The EU is threatening to end a special trade deal with Sri Lanka over its poor human rights record. Human rights groups applaud the measure - but also fear the toll it could take on Sri Lanka's garment workers.
Human rights groups say both the military and the Tamil Tigers are guilty of human rights violations
In 2005 Sri Lanka was given a privileged trading relationship status with the European Union, exporting garments, fish, and other items free of tax. Last year the scheme, known as the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP Plus), saved Sri Lanka some 78 million euros ($116 million) in duties, according to the EU Commission. But now the GSP Plus may grind to a halt as the island nation finds itself at odds with the EU on the issue of human rights.
"You name it and Sri Lanka has the problem," Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch told Deutsche Welle. "From extra-judicial killings, disappearances, torture, illegal detentions, 250,000 people illegally detained in displaced persons camps, war crimes allegations from the final assaults on the LTTE - it's quite a terrible record."
It is an assessment that the EU appears to agree with. The EU Commission recently published the findings of a year-long probe which found Sri Lanka in breach of 27 international human rights agreements, including conventions on child labor and torture. The report specifically took aim at the Sri Lankan government for its conduct during the decades-long civil war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) which ended in May.
In the final months of the conflict, the government launched a bloody offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had been fighting for an independent state since the 1970s. The report said there was "overwhelming evidence" that "significant numbers of civilians were unlawfully killed in military operations."
An estimated 70,000 people in total were killed in the conflict.
Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting
Sri Lanka reacts to report
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said in a statement that the government would "closely study the European Commission report" and prepare its counter arguments.
"We don't accept that we have violated the conditions," said government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella. "We are a sovereign nation and we will bring our thoughts very forcefully."
After Sri Lanka banned an EU research team from entering the island, the commission hired a team of three independent experts to compile the report instead.
Sri Lankan officials have criticized the EU for failing to consider the country's extraordinary circumstances during the civil war. They have also argued that the suspension of the special trade deal would unfairly punish those in the garment industry already suffering due to the global financial crisis. The EU is Sri Lanka's largest export market.
Brussels had repeatedly warned leaders in Colombo that the country could lose its GSP Plus status - which it had been granted after the 2004 tsunami - if it didn't abide by its conditions for human rights
Sri Lanka is not the only country awarded GSP Plus trade benefits with the EU. Fifteen other developing countries are also part of the scheme, which gives them an opportunity to prop up their economies while advancing their human rights, environmental and labor standards.
According to the EU report, "the commission will now decide whether to propose a temporary withdrawal of the special incentive arrangement."
Refugee camps in Sri Lanka have become over-crowded
Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Germany in Berlin, Tikiri Bandara Maduwegedera, told Deutsche Welle that the move could hurt Sri Lanka's post-war rebuilding efforts.
"This is a very unfortunate time actually," said Ambassador Maduwegedera. "The government, after defeating terrorism - [which] had devastated the country for more than 30 years - has now tried to sort of give the peace dividend to the north and the east, particularly the people who have been badly affected. And investors in the garment sector are planning to establish their factories in the north and east to accommodate those young people who had [been] involved with the LTTE activities."
EU member states are expected to vote in the next two months on whether to relinquish Sri Lanka's GSP Plus status. It could still retain some benefits under the normal GSP scheme. But nevertheless, human rights groups fear it could be a blow to Sri Lanka's garment workers.
"We've been working with the EU, and tried to work with the Sri Lankan government on this for more than a year," said Brad Adams. "We don't really want these sanctions to be imposed, but at the same time, the Sri Lankan government…just hasn't cooperated, and I guess at some point these kinds of principles have to be implemented or they become meaningless."
Author: Vanessa Johnston
Editor: Rob Mudge