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RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: War May See EU Duty Concessions Cut

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Apr 8 2008 (IPS) - Sri Lanka’s garment industry is worried that the duty free access it enjoys to European markets will soon be cut as a result of alleged human rights violations related to the government’s pursuit of a military solution to a long-standing ethnic conflict.

EU trade concessions, known as GSP+, end this year and will come up for review in October.

Already EU has indicated that continuance of the GSP+ depends on how well the Sri Lankan government is seen to be implementing 27 international conventions on human rights, labour rights and environmental standards. “It is totally based on fulfilling these conventions. This (current review ) is a technical exercise on compliance with these conventions. This means not just having the laws, but also implementing them,” said Julian Wilson, head of the European Commission (EC) delegation to Sri Lanka.

The GSP+ scheme allows duty free exports of almost all major Sri Lankan products, into the EU, but the garment industry has been the main beneficiary.

Wilson, speaking at a recent meeting on EU trade, denied charges that the ongoing conflict – where Tamil rebels are fighting government troops for autonomy in the Tamil-majority north and the east of the island – will affect the review.

In January, the government unilaterally ended a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire accord with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after several rounds of talks, conducted in Europe, failed. Tamils make up 11.9 percent of the population and Sinhalese almost 74 percent in this island nation of 20 million people.

“This is simply a matter of 27 conventions,’’ said Wilson. ‘’It is not related to the issue of the conflict. It depends on the ratification and effective implementation of the conventions. The war and other internal matters are not an issue here.’’

However, the EU has been severely critical of the government’s human rights record. There is fear that such issues as the harassment of journalists and rising political abductions, could be used as a reason to discontinue the GSP+ scheme.

As one of the four Co-Chairs of the 2003 Tokyo Conference on the Reconstruction and Development of Sri Lanka, the EU helped raise pledges for post-conflict rehabilitation and development worth 4.5 billion US dollars – but this was tied to progress in the peace process.

Wilson denied that the EU is using the GSP+ as a political tool. “We have a commercial relationship with Sri Lanka that spans 300 years. This is not to be thrown out on a whim. So the entire exercise will be undertaken with absolute professionalism. There will be no political games.’’

Last month, the government appointed a four-member ministerial team to work with the garment industry and dispel some of the concerns raised by the EU.

Mid-March, trade minister Prof. G.L. Peiris led delegation to Europe for a series of meetings, including one with Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, on the issue.

The garment industry is the biggest employer in the manufacturing sector in Sri Lanka and provides direct employment to nearly 300,000 people, mostly rural women. Losing the GSP+ could directly impact the competitiveness of Sri Lankan garments and hurt employment and export incomes, the industry says.

Last week, Peiris briefed his cabinet colleagues on the impending danger of non-approval of GSP+ for another term. He told the cabinet that both Tamil rebels and the country’s political opposition were involved in a campaign to harm the country’s prospects of securing this facility.

While the issue has become a hot political potato, trade unions familiar with the programme say that the fact is that the government has not implemented the roadmap set by the EU when the scheme was first approved in 2003.

In 2005 when it came up for renewal, Sri Lanka made a plea for extension on compassionate grounds as the country had been badly hit by the December 2004 tsunami and was also recovering from the end of garment quotas offered by the United States.

Last month, the government gained unexpected support from local trade unions, which once said that employers and government violated core labour conventions and therefore should not be benefit from the GSP+.

“They don’t comply by the labour standards but if Sri Lanka loses the GSP+ the impact will be on the workers. So we do not want to see the GSP+ being taken away. But we do want some indication that core labour standards will be adhered to,” said Anton Marcus, general secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union, last month.

Marcus said the labour groups met a EU delegation visiting Colombo last month and said that they would back the government request for an extension of the special concession if the roadmap is implemented and international trade unions are also appointed as monitors in this process. “We have no problem in supporting this as long as the workers get their rights,” he said, adding that one of the issues in the roadmap is the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

“This is a key element in the core labour standards agreed by the government in 2003 to the EU which is yet to be implemented,” Marcus said.

Under the original agreement between the EU and the government in 2003, Sri Lanka was obliged to ‘ratify and fully implement’ a set of 27 international conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

While most or all of these convenants were ratified by Colombo, far ahead of countries like China or India, it’s the implementation that concerns workers. “Yes we have ratified these covenants but the implementation is the problem,” Marcus said.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake told a meeting of the garment trade, that while Sri Lanka is trying to convince U.S. policy makers to give preferential trade treatment, on the grounds of being a vulnerable economy and on the basis of ethical manufacturing standards, the country’s negative human rights image ‘eclipsed’ everything else.

The U.S. is the biggest market for Sri Lanka’s garment industry which expects to bring in three billion US dollars this year.

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