Sri Lanka’s return to GSP+ hangs on EU vote tomorrow

Wednesday, 26 April 2017 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Cabinet approves counterterrorism framework and criminal procedure code amendment; docs dispatched to Brussels


By Dharisha Bastians

The fate of Sri Lanka’s application for the Generalised System of Preferences plus (GSP+) tariff concession for European markets will be decided in Brussels on Thursday, when a resolution submitted by 52 EU Parliamentarians is taken up for a vote.

A bloc of Parliamentarians from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left mounted an eleventh hour bid last week to prevent Sri Lanka being granted the import duty concessions on the basis of the Government’s slow progress on democratic and legislative reform.

In their motion for resolution, the 52 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) referenced a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, in which the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights that measures taken by Sri Lanka since October 2015 to fulfill commitments had been “worryingly slow”.

Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha De Silva, who is currently in Brussels, told the Daily FT he would work with Sri Lanka’s ambassador in the European Union capital to clarify issues raised by certain MEPs on granting GSP+ concessions to Sri Lanka. 

The Deputy Foreign Minister is in Brussels in his capacity as a member of parliamentary oversight committees COPE and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to study the committee system in the EU Parliament. COPE Chairman Sunil Handunetti and others are also participating in the study tour.

Even as speculation is rife in opposition political circles that Thursday’s vote could strike a deathblow for the country’s GSP+ hopes, the Government had taken several important steps in the past few days to indicate that it was still committed to its reform agenda, highly placed diplomatic sources told Daily FT confidentially. The Counter Terrorism Act framework that will replace the draconian PTA and the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code were taken up at the Cabinet meeting and approved yesterday, Daily FT learns. Both drafts were subject to extensive amendments and re-drafting over the past few months after strong pushback from lawyers, rights activists and civil society. The security sector also weighed heavily in on the two drafts, pushing back against the more progressive, rights based sections of the proposed laws. 

However, the final draft of the CTA framework that was presented to the Ministerial meeting yesterday was a vast improvement on the original leaked version of the document that UN experts and lawyers criticised for broadening the definition of terrorism and terrorism related offences and failing to adhere to international standards governing arrest and detention, authoritative sources told Daily FT. The CTA draft is now human rights compliant, but there was still room for more improvement, the sources said. 

The documents approved by Cabinet yesterday have already been dispatched to Brussels ahead of the GSP+ deliberations, highly placed Government sources told Daily FT.

However, recent developments could go some distance to convince European parliamentarians that the Sri Lankan Government was still committed to reform in these key areas, the diplomatic sources said. 

If the resolution submitted by the 52 MEPs is backed by a majority of 376 in the European Parliament during its plenary session this week, the motion will be carried and Sri Lanka’s application for GSP+ concessions will be rejected this year. The Government would have to reapply for the import concessions again next year, and subject itself to further review of labour standards and adherence to international conventions Sri Lanka has ratified. However, it remains unclear if the resolution will find broader support in the European Parliament, allowing the motion to be carried.

In a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a group of members of the European Parliament’s Trade Committee said that while a proposal had been submitted by the European Commission to grant the trade concessions to Sri Lanka for ratification by the European Parliament, it expected the Government to table legislation to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act and amend the Code of Criminal Procedure Act ensuring their full compliance with international standards, before the European Parliament makes its decision on granting GSP+ to Sri Lanka in mid-May.

 “While we understand the complexity of the issues involved and the need to enter into wide consultations on the more sensitive aspects, it is critical that Sri Lanka delivers on its commitments within clearly established timelines,” the letter to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, signed by seven MEPs, noted.

The EU withdrew the coveted tariff concessions from Sri Lanka in 2010, in the face of the country’s deteriorating human rights record and failure to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on Torture (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) under the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. After President Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015 elections, the new Government reapplied for the import duty concession. 

The duty concessions make Sri Lankan exports to the 28-member European Union cheaper and more competitive. The concessions are particularly valuable to the apparel, rubber products and ceramics industries. The EU as a bloc is Sri Lanka’s main export destination, absorbing 31 % of Sri Lankan exports in 2015, and the country’s second-largest trading partner after India.