Sri Lanka faces trade, human rights link

The pain of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in May 2009, continues to haunt residents in the eastern coastal town of Batticaloa and its surrounding villages. Punyamurthi Jeyatheepa, a 32-year-old social worker, is still searching for her husband, Pathmashri, who left their home on May 23, four days after the guns fell silent, and disappeared after a military mop-up operation near their village north of Batticaloa.

Jeyatheepa remembers the red T-shirt and blue jeans her husband wore on the morning she last saw him. She remembers the two rings he had on the second toe of each foot and the scar near his waist from an operation. When she recalls the tattoo of her name and two red hearts on his right arm, her face crumples and she cries silently.

Details like these matter for families of the “disappeared” — a grim legacy of the 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers guerilla army. If a body is unearthed across the island’s north and east battlefield during the separatist conflict, a tattoo or ring could be the key to identification.

An estimated 40,000 people were killed in the final four months of the conflict, according to a United Nations report, with the war’s total death toll exceeding 100,000. The coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena said last year that government commissions had received 65,000 complaints of missing persons related to the civil war and a violent Marxist uprising in the southern and central regions in the late 1980s.

The Sirisena administration has earned international praise for its honesty regarding the scale of the disappearances and its successful bid last August to gain parliamentary approval to establish a permanent Office of Missing Persons (OMP). Sirisena’s government, which defeated the previous regime led by autocratic President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an election in January 2015, also appears warmer toward three other benchmarks of post-war justice: a special tribunal for war crimes, a truth and reconciliation commission, and compensation for the victims.

But the government has dragged its feet on converting assurances into action, and patience among the international community is wearing thin. The European Commission has linked improvements in Sri Lanka’s human rights record to a pledge to resume granting tariff concessions under its Generalized System of Preferences plus (GSP+) for exports to the European Union, the largest market for Sri Lankan products.

The GSP+ allows developing countries to pay no duties on their exports to the EU. The island lost some 10,000 jobs as factories shut down in the wake of the EU suspension, which was imposed in August 2010 in protest at the Rajapaksa administration’s failings on human rights.

If the EU were to reinstate the GSP+ tariffs, Sri Lanka could earn an additional $1.9 billion a year in exports — primarily through its garments sector, according to current Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. But in mid-April, a European parliamentary group warned against granting the GSP+ concessions at an upcoming vote in May, accusing the Sri Lankan government of “not adequately tackling the culture of impunity by rewarding military officials guilty of human rights violations with government positions.”

Trade struggles

Without the benefit of GSP+, Sri Lanka has struggled to compete with other Asian clothing exporters for EU market share. Vietnam, Pakistan and Cambodia all trailed Sri Lanka in 2009, earning $2.1 billion, $1.5 billion and $1.09 billion respectively from EU exports against Sri Lanka’s $ 2.3 billion, according to the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. By 2015, however, Vietnam’s apparel exports to the EU had risen to $3.9 billion, Pakistan’s to $2.9 billion and Cambodia’s to $3.7 billion, with Sri Lanka stuck at $2.4 billion. (Nikkei)

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