A Foreign Policy that Walks on Eggshells
By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Earlier this month, two high profile delegations visited Sri Lanka. Their respective agendas were distinct and independent from the other. Yet, both their conducts and presumed role was an affront to the sovereignty of our Nation. Incidentally, both these high profile visits took place soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the UN General Assembly in New York last month.
The Indian Foreign Secretary (FS) Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s four-day visit to the Island coincided with that of the delegation from the European Union. By the appearance of it, Shringla’s visit was a friendly one with no particular agenda than strengthen bilateral relations. In contrast, the EU delegation came to the Island with a specific purpose.
The gist of the EU delegation’s visit was to determine whether Sri Lanka should be shown the stick or the carrot. The carrot is of course the much touted GSP+. In June 2021, the European Parliament adapted a special resolution that called for an assessment on “whether there is sufficient reason, as a last resort, to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status.”
What GSP+ Means to Sri Lanka
Though GSP+ is supposedly a nonreciprocal trading arrangement, it comes with handcuffs. On the face of it, this is a concession that allows countries with vulnerable economies with low or lower-middle incomes to import products from certain industries from European markets at zero duties. In turn, the recipient is beholden to implement 27 international conventions related to human rights, labor rights, environmental protection and good governance.
Here lies the problem. This condition allows the European Union to dictate terms to the recipient country. Failing to comply would result in revoking the concession. Without this concession, the import duties would be levied on these products, which in turn would carry a higher price than the same product produced by a country enjoying the concession.
At this point, if Sri Lanka was to lose GSP+, the cascading consequences would be devastating. The apparel sector, that utilises the concession, is currently one of the few avenues that still earns forex, facilitating the country to meet both the challenges arising from the pandemic and other financial commitments. Almost all other revenue paths have being blocked due to the pandemic. Therefore, if the apparel sector was to lose this support at this juncture, then the Sri Lankan economy would be in deep trouble.
At any other given time, it is the prerogative of the buyer whether to support the supplier or not. However, these are not ordinary times. The whole world has been upended by the pandemic. As such, Sri Lanka would not be able to find alternate buyers quickly enough. It would not be just a business Sri Lanka would lose but the country’s biggest market share. Yet, notwithstanding the pandemic the EU Parliament in June 2021 adapted a special resolution that called for an assessment on “whether there is sufficient reason, as a last resort, to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status.”
In any other words, the EU Parliament wants to know whether to treat Sri Lanka with the stick or the carrot. Though garbed as champions of democracy and human rights, their objective is to oust Governments that do not meet their approval.
They really do not mind sacrificing innocent people for their principles. If the reason to withhold (temporary or otherwise) the GSP+ on allegations of human rights violations, then those who champion human rights should be conscientious so as not to contribute to the human suffering. Yet, the objective is to deliberately cause unemployment and other hardships to people so as to make the Government unpopular. This kind of artificial interference from advocates of democracy in itself is ironical.
EU Delegation Adds Communal Flavor to GSP+
The delegation met a number of interest groups as part of their quest. It is a matter of interest that they met a special effort to meet political entities representing select minority communities.
This same effort was not made to find the views of the country as a whole or the majority community. For instance, the delegation met MP Hakeem - leader of the SLMC before even meeting the Opposition Leader. Sajith Premadasa repeatedly asserts himself as the alternate leader of the country.
Yet, he failed to understand the significance of the delegation’s decision to meet MP Hakeem first. As a politician Hakeem cannot stand on his right without the support from a dominant political alliance. Presently, he gets that support from the SJB. Consequently, the delegation met with the Opposition Leader after hearing MP Hakeem’s damaging account.
According to him, Muslims are being harassed and facing arbitrary arrests regardless of age or gender. He had spoken extensively about Hijaaz Hisbulla, who he insinuated to be detained for no other reason than for being a Muslim. If the delegation listened carefully, then they would have picked out two points that contradicts MP Hakeem’s damaging account.
He admitted that Hisbulla is the only lawyer to be detained. If Muslims are being arrested for simply being Muslim, then there would not be just one lawyer under detention. He also noted that the others detained are over allegations of supporting extremism and so nullified his own statement that they have been arrested arbitrarily. Interestingly, Cardinal Ranjith kept mum during the whole time.
The delegation made no effort to meet His Eminence, who commands the respect of all communities. Though the Islam extremists hurt the sentiments of Buddhists and Hindus by destroying statues of worship, it is the Catholic community that has the biggest bone to pick with the Islam extremists. Yet, Cardinal Ranjith who had repeated warned to take his case before the International Community did not enlighten the delegation over the true facts over Hisbulla and other high profile arrests taken place over the Easter carnage.
PTA Amended to Protect Terrorists or Prevent Terrorism?
The delegation upon meeting with the Government officials stressed the importance of fostering social, economic and political inclusion through justice, reconciliation and accountability.
The 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers and the ongoing work of independent institutions were also discussed. Particular attention was paid to the current status of the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). From the Government side assurances were given that committees necessary to review the PTA were appointed.
The delegation’s response was the PTA must be amended to meet international standards within a defined timeline. However, it was quite disappointing the Government did not engage in a frank discussion to educate the delegation of the unique challenges before the Island Nation. The EU that insists on international standards to prevent terrorism has failed to protect its own citizens from these extremists.
One of the main reasons that the war against terrorism prolonged for decades was because western Nations failed to prevent terrorism from been funded by those countries. Tamil ethnic European citizens suffered in silence as they were harassed, intimidated and extorted to find terrorism in Sri Lanka. New Zealand’s recent actions do not inspire confidence in Sri Lanka. Instead of working together to combat this rising threat of extremism, New Zealand’s actions needs to be condemned.
Without sharing intelligence with the Sri Lankan counterparts New Zealand attempted to deport an Islamic extremist on the pretext of failing asylum. If it was the prevailing PTA in Sri Lanka that stopped New Zealand authorities from sharing intelligence with Sri Lanka, then New Zealand should not have tried to deport him to Sri Lanka.
From their attempts to send him to Sri Lanka as a mere failed asylum seeker, New Zealand placed the fundamental rights of a suspected terrorist before the human rights of innocent civilians. Most unfortunately it is not only New Zealand that has protected those linked with terrorism. To date, none of the European countries have complied with Sri Lanka’s request to share details of those who had received asylum in those countries.
This has severely hampered the process of locating the missing persons. Yet, Sri Lanka is under severe pressure to find the missing persons during the war. Absurdly, the pressure is originating from the West. New Zealand also hampered Sri Lanka’s investigations over these extremists’ attacks on Sri Lankan soil by giving a man suspected to have funded the Easter Attack and his spouse sanctuary. Yet, none of the human rights advocates nor Cardinal Ranjith had voiced their protests over New Zealand’s interference.
In the absence of support to safeguard the lives of innocent civilians from extremists’ violence, the EU does not have a moral right to demand that Sri Lanka amend its PTA. The return of the Taliban is a very serious threat before the region. On principle, the Taliban is against the ISIS. That however has not prevented factions within the Taliban from supporting and even leaving the Taliban to join the ISIS.
This means that the grind is still volatile with old acquaintances shifting for new alliances. Governments in turn must watch the situation carefully if to protect its citizens. Especially in countries as Sri Lanka where all indices indicate - whether in education, health and other economic opportunities- equality, the stronger nations must pledge solidarity to face the menace of terrorism and extremism.
FS Shringla’s visit was more cordial. Though he gave a hearing to the northern and eastern Tamil politicians over their perceived grievances, he did not entertain them with much hope.
Instead, he asked them to exert the same pressure the Sri Lankan politicians exerted on the Indian Government. To President Gotabaya he reiterated India’s insistence of the 13th amendment’s full implementation after the President outlined all the positive developments that had taken place to uplift the lives of those in the North and East.
Whether the 13th amendment is to be implemented fully or partially or abolished altogether is a decision for Sri Lankan citizens to make. It is not a matter for Government officials of another country to comment. Perhaps President Gotabaya did not wish to embarrass his guest by stating this obvious fact.
Nevertheless, while explaining the many steps taken by the Sri Lankan administration to improve the lives of Tamils, President should have asked the Indian Foreign Secretary as to the measures India has taken to curtail LTTE ideology and propaganda in India. The Sri Lankan Government must use every ounce of its diplomacy but prevail on India to ensure that never again would India support terrorism in Sri Lanka.