By Namini Wijedasa
A European Union delegation will arrive tomorrow for a routine review of whether Sri Lanka’s level of adherence to 27 international conventions on human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance warrants a continuation of the GSP+ trade concession.
It is not a sign, however, of the country having been placed on notice, authoritative sources here insisted. Nor is there any danger of the GSP+ being revoked. But strong questions are likely to be asked regarding the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which Sri Lanka expressly undertook to repeal in exchange for regaining the GSP+.
The EU continuously monitors GSP+ beneficiary countries through exchanges of information, dialogue and visits, usually every two years. This is the third trip since the incentive was reinstated in 2017, but the first after the European Parliament in June passed a resolution questioning Sri Lanka’s continued use of the PTA.
The resolution came up after Sri Lanka banned eleven organisations under the PTA in March 2021, citing national security. Among other things, it points out that Sri Lanka regained access to “generous tariff preferences” under the EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) on condition that it would replace the PTA and effectively implement 27 international conventions, including those governing human rights.
Sri Lanka failed to repeal the PTA despite its commitment, the resolution states. The upcoming review of Sri Lanka’s eligibility for GSP+ status and that the renewal of GSP+ trade preference are not automatic and the EU takes due account of current events when assessing continued eligibility, it stresses.
Sri Lanka points to “progress” in the recent months. For instance, the PTA has provisions for the appointment of an Advisory Board to instruct the Defence Minister on whether or not a person should continue to be detained under the law. This was recently constituted under the chairmanship of retired Chief Justice Asoka de Silva and more than 50 detainees have already applied, Justice Minister Ali Sabry said.
“While GSP+ is of recent origin, the debate regarding the PTA and its implications are longstanding but there are two schools of thought,” he said. “The security apparatus feels it’s a necessary evil and has helped to curb terrorism, citing various examples such as what recently happened in New Zealand, where existing legislation was insufficient.”
“Human rights activists, lawyers and jurists continue to argue the PTA is intruding into public rights to freedom and liberty,” Mr. Sabry said. “There has to be a balance between the two. There are limitations also on the security side, because it doesn’t foresee challenges we face today with the internet and money laundering, etc.”
The Foreign and Defence Ministries have submitted a joint Cabinet memorandum that addresses these issues. “From the beginning, we have admitted, in Parliament, too, that there is a need to revisit the PTA,” Mr Sabry pointed out.
“In addition to calling for changes to or repeal of the PTA, my recommendation is that the EU explicitly calls for a moratorium on the application of the PTA, and particularly for its use as a tool of political repression, which we have seen applied even to sitting MPs,” said a London-based civil society source who covers events in Sri Lanka. “It’s crazy that the Government can claim to be considering major changes, or even replacement of the PTA while actively using it to silence its critics. The EU needs to call it on this contradiction.”
Second, the EU needs to move to what is called “enhanced engagement” in the GSP+ monitoring process, he said. This will bring greater scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s rights record and is a necessary step before the EU can begin the formal–and complicated–process of withdrawing the benefits.
“I think the EU needs to take this step for the Government to take seriously the possibility that its non-compliance with the required treaty obligations might actually endanger the trade benefits,” he said.
In the GSP+ review for the 2018-2019 period (published last year), the European Commission also said there were still concerns regarding freedom of association in Sri Lanka.
“The June 2021 EU resolution in Sri Lanka is very clear on what the issue is–PTA reform,” said Gehan Gunetilleke, attorney-at-law, who was involved in the negotiations in 2017-18. “The specific issues pertaining to the PTA are contained in an earlier letter sent by the European Commission to the Foreign Ministry back in 2010.”
These are: Long term detention, i.e., detention without trial for up to 18 months; admissibility of confessions to police officers (under normal law, only confessions to magistrates are admissible); and the absence of a requirement to produce a PTA suspect before a judge after they’re arrested (under normal law, a suspect must be produced within 24, or 48 hours).”
In 2016, the Law Commission of Sri Lanka produced a draft to replace the PTA and this addressed all three areas. However, the Yahapalana Government rejected it and floated a draft Counter-Terrorism Act which never got passed.
The delegation will be here from September 27 to October 5. It comprises Nikolaos Zaimis, Senior Adviser on Trade and Sustainable Development; Ionnis Giogkarakis-Argyropoulos, Head of Division South Asia, European External Action Service (EEAS); Guido Dolara, Coordinator GSP Trade Preferences; Lluis Prats – Head of Unit, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission; and Monika Bylaite, Desk Officer for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, EEAS.
Original post: The Sunday Times