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On the EU and its ‘Revenge Option’

The Economist, a respected international weekly magazine, carried an interesting piece in its issue of September 3, 2009 titled ‘Sri Lanka and the EU: Losing touch with old friends’. The article refers to an EU report on Sri Lanka’s ‘fitness for preferential tariff treatment’ (meaning GSP Plus) and salivates on the largely negative conclusions therein. Why do I use the word ‘salivate’ here? Well, the author moves quickly from conjecture/allegation to ‘fact’ and thereafter to the treatment of the possibility of withdrawing GSP Plus as meting out ‘justice’.

This is how The Economist sets the stage: ‘Its [Sri Lanka’s] alleged wartime and other abuses make a grim catalogue: thousands of Tamil civilians allegedly killed by army shelling during the rebels’ last stand; scores of Tamils disappeared; nearly 300,000 Tamil war-displaced callously interned; murder and intimidation of journalists—including J.S. Tissainayagam, sentenced to 20 years hard labour on August 31st for criticising the army’s tactics.’ What is the key word here? ‘Alleged’.

The author then laments, ‘there is little that the high-minded (!) Western countries can do about this’, because, ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa has other friends, China, Pakistan, Libya etc’ who have together scuttled efforts to launch a war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka. It is also admitted, grudgingly, that the Rajapaksa regime managed to secure a US $2.6 billion loan from the IMF. The author does not admit that this itself indicates the decline of European power in world affairs, mirrored also by the fact that an EU-led effort to shoot Sri Lanka at the UNHRC also resulted in a resounding defeat.

Now there is very little reason for most Western countries to be ‘high-minded’ about anything, considering a long history of wartime and other abuses, a catalog in fact that makes whatever abuses committed by Sri Lanka (that can be proved) look little more than schoolboy pranks. The Economist’s argument therefore has sour grapes written all over it.

Consider the punch line for instance: ‘But the Europeans do have one wrench on Mr Rajapaksa’s government: a trade concession known as "GSP Plus". This boon, which has helped make exports to the EU the country’s biggest source of foreign exchange, worth $3.3 billion last year, is up for review. Judging by an EU-commissioned report on Sri Lanka’s compliance with its terms, which include stipulations on human rights, it can kiss the concession goodbye.’

The Economist finds nothing wrong in anyone wanting to barge into a sovereign country and conduct investigations. The point is that even if the Government had nothing to hide, it is honour-bound to reject such requests in the name of sovereignty. The Economist does not say that the 130-page report was basically compiled on ‘information’ provided by people who have a political axe to grind against the Government of Sri Lanka, or that these informants are motivated less by a need to ascertain the truth than to do their all to effect a regime change.

I am willing to wager that some of the ‘informants’ are members of that motley group of disgruntled racketeers who now call themselves ‘Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka’, most recently shown-up when they submitted a doctored videotape of an alleged summary execution by Sri Lanka’s security forces which Channel 4 News (an outfit that has does not understand the term ‘responsible journalism’) aired recently (and suckered in people like Phillip Alston, Human Rights Watch, Susan Rice and the usual suspects in selective human rights advocacy). I wouldn’t be surprised if the report has drawn heavily from known LTTE sympathizers who spared no pains to secure a safe passage for the world’s most ruthless terrorist in May 2009.

The final EU decision is not necessarily going to be based on this report, whose contents I am sure the Government of Sri Lanka will peruse and probably refute. I would not put it past the EU, however, to dismiss all objections outright and treat this report as the biblical truth for I believe that The Economist is not a lone ‘sour grapes’ voice in that part of the world. Sri Lanka has called the bluff of some European leaders and they just can’t get over it. There is a need to avenge this slight and that is why The Economist seems thrilled that the EU has a weapon called GSP Plus to unleash on Sri Lanka.

I think The Economist is right because I am convinced that Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Commissioner for External Relations, EU is determined to extract a pound of flesh. The Commissioner, who has bent backwards to respond to missives from pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora, even going to the extent of posting response on her official website, has chosen to be silent when asked to respond to certain questions posed by Sri Lankans who find her positions to be anti-intellectual and obnoxiously colonialist. I wrote to her, copying my letter to the Head of Delegation, EU, in Sri Lanka, Bernard Savage (who said that EU transparency rules compel that all queries are responded to) on July 31, 2009.

If Benita Ferrero-Waldner has any integrity, she would respond in some way (not necessarily in a letter to me that is also posted on her website) to the following questions:

1. Do you welcome the defeat of the LTTE and the rendering of that ruthless terrorist organization ineffective in carrying out acts of terrorism and if so would you commend the Government of Sri Lanka for doing its bit in terms of the international community’s zero-tolerance policy on the matter of terrorism?

2. Would you use a concessionary instrument such as GSP Plus to punish a potential recipient nation because the relevant Government would not, for whatever reason, implement a policy or set of policies pertaining to an internal political matter that you had recommended?

3. Mr. Savage has stated that all decisions reference the limits of the law. I am not conversant with your laws, but please enlighten me: does it sanction penal action on friendly states simply on the basis of non compliance with preferred course of action?

4. Mr. Savage has asserted that all relevant steps taken by the Commission are mandated by European Law. In your view, does European Law permit the use of the GSP Plus arrangement as a penal instrument?

5. Would you show the same sensitivity to grievances/concerns articulated by the Tamil Community in Europe to the approximately 250,000 of the poorest citizens of Sri Lanka who would lose their livelihoods should the GSP Plus facility be withdrawn?

The logic of these queries is simple: to determine whether or not ‘revenge’ is a key motivator for the EU. I like to believe it is not. The Economist, in substance and tone, clearly wants the EU to exercise what should now be called ‘The Revenge Option’.

The EU can decide to withdraw the GSP Plus facility or to extend it for a further period of time. I am pretty sure that those who dislike Mahinda Rajapaksa would hope for and welcome the former. I am pretty sure that the Government is perturbed, because if the EU opts for the Revenge Option, it translates into 200,000 plus people losing jobs, an eventuality that can translate into a significant negative come election time. That’s however something that the Government has to worry about.

The citizenry, on the other hand, needs to understand that we have to stop being a dependent nation. This Government has shown an aversion to the kind of groveling before the West that we have seen for many decades. Whether or not the Rajapaksa regime survives this blow (and it is a blow in terms of political implications), we need to understand that we have to put ourselves in a position where no one can exercise revenge options against us.

International relations refer to the cultivating of friendships. That’s the polite and diplomatic way of putting it. The truth is that it is about seeking to establish and expand ties to further mutual benefits. There is very little generosity in such matters. There are no ‘old friends’ and ‘new friends’. There are only ‘old interests’ and ‘new interests’.

The West has become ‘old’ and that aging has little to do with the whims and fancies, or the arrogance or otherwise, of Mahinda Rajapaksa. What is important to understand is that our ability to secure better and more beneficial agreements internationally depends on how strong we are and how united we are as a people. Defeating terrorism was a necessary first step. The challenge now is to perfect our systems of governance and to develop a work ethic that allows us to emerge stronger subsequent to encountering arm-twisting by the EU or anyone else and helps us withstand those who have no qualms about excising Revenge Options as such are available.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com.

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