the standards demanded by the EU consumer?
From the EU’s point of view, we have a project in place which is specifically designed to help SMEs meet the standards demanded by EU consumers. EU consumers want to know who produced it, how it was produced or the fact that it was produced in a way that didn’t contribute to any human rights or labour concerns. These are things that people are concerned with already. They are ever more interested in ethical sourcing or whether or not a product has used any artificial fertilisers. These are things that are increasingly important to EU consumers. So we want to help SMEs to be aware of that process and secondly to work to ensure that they are able to meet the standards. Obviously they are high standards and we make no apology for that.

QWhat is the EU’s opinion of the progress made by Sri Lanka in terms of the Counter Terrorism Act, women and children’s rights and reports of torture?
As the Commissioner said last week the situation is not perfect. We still have concerns. The government has committed in Geneva to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It’s about a number of sections within that Act. We very much count on the government to deliver on its commitment to have a counter terrorism legislation that is consistent with international practice. We still have a long way to go on that but we have assurances from the government that they intend to proceed down that route and we look forward to it.
On torture, this government has already taken some important steps; first of all acknowledging that there was a problem and that the problem is on-going and not going away. Clearly inviting the special rapporteur from the United Nations to make a report was an important element. Sending clear instructions to all security forces, Police and armed forces that the government would have no tolerance for any instances of torture or coercion; that was an important signal that was sent. Some of these elements can assist, putting in place checks and balances. I think having those checks and balances in the system is an important way to give confidence to people that for instance, when a suspect is produced in court that they haven’t been tortured to produce some kind of confession.

QThe government has made several conflicting statements about issues such as the transitional justice process and the formulation of the new constitution. Against this backdrop, how confident are you that the government would commit to the standards set by the EU?
The transitional justice process is not strictly within the GSP plus criteria. We are however very much supportive of the Human Rights Council Resolution and we fully urge the government both publicly and privately to make good on its commitments. I think we would share the assessment of Prince Zeid. There has been a good start in many areas but there is clearly a great deal of work to do. We need to see some of that now being delivered. It is certainly disappointing that we haven’t seen the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) get off the ground despite the passing of the legislation back in August last year. We very much hope that it would come forward quickly. I think it is important also to see other steps put in place around other parts of the transitional architecture so that people have confidence that the process is continuing to go forward. The more the government is able to put across its vision about how it sees this going forward in a way that is victim-centric and credible, the more people will have a belief that it is a process that they can trust and engage with.

QDo you endorse the government’s approach in solving the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka?
There were some very important signs that this government gave out in a symbolic level that meant a lot, to a lot of people. For instance singing the national anthem in two languages and allowing the commemoration of the war deaths to take place. I think it’s very important that we don’t see those commitments now sliding away. I think those meant a lot to a large number of people and showed a clear difference of approach in the treatment of all Sri Lankans on an equal basis. In terms of political sentiments, we are very much supportive of the government’s commitment on a new constitution. It’s not our place to say where the line ought to be in terms of the responsibilities for provincial authorities or the central government. But for everybody’s benefit it is very important that there is a clarity of those responsibilities.
At the moment one of the failures in government is the concurrent list which causes a lack of accountability in government’s between what the province is responsible for and what the central government is responsible for. Clarifying that element is for me, one of the most important elements of wider accountability and not just in terms of looking at it as an ethnic question. It’s as important for the Southern province or the North-Central province as it is for the North and the East.

Pic by Damith Wickramasinghe 

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