The weekly political review
President ready to disseminate information

  • President addresses legal confab
  • SL enjoys EU access
  • Govt to present better bill
  • Editors commend assurance
  • by Our Political Correspondent

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, Karu Jayasuriya, S. Rannuge

President Mahinda Rajapaksa called on the developed world last week to uphold the interests of the developing world as far as their economies are concerned.
He made theses observations inaugurating the annual sessions of the 50th Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation held in Colombo last Monday.
President Rajapaksa’s remarks are quite appropriate since Sri Lanka has made a tremendous progress as an emerging economy in the Asia region, especially after the conclusion of the separatist war. It is natural in such circumstances for the developed world to make things difficult for such emerging economies and do whatever possible to keep them at bay.
“The use of substantial subsidies by Treasuries and Reserve Banks to support agricultural production in the developed world and other forms of protectionism, cause serious distortion of interplay of market forces,” he said outlining Sri Lanka’s case.
These measures, President Rajapaksa added, would reduce greatly the ability of farmers in our countries to access international markets.
The concerns of the President are quite understandable where the bigger economies worldwide have built well-fortified barriers protecting their economies making it hard for the new entrants or the emerging Third World economies to penetrate and compete in the existing markets.
However, what we have conveniently forgotten is the fact that there have been some sort of concessions granted to the developing world by the European Union through the GSP+ (Generalised System of Preferences), though agricultural products did not take prominent place in the list. In the year 2008, Export Development Ministry Secretary S. Rannuge is on record saying that we use the GSP+ facility for the export of agricultural products too.
“We are exporting vegetables like gherkins into Europe using the GSP+. We are also exporting fish, like tuna. In addition, we are also exporting things like gems and jewellery.”
GSP+ concessions
Sri Lanka lost the GSP+ by the end of last year owing to conditions imposed by the European Union to which Sri Lanka could not accede to as a sovereign nation. This was the position taken by the government during the negotiations which lasted for many months.
Nevertheless, the European Union had this to say before taking a final decision to temporarily deny the GSP+ to Sri Lanka.
“Under GSP+, the EU provides additional preferences – beyond standard GSP treatment – to economically vulnerable developing countries which have ratified and effectively implemented 27 international conventions in the fields of human and labour rights, sustainable development and good governance and which voluntarily apply for GSP+ benefits and accept the associated conditions. Sri Lanka is a current beneficiary of GSP+, along with 14 other developing countries. Like all other GSP+ beneficiaries, Sri Lanka committed to maintain its ratification and effective implementation of the 27 conventions when it applied for the scheme.
“The decision to withdraw GSP+ from Sri Lanka is based on the findings of an exhaustive commission investigation launched in October 2008 and completed in October 2009. This investigation relied heavily on reports and statements by UN Special Rapporteurs and Representatives, other UN bodies and reputable human rights NGOs and identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – effective implementation of which forms part of the substantive qualifying criteria for GSP+.
Eligibility criteria
“GSP+ relies on beneficiary countries’ continuing to respect the substantive eligibility criteria for the scheme. If this no longer is the case, the relevant EC Regulation foresees that the Commission should undertake an investigation to clarify the situation, and then in the light of its findings, take appropriate action either to confirm the continuation of GSP+ benefits or to propose to EU Member States in the Council that they be temporarily withdrawn. In light of the findings of the investigation, the European Commission proposed a temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s benefits under GSP+, a measure which EU Member States in the Council agreed to put in place.”
“Sri Lanka is a major beneficiary of the trading opportunities offered by GSP+. In 2008, EU imports from Sri Lanka under GSP+ totalled EUR 1.24 billion. The most important import products benefiting from these trade preferences were T-shirts and other clothing items, as well as fisheries products. After temporary withdrawal takes effect, EU imports from Sri Lanka will instead be subject to standard GSP preferential treatment, under which Sri Lanka would still enjoy preferential access to the EU market for its key export items such as clothing that is at least as generous as it presently enjoys in other major developed country markets.”
The Sri Lankan envoy in\n Brussels said in a statement that Sri Lanka values its long-standing relations with the EU, and has, and will continue to engage with the European institutions in order to address the remaining issues of concern, in a manner that does not compromise Sri Lanka’s national interest.
However, such engagement needs to be on terms respectful of one another and with sincerity and purposefulness by both parties. Sri Lanka expects the EU to do the same. There should be no setting of unattainable targets, no shifting of goal posts and no attempt to use Sri Lanka-EU relations to serve domestic political agendas.
Now once again Sri Lanka wants to enter the competitive markets as an emerging economy, the government’s main task after the separatist war was to rebuild the economy. The President and the government had realised this position and hence the remarks of the President at the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation.
It is now time again to explore competitive markets in the West, if Sri Lanka is keen to build the economy at a rapid pace as expected. However, as the President had outlined in his speech, merchants of terror who had transferred their activities to the field of international scene are making all efforts to obstruct the path to recovery which is a disconcerting factor as far as Sri Lanka is concerned.
Healing scars
In this respect, Sri Lanka as a vibrant South Asian democracy has to take many politically prudent steps for the outer world to respect our thinking and the vision as an emerging economy.
A political solution for the ethnic issue that plagued the country for nearly three decades is essential to take the country forward and for the world community to recognise our efforts in healing the scars of the conflict that has left behind a trail of destruction.
Rebuilding the economy means reshaping the society in keeping with the latest trends accepted globally as inherent rights of the people. In that context, Sri Lanka as a country is unable to ignore salient democratic practices which the other countries have adopted to enhance the scope of people’s rights.
Enshrining the rights of the people and their obligations by the state is the basic law accepted by all, all over the world as the constitution of a country. Most of the democracies in the world, including Sri Lanka, had embedded the rights of the people in the Constitution.
In Sri Lanka, the Constitution so devised in 1978 by the then UNP regime reflects on the rights of the people and has recognised the right to have access to official information though it is not explicitly expressed in the provisions of the Constitution. In the circumstances it is difficult for any democratic form of government to deny the right of the people to have access to official information.
On Tuesday, President Rajapaksa has specifically told the media heads who he met for a routine discussion on the affairs of the State that he was ready to give away any information other than what is covered by the Official Secrets Act and what is detrimental to national security. The President’s move was commended by most of the Editors who were present and the others in the media had the utmost confidence in the President when he said that he was ready to disseminate any information the journalists require.
However, the President was saying something contrary to what Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa announced last week when queried by journalists as to why the Right to Information Bill presented by UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya was rejected. The Minster said that the government would present a comprehensive law covering all aspects of it shortly. He said that Jayasuriya’s Private Member’s Bill was rejected since the party leaders failed to reach consensus on the matter. But Jayasuriya maintained that it was presented with the consent of the Speaker.
Right to Information Bill
When this was pointed out to the President at the meeting of the media heads, the President queried the Media Minister who answered in the affirmative and said that the matter was discussed. Nevertheless, the indications were that the President was not keen in introducing legislation but only giving verbal assurances to the journalists.
As for stemming corruption the President had said that the government has strengthened the teeth of the bribery laws and anybody could go before the Bribery Commission with any complaint if they could substantiate the same.
Nevertheless, the problem the people have is quite different and the Right to Information Act will give access not only to the journalists but to any peasant in a faraway remote village who has the right to ask the government as to how they are spending the tax money levied from the citizens and about the problems they are facing in their day-to-day life.
The journalists could place their confidence in the government and the President that they would not do anything untoward to ask embarrassing questions about public spending and so forth, could this be applied to a future government in the same form, can any future President give the same assurance as President Rajapaksa who has assured the Editors that any information barring sensitive matters pertaining to national security be disseminated? This is the problem the society is facing today and only a few things could be done taking people into full confidence.
Could Sri Lanka be governed without a basic law depending on conventions and traditions as in the case of Britain? Laws will only compel stubborn rulers to act according to the aspirations of the people. In the absence of a law where could the people go from here, to whom should they appeal and tell their woes?
Assurances are good and would stimulate the society into action but there is no legal binding or basis to those assurances, they could be given in good faith but there is nothing the people could do about it if they are not honoured, in the circumstances the thinking of the intelligentsia is that under the circumstances people should agitate through various democratic means pressing the government to bring necessary legislation to include the right to information in the statute book, and it is the duty of the government to grant the people what they ask for within their legitimate rights to restore good governance and transparency which is key for future development as far as the country is concerned.
The future development of the country and the economy are always linked to good financial discipline and good governance. Without those twin aspects in place it would be difficult for the country to progress in the modern world where people’s rights take precedence over material development. In the circumstances ignoring and rejecting important laws which would enhance the rights of the people will not augur well for a country which is trying to explore avenues of economic development. As it was mentioned earlier the GSP + facility too was linked to Human Rights and good governance. The right to Information bill which was presented in Parliament was a good opportunity for the government to show the world that the government has no hesitation in enacting people-friendly laws which will give leeway to probe corruption and mismanagement in a different form altogether.