Sri Lanka’s top envoy hits out at EU as cut in £1bn trade concession looms
Damning review accuses the country of failing to honour human rights pledges after end of the war against Tamil rebels
Sri Lanka‘s top diplomat today hit out at the European Union for “punishing” the country, after EU investigators recommended cancelling a £1bn trade concession over the country’s failure to honour human rights commitments.
Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN, said the country would “handle the loss” of the export privilege, which allows businesses on the island to export 7,200 items to Europe duty free.
The trade concession, known as GSP Plus, depends on compliance with human rights standards – and a damning 130-page review handed to the Sri Lankan government last month makes it clear that the EU should withdraw preferential treatment for the Indian Ocean nation.
The report includes allegations that the government backed Tamil paramilitary groups who were involved in “child abductions, torture and killings of civilians”.
But in an interview with the Guardian, Kohona said the EU should consider whether it was interested in the past or the future. “Hundreds of thousands of people, especially women who work in the export sector, will be impacted in order to punish Sri Lanka for apparent human rights violations,” he said. “This smacks of a cynical approach to the problem by the European Union”.
He said that Sri Lankan goods could find new markets in Asian economies. “We can handle [the loss]. Western countries should remember that economic power has shifted from the west to the east. New markets open up in the east. Our friends China, India, Japan, Korea, Iran … a whole range of countries [can help].”
But Kohona admitted that the loss of EU trade would be a blow to the country that was “liberated” from Tamil Tiger rebels after a 26-year war ended in a short, bloody clash on a beach in northern Sri Lanka in May. “We won a war against terrorism … the EU should recognise that.”
It is estimated that between 7,000 and 20,000 civilians lost their lives in the last weeks of fighting and campaigners say dissent in Sri Lanka has been ruthlessly crushed, with journalists murdered and activists imprisoned.
According to sources in Colombo, EU investigators found that there had been a “wholesale failure of the criminal justice system” when investigating murders by “state agents”. The report condemns Sri Lankan security forces for “perverting the evidence and silencing witnesses, rather than conducting any real investigations”.
It also draws attention to the plight of nearly 300,000 Tamil refugees who are still being held in government camps, to which the media and aid organisations have restricted access. The report describes the situation where internally displaced persons have no freedom of movement as “unacknowledged detention”.
Sri Lanka’s trade ministry has already conceded that the “report is very adverse and GSP Plus is very unlikely”, but a final decision by Brussels will be taken in October.
Western diplomats in Colombo say the Sri Lankan government is reconciled to the loss of the EU concession. “[The government] is trapped by their own rhetoric which means they can never be seen to give in to the west,” said one.
The EU, with strong backing from Britain, has supported calls by the UN human rights commissioner for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes by both the Sri Lankan army and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In July, a number of countries, including the US and Britain, publicly abstained – an unprecedented move – when the board of the International Monetary Fund voted to approve a $2.6bn loan.
If the EU does withdraw the trade concession it will mark a turning point in relations. There has been growing unease in the west about alleged human rights abuses during and after Sri Lanka’s war against the rebels. But so far this pressure has been deflected by other countries which have used overwhelming military force to quell secessionist movements.
Two large arms suppliers – China and Russia – backed Sri Lanka at the UN security council, blocking all attempts at censure.
This week Britain’s high commission in Colombo was caught in a media storm over its failure to issue a five-year, multiple entry visa to Kohona. The high commission said there was no “political bias”.
The Sri Lankan diplomat said he was unperturbed by “western pressure”. “Sri Lanka has enough friends around the world. You have to realise that financial resources and power is no longer concentrated in one part of the world.”