Several Western Sri Lanka experts – academic, NGO and foreign ministry officials –
argued against trying to use the “stick” of GSP+. In fact there is a widely held belief
(excuse?) that “the West mustn’t push too much or we lose influence”.
The news that the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) wants to reopen talks on GSP+ is
good reason for a fundamental review of this prevalent and disempowering attitude.
The reality is not that western influence doesn’t work, but rather that it hasn’t been
applied in a serious or strategic way.
Specifically, pressure has rarely been coordinated. The US and Japan – and also India,
the leading non-western democracy, and the one with by the greatest influence in Sri
Lanka – have often wanted to be perceived by the GoSL as “more reasonable” than the
EU. And the internal stakeholders who the GoSL have to take with them haven’t been
engaged, so they haven’t understood that it is the intransigence of the GoSL that is to
The EU went a long way in the right direction – and the role of the former UK
government was a key factor – despite ferocious lobbying by GoSL aided by its PR
agency Bell Pottinger and friends in various parliaments.
What needs to happen now is that the EU needs to stand firm on the 15 named
issues (see article below) and reaffirm its full commitment to its position as
agreed in February.1 This, of course, includes the new UK government, parts
of which have strong links with not only Bell Pottinger but also the GoSL2.
The GoSL’s latest position – that it should have to meet only the conditions that were
agreed when GSP+ was first granted in 2005 – is wholly unconvincing. When the
preferential trading arrangements were granted, it was on the basis that a whole raft
of international instruments, including some key human rights ones, would be ratified
and implemented. A thorough investigation found that these conditions had not been
fulfilled, and there is now no way that they could be unless the GoSL takes action
to halt and redress the large-scale and unpunished human rights violations that have
occurred since 2005.
This is not to say that the EU has done everything right – its approach to the May
2009 UN Human Rights Council debate was shambolic – but it has done better than
the USA, India and Japan. Those three powers have avoided using their influence for
a mix of reasons including inattention, inertia/habit/sloppy thinking, cronyism, naïve
belief that it will be easier to influence the government if one does not criticize if in
public, and rivalry – both among themselves and with other powers, notably China.
The first, inattention, is understandable given that “AfPak” is giving diplomatic teams
working on South Asia so much else to do. But their exclusive focus on that dossier
is very dangerous since it effectively encourages other governments to adopt the “Sri
Lanka model” for dealing with their separatist movements.
The second reason – inertia/sloppy thinking – is a consequence of the habit,
established over decades, of taking the side of the GoSL against the LTTE. Whether
this was right or wrong is irrelevant now since the LTTE has been eliminated. In this
new context, the on-going bias in the GoSL’s favour has become a major obstacle to
even basic levels of justice, and hence to real reconciliation. And rivalry – whether
motivated by ill-thought-out strategic considerations or short-term business interests –
is simply immoral given the costs borne by the innocent civilians of Sri Lanka.
External powers – and especially the three in question – owe it to the innocent
civilians who have survived the war, and to future generations of Sri Lankans, not to
mention the tens of thousands of civilians who have died, to raise their game and do
so quickly. The EU can and must continue to show them what this means in practice,
and that is why the EU must stand firm on the 15 conditions for resumption of GSP+.
Put simply, GSP+ is not a “right” the Rajapaksa regime can demand, and it is high
time the regime understood that it cannot bribe and bully everyone into silence.