Human rights is not duty free

Sri Lanka may be embroiled in an acrimonious election in the Eastern Province and a bloody battle in the North, but a different kind of challenge looms ahead for the country- the review of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP+) facility granted by the European Union (EU) later this year.The GSP+ status enabled Sri Lanka to export over 7000 items- most of them related to the apparel industry - to the EU duty free, ensuring a ready market and healthy profit margins for exporters. The concession meant that the garment industry thrived, even while other sectors of the economy slumped. 

The concern now is that the GSP+ facility may be withdrawn amidst a plethora of allegations of human rights violations and civilian casualties, as the Government prosecutes the war against terrorism in earnest.

Traditionally, pontificating on alleged human rights abuses in the developing world has been the favourite hobby horse of the West. They are quite adept at arm twisting less powerful countries to do their bidding, by imposing conditions to any sustenance that they provide. The GSP+ may well be one example.

Where does Sri Lanka stand in this context? Does it bend over backwards to appease the so-called ʽinternational communityʼ which is, in fact, a coterie of a few powerful nations? Or, does it do what Myanmar did recently and snub them, saying we do not want aid with strings attached?

At the moment, it appears as if Colombo is doing neither. Even if the Government is willing to address human rights concerns, its deeds and words are not unequivocal.  

On the one hand, an Air Force officer was indicted on abduction charges, seemingly, a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) is, virtually, chased out of the country, after a slanging match over their conduct. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has indicated that an attempt must be made to secure the GSP+ facility for a further period of time. But, he is also of the view that any attempts to do so, should not be at the expense of the countryís sovereignty, and its prerogative to act in its own interests, rather than at the behest of others.   

But, is this concept being put into practice? Is enough being done to tell the outside world that the Sri Lankan Government is not some despotic regime practicing genocide? Have we been able to convince the West that we are battling the most ruthless terrorist organisation on the planet? Perhaps not. 

And, to make matters worse, we even have no less than the Governor of the Central Bank proclaiming that the GSP+ concession is a subsidy, and that, we really donít need subsidies.

Despite these lofty pronouncements to the contrary, Colombo does realise the impact of the GSP+ facility. Hence, the appointment of a high powered four member ministerial committee to deal with the issue- ironically, all of them are Ďimportsí from the United National Party.

However, such appointments alone will not suffice. The Government will have to demonstrate a willingness to address human rights concerns and, not only be above reproach but, appear to be above reproach as well.
As the dust settles on the Eastern Province elections- and the polls by itself would send some signals about the Governmentís sincerity- President Rajapaksa will have his work cut out to salvage the GSP+ concession.

Sri Lanka, as the President obviously realises, can ill afford further economic burdens at this juncture. The GSP+ facility is, therefore, not merely a subsidy- it will be reflection of the countryís standing among fellow nations. And we can only help ourselves by improving that standing.

Itís in the genes and itís hereditary

Young Navin Dissanayake, Minister in this Government and the son of the late Gamini Dissanayake, made an interesting observation this week. There was nothing unusual in governments using or, abusing State resources for elections, says he.
It happened during the United National Party regime and it happens now, Dissanayake says and is not shy to claim that even his late father did so. So, should we all stand up and applaud the younger Dissanayake for fearlessly announcing this political fact of life?

We think not. And that is, firstly, because Dissanayake seems to suggest that just because the two major parties indulge in this wrongful practice, we should turn a blind eye and get on with our business at the elections -which is electing our representatives. ďAll governments do it, so what?Ē asks Dissanayake (Jnr.)

And that is what is fundamentally wrong about this argument. There are many practices- from political appointments and abusing vehicle permits to blatant bribery and rampant corruption -which all governments have indulged in. Are we to license these too, on that basis?

These practices are the reason why this country is in the mess it is today. And if those are to be rectified, such corrupt actions must be dealt with whenever and wherever possible. The Dissanayake (Jnr.) formula will most certainly only aggravate matters even more.

And there is also something else we would like to remind Dissanayake (Jnr.), before he perhaps unwittingly, sullies his fatherís reputation again: His father never played to the gallery to score brownie points.

In fact, Gamini Dissanayake once spoke on behalf of Sirima Bandaranaike, against the stripping her of her civic rights, and got the cold shoulder from J.R. Jayewardene for many months.

So, the younger Dissanayake must realise that he has miles to go and many lessons to learn, before he could claim to be a chip of the old block.

As the late Anura Bandaranaike would have told him, had he been with us, the genes will help, but they will not take you all the way to the top!