The IMF loan came through at last despite so many attempts to block it. It is indeed a boon to the ordinary people of this country that reason prevailed finally and prevented this international agency from being used as an instrument of politics. Despite the obvious pressures being brought upon it, the IMF should be commended for taking an ethical stand, and refusing to become a political tool. By this, this vital lender of last resort, has maintained its balanced and impartial role in the global economy. Had this stand by facility to Sri Lanka been delayed any further or worse, turned down, that would have changed the character of the IMF fundamentally and irrevocably. Perhaps it’s not just Sri Lanka that should heave a sigh of relief but the entire world.
It was by a whisker that the politicization of the hitherto politically neutral IMF was avoided. Even as late as last month, weeks after Prabhakaran was killed, British parliamentarians were calling for the blocking of this IMF stand by facility to Sri Lanka. The intention obviously being not to bring the war to an end by tightening economic screws - because by that time, the war had already ended - but to wreak vengeance on a headstrong government. At the June 12 (2009) adjournment debate on Sri Lanka in the British House of Commons, Labor parliamentarian for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh said,
"Even with the credit crunch enveloping the world, the Sri Lankan Government decided to invest an incredible share of the country’s economy in fighting a military campaign against ethnic Tamils. Last year, they voted to spend $1.9 billion of the country’s budget on the military. Coincidentally, they have since asked the international community, through the International Monetary Fund, for a loan. This is for a total of—believe it or not—$1.9 billion. Although it is claimed that this is to help Sri Lanka through the global economic crisis, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this money is actually to bankroll a massive military campaign against the country’s own people. The international community therefore has a responsibility to think long and hard before it agrees to such a loan. If the loan is granted, it will send out the message that the IMF is the place to go for any Government who want to fund a civil war. I hope the Minister will assure me that our Government does not want the IMF to be seen as a fall-back for any country that wants to attack its own ethnic populations".
On the face of it, this passage may read like something said before May 18 when the LTTE breathed its last. But this is from McDonagh’s speech in the British parliament on June 12. Why would she want to block the IMF loan in June when the war that she talks of ended nearly a month earlier, except to bat on behalf of her pro-LTTE Tamil constituents? McDonagh began her speech by drawing attention to the plight of those affected by the war. She said:
"I am very grateful to have this opportunity to debate the situation in Sri Lanka. Since the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came to its bloody end last month, some people might be tempted to shift their focus to other matters. However, enormous problems remain. In particular, I want to draw Parliament’s attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in internment camps, and the need for reliable independent sources of information. The international community has a responsibility to take urgent humanitarian action, but the Sri Lankan Government have forfeited their position of trust".
Despite these protestations of concern for civilians, and post-war rehabilitation, individuals such as McDonagh seem oblivious to the consequences of their actions on the ordinary public of Sri Lanka, both Tamil as well as Sinhala. This has been the most unpalatable aspect of the western attitude. Those who preach to all and sundry that hostilities should be directed only at combatants and not at bystanders, seem to apply different rules when they want to get at unyielding governments. They seemed to be quite prepared to accept any untoward consequences for the ordinary citizens through their actions of blocking aid, or credit as ‘collateral damage’ in their quest to tame stubborn governments. One almost begins to suspect that it is in fact their intention to punish the Sri Lankan public too for what happened. McDonagh said in the course of her speech that;
"In November 2005, President Rajapaksa was elected on a nationalist Sinhalese platform and his Government appeared increasingly intent on achieving a military victory over the LTTE".
There seems to be undisguised resentment about the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa unlike most other figures in western demonology, is an elected head of state, and the scant concern for the Sri Lankan civilian population demonstrated by the likes of McDonagh seem to indicate a desire to wreak vengeance on the electorate as well for electing such a leader to power. There also seems to be an explicit desire on the part of politicians like McDonagh, to act as the instruments of vengeance for the LTTE Diaspora. Another point she made during her June 12 speech was as follows:
"Although the LTTE has been destroyed, the grievances that led to its rise have not been addressed. Many Tamils actually opposed the Tigers, but they are even more opposed to the nationalist Sinhalese extremists. The way in which Sri Lanka ruthlessly crushed the Tamils will undoubtedly lead to resentment among those Tamils who survived the onslaught—indeed, to say that Tamils living elsewhere around the world are resentful would be an understatement. As Parliament has learned in the two months during which a protest has been going on here, British Tamils are anxious, angry and motivated. Many feel they have nothing more to lose. So far they have been entirely peaceful, but it is possible that some will have been radicalized by the brutality back home".
This talk of not having addressed the grievances that led to the rise of the LTTE can hardly be taken seriously because this speech was delivered less than a month after the death of Prabhakaran. Nobody can address anything in less than a month. Moreover this MP seems to justify Tamil anger at the crushing of the LTTE. Not one word was mentioned in her speech about the LTTE being a terrorist organization which wiped out the entire democratic Tamil leadership of Sri Lanka not to mention their suicide bombings and massacres of civilians. Not one word about the fact that the LTTE was holding nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians as a human shield. Of the nearly quarter of a million Tamil civilians that the LTTE took hostage, McDonagh says "Tamil fighters were concentrated in an area of about 30 sq km on the Vanni coast. Despite the fact that 250,000 Tamil civilians also lived in this area…" So according to McDonagh, the LTTE had not taken these civilians hostage, but the civil population was actually ‘living’ in the area! This is the kind of partisanship that Sri Lanka is up against in the international arena.
With the GSP+ facility coming up for review by the European Union, what we should all be worried about is whether this barely disguised desire to punish the people of Sri Lanka for having elected the Rajapaksa regime into power will hold sway, or will reason assert itself as it did in the case of the IMF? GSP+ will be the next great test, not just for Sri Lanka, but the entire world, because this decision will determine the character of GSP+ for other nations as well. What we are talking of here is well over a 100 nations, because any country receiving ordinary GSP concessions from the EU can also apply for GSP+.
The Sunday Island spoke to Bernard Savage, the Head of Delegation of the European Union in Sri Lanka about the extension of the GSP+ facility and the full interview follows. One of the concerns we raised in this interview was European Commission External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner’s open letter to the Tamil Diaspora of June 16 which is reproduced in full elsewhere in this newspaper.
Sunday Island: How would you characterize EU-Sri Lanka relations at this particular moment?
Bernard Savage: I think we have a long history of good relations with Sri Lanka. We are Sri Lanka’s first trading partner. The EU is the No: 1 destination for Sri Lanka’s exports, and we are the second supplier after India. If you take the two together, we are Sri Lankamajor trade partner. We have a long tradition of providing assistance to Sri Lanka particularly following the tsunami. To the conflict affected population we provide a considerable amount of assistance through our humanitarian organizations. We are active particularly in the east to help resettle IDPs, to put up housing, and so on.
SI: There is some anxiety about GSP+…
BS: First I will explain what GSP is. The Generalised System of Preferences was introduced as a unilateral concession by EC members to developing nations. There is a general scheme which Sri Lanka benefits from. In 2005, we introduced an additional scheme called GSP+ which was made available to those countries eligible on the basis of a number of criteria which includes labour standards, human rights, and adherence to 27 international conventions. Countries applied on the basis that not only were these 27 conventions ratified, but also effectively implemented. In total 14 countries were granted this GSP+ concession. In Asia, along with Sri Lanka you have Mongolia and Azerbaijan. In the European law that governs this, there is provision for review of a country’s eligibility on the basis of public or other submissions. By law, the commission has to react to that. In the case of Sri Lanka, there were a number of reports from UN bodies and others which indicated that there may be problems in the effective implementation of some of these conventions. So the commission was faced with two choices. One was to suspend GSP+ and the other was to conduct a review. The commission argued very forcefully to conduct a review rather than simply suspend GSP+. During the review period, Sri Lanka continues to benefit from GSP+. No decision has been taken. But the law very clearly states that from the beginning of the review period, we have 12 months to reach a conclusion and advise member states about either continuation or suspension. We are not there yet. That will have to be done by October. No decision has been made. The review process continues. We would like the Sri Lankan government to cooperate with this process but the Sri Lankan government has taken the position that it does not want to. We regret that decision because we think it will be in Sri Lanka’s favor to cooperate. But nevertheless the process continues. No decision has been made but in October the commission will make a recommendation to the member states, and the member states will have two months in which to either accept or reject that recommendation.
SI: What is the procedure adopted by the EC to do this review? Is it similar to that of the IMF because what is involved is a trade matter?
BS: No it’s very different. First of all, Sri Lanka is a member of the IMF, and it has its procedure for member states. GSP+ is a unilateral concession from the European Union and it is governed by European law. The second thing is that even though GSP+ is an economic and trade instrument, it is specifically designed to give additional preferences to those countries that have an outstanding record in defending human rights. And the conventions that are mentioned in the law governing GSP+, are not European conventions but international conventions. So it’s not a question of imposing our standards on anybody else. It is on the basis of the ratification and implementation of these UN conventions that the EU grants this unilateral trade concession. So it’s very different from the IMF on a number of levels. I would also like to add that what is under review is GSP+ and not GSP. There is no question of Sri Lanka losing the GSP concession.
SI: Among the recipient countries of GSP+, Sri Lanka has by far, a much longer tradition of democracy. This is Asia’s oldest democracy. Doesn’t that make Sri Lanka stand out among the recipients of GSP+?
BS: That may well be true, but those aren’t the criteria defined in the legislation. There are the 27 UN conventions. I wouldn’t dispute for a second what you are saying. In comparison, the other two Asian countries benefiting from GSP+ entered democracy only in the 1990s.
SI: I saw somewhere that the commission had expressed concerns about compliance with regard to three conventions - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Leaving aside the ICCPR which is a wide ranging document, do you really think it was necessary to call into question the rights of the child? The LTTE recruited child soldiers. Today the LTTE is no more and their splinter groups are now disbanding. So does this have any relevance?
BS: Well it’s not for me to second guess what my commissioner says, and I am not going into details of what questions we are looking at in the process of this review. The government of Sri Lanka would be given the opportunity to respond to the review process. So I think it is better not to look at the details in terms of speaking to the press. Three conventions were mentioned but there are 27 in all. There was a situation when this was first brought up in 2008, but things can change. This is one of the reasons why the commission according to the law governing GSP+, is obliged to seek submissions from all interested parties and this was done. We have received many submissions both from within Sri Lanka and without. The important thing is that there is an opportunity for all interested parties to make their case.
SI: Having been in this country, you wouldn’t have failed to notice that politics here is of a very adversarial nature. You would have found politicians coming to you to complain about the other party. Anybody who would make submissions would be an interested party. In Sri Lanka there is no such thing as an impartial observer. GSP+ is itself a relatively new thing and the review process itself is something new. The procedures itself are still being evolved…
BS: As regards the interested nature of those who could make submissions, I can assure you that there were a wide range of opinions. Some of them were positive, some were negative. We have recruited three internationally renowned jurists, professors of international humanitarian and human rights law, from different countries in the union, to help us assess these submissions. What is said in the submissions needs to be corroborated by evidence - there is no question of taking somebody’s word per se. It is a new process, but I would caution against suggesting that it is being made up as we go along. There are actually regulations defining not only time periods but how you go about it.
SI: Will the European psyche be swayed by the plight of the underdog? We find the Sri Lankan leader of the opposition writing to your External Affairs Commissioner (EAC), going to see her in Brussels to tell her that we need a constitutional amendment to fully comply with the ICCPR and so on. Then again, pressure has been brought on Ms Benita Ferrero-Waldner (the EAC) by the Tamil Diaspora in Europe and an open letter was written by her on June 16 to the Tamil lobby, addressing their concerns. So there are all these partisan pressures that have been brought on the European Commission. Obviously, the EAC felt obliged to respond to the Tamil lobby even while the review was in progress, because the pressure was so intense…
BS: That’s not entirely true. We are obliged by our rules of transparency to reply to anyone who writes to us, be it a government or an individual. The commission is always under partisan pressures. It has been estimated that for every EU official in Brussels, there are two lobbyists. Sometimes these pressures come from very influential bodies. The Commissioner for External Relations has the responsibility of implementing the external aspects of commission policies with around a 150 countries. The commissioner is well experienced, and makes her own decisions, not on the basis of one particular lobby or person.
SI: So this letter of June 16 does not indicate any special concern or special solicitude for this particular lobby?
BS: It doesn’t show particular concern for any particular lobby. But the commissioner does follow the developments in Sri Lanka and despite all the different claims on her attention, she tries to give each country the attention it merits. In this public declaration you refer to, she says that she has concerns, she has hopes, and that reflects the commissioner’s point of view. But it’s not a specific response to a given lobby. Had any interested party addressed a letter to the commission, they would have got a response.
SI: But this letter was posted on the commission website as well.
BS: That’s normal. Its part of the transparency rules.
SI: I am 45 years old. During my entire adult life it’s only during a period totaling seven years did I feel that the government of the day, was my government. If an economic concession that is made use of by the whole population is going to be given or withdrawn due to political omissions or commissions of the government of the day, how fair will that be by the ordinary people of this country? The IMF doesn’t have this problem because they are not supposed to take political criteria into consideration…
BS: It is extremely difficult to give an answer. I am not Sri Lankan and I obviously don’t have a partisan position one way or the other. Even though this is an economic instrument, it is an instrument granted on a specific basis of respect for human rights. So it is on that basis that we must judge whether a country is eligible or not. Any country that applies, accepts the criteria. We have to be responsible to our own taxpayers, to our own parliament. This is our instrument for which the conditions are laid down in European law.
SI: Would the European Commission also have to consider the consequences and human cost of their decisions? If their actions result in throwing out of employment of a large number of people who are not necessarily politically involved or in any way responsible for the omissions o commissions of the government, would the EC have to take such factors onto consideration?
BS: Well, we are going on the basis of laws. The law tells us what we have to do. In making decisions of course, we do make an assessment. But ultimately, the opinion of the commission must be based on the law. The individual states of the European Union are however free to either accept or reject the commission’s opinion. This is a political issue, because the instrument is political, and it reflects a commitment by the European Union to ethical trade standards and the belief that trade is a major motor in development and poverty reduction. This is based on the belief that the countries that most respect human rights should have additional preferences.
SI: In talking of compliance with the 27 international conventions, people were talking of the level of compliance, the argument being that no country in the world has been adhering to these 27 conventions in toto. Even the most democratic of countries can be hauled up for various infractions. How do you make a decision in such circumstances?
BS: In this world, perfection does not exist. There is a big difference between perfection and not existing. It’s for that reason that we have recruited expert professionals in these matters. There are two levels – one is perfection. The other is where the words don’t mean anything.
SI: We have been discussing only GSP+. Where does the EU come in with regard to post conflict rehabilitation?
BS: As I said at the start, we are one of the biggest contributors to humanitarian assistance. That has been true throughout the whole period of the conflict. Without stopping at humanitarian assistance, we have followed up by assisting communities to get back on their feet with housing, education, roads and so on.
SI: Supposing the EU decides to suspend the GSP+ facility to Sri Lanka, wouldn’t that impact negatively on the whole process of post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction?
BS: I really wouldn’t like to double guess a process of which I am not an active participant. I would also like to underline the fact that no decision has been taken. I prefer not to do an analysis of the hypothetical.