Sri Lanka suffered yet another diplomatic setback, this time in Brussels where the European Parliament adopted a resolution last week that could have a significant impact on the GSP Plus preferential trade concession. The resolution was adopted with a whopping 628 votes in favour in the 705-member legislative assembly. Only 15 members voted against while 40 abstained. The European Parliament, through this resolution called on the European Commission to consider a temporary withdrawal of the GSP+ scheme that has granted preferential access to the European single market to many Sri Lankan export products including, apparels, ceramics, seafood and rubber.
GSP Plus is granted to least developed and lower middle income countries, and tied to human rights and democracy indicators in these exporting states. The trade concessions were initially granted to Sri Lanka in 2006, and withdrawn in 2011 during the previous Rajapaksa administration. After significant efforts and comprehensive negotiations, the EU reinstated the concession in 2017 after the Yahapalanaya Government showed progress in democratic reform with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and vigorous pursuit of justice for human rights crimes at least in its first two years in office.
Undoubtedly, the recent resolution passed with an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament will exert pressure on the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union which is responsible for determining which countries get GSP plus.
Sri Lanka will be reviewed towards the end of 2021 on its conformity to the conditions of the scheme. Any withdrawal of GSP Plus, even on a temporary basis, will be a devastating blow to the already strained economy. The EU is only likely to leverage these concessions as a last resort, giving the Sri Lankan Government reasonable time and space to reverse its current trajectory on human rights and the rule of law.
While the resolution is widely critical of the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, its primary focus is the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). It is no secret that the draconian PTA has been used by successive governments since its enactment in 1979 as a tool for arbitrary detention, torture and other forms of abuse. The PTA allows for the detention of a suspect up to 18 months on a detention order issued at the discretion of the Minister in charge of defence. Such a detention order cannot be overturned by a court. As seen in recent cases against lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and the young poet Ahnaf Jazeem, this draconian law is disproportionately used against minorities, political opponents and dissidents. The EU Parliament specifically referred to PTA detainees Hizbullah and Jazeem and the arbitrary detention of former CID Director Shani Abeysekera in the Resolution adopted last week.
Irrespective of demands by the EU or any other international entity, the repeal of the PTA is in the interest of the Sri Lankan citizen. It must be replaced only with counter-terrorism laws that adhere to the minimum human rights protections and international standards. Taking action to repeal and replace the PTA will prevent anti-terror laws from being abused, grant legitimacy and credibility to the State when such laws are used in extraordinary circumstances and go a long way towards rectifying Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights record.
During the Human Rights Council session in March the Government repeated its promise to ‘revisit’ the PTA. This is a pledge the SLPP Government has repeated to the European Union. It was seen as tacit acceptance from the incumbent administration that the law needed review and reform. Yet the reality on the ground has been different. Individuals continue to be arrested under the PTA and the government has even established a new detention centre, exclusively for PTA detainees. Such short-sighted policies will no doubt have dire consequences both domestically and internationally.
The loss of GSP Plus, which grants preferential access to Sri Lanka’s largest export market, is a shock our economy is not equipped to bear at this critical juncture. The Government must do everything in its power to prevent such a calamity.