Italy to plead Lanka’s GSP+ case with other EU states

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini last week assured an inter-religious delegation from Sri Lanka that he would take the case of the GSP+ suspension to other EU member states provided Sri Lanka supplied him with the information regarding the negative impact of the suspension on women, children and IDPs here, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Italy, Mr. Hemantha Warnakulasuriya said.

The delegation headed by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo included Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratana, Ven. Kamburugamuwe Vajira, Vidyanithi Brahmasri Kuhananda Sarma, Venerator Al Haj Moulavi Viyas Mohamed and Rev. Fr. Damien Fernando.

The delegation was accompanied by Ambassador Warnakulasuriya. The Deputy Director-General of the Asia Desk of the Italian Foreign Ministry, the Minister’s Chief of Cabinet and Chief of Press Office were associated with Frattini.

The minister opened the discussion by telling the delegation that due to the prevailing human rights situation here, the EU foreign ministers had taken a unanimous decision that would impact seriously on Sri Lanka.

The Italian Government had attempted to bring about a dialogue between the two parties through Community of Sant’Egidio but they had been proved to be fruitless and it would be difficult for the EU to change its decision on GSP+.

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjit described the delegation as an independent, apolitical group which did not represent the position of the Sri Lanka Government. Rather, it represented the position of the four major religions in the country.

He said that the suspension of GSP+ will only worsen the human rights crisis here and negatively affect women and children.

He said that strong inter-religious body here including himself and Ven. Vajira Thero had met the LTTE leaders and called for a dialogue between the contending parties but this call was dismissed by the LTTE hierarchy which was insisting on a separate state.

On assumption of office, President Rajapakse requested the inter-religious delegation to go to the North and discuss a peaceful negotiated settlement which was rejected by the LTTE compelling the Government to decide that there was no alternative but to fight terrorism.

Urging that suspension of GSP+ would aggravate the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the delegation which represented all ethnic groups in the country appealed that the facility be continued.

Ven. Wimalaratana Nayake Thero said their delegation which was independent, multi ethnic and multi religious represented the whole population of the country.

"We are not echoing the position of the Government; we have come here on behalf of the poor, the under-privileged and downtrodden people of Sri Lanka," he said.

"Terrorism has been an evil which the government has fought and won. All efforts to bring the warring parties to a settlement had failed due to the intransigence of the LTTE which had one goal of calving out a separate state. No religious group would have agreed to this."

The delegation urged that no religious group can subscribe to the notion that peace can obtain through war and both the victorious and the vanquished must achieve peace together.

The delegation said that over a million people, nearly 95% women, working in the factories, depend on GSP+, its suspension will worsen the situation of the IDPs and if the EU is genuinely interest in resettling them, it must assist the Government of Sri in the resettlement process.

The Vatican and Caritas have already played an important role in this matter. Suspending or postponing GSP+ will adversely affect the IDPs and the resettlement process will further delay.

They called on the Italian Government and its foreign minister to look at this matter in a positive frame of mind and discuss with other EU member states in order to persuade them to agree to an extension of GSP+ for at least one more year.

Frattini thanked the delegation on enlightening him and his ministry on the current situation and said that the Italy will under no circumstances deprive women and children of the benefits of GSP+.

They now saw Sri Lanka’s position more clearly and he called on Ambassador Warnakulasuriya to submit a report with complete statistics on what had been explained to them especially with regard to the resettlement process and the negative impact the GSP+ will have on women, particularly factory workers.

The minister said that once this information was available, he will take it up with the Italian President and the Prime Minister in order to enlighten other EU member states who are not aware of the situation in the light of information tendered by an inter-religious delegation and the ambassador.

Warnakulasuriya said that the human rights concerns expressed by the EU was a result of the terrorist actions of the LTTE. Long before the LTTE terrorism began, Sinhala youth also took up arms due to economic conditions here and many opportunities were lost. The main reason behind the uprising of the JVP and the LTTE was more economic than political.

If the GSP+ concessions are withdrawn, millions of people, the majority being women supporting their families, will lose their jobs. Factories will have to be closed down and this will led to a catastrophic situation which will lead to a further armed struggle.

The Tamil people of the North who are among the beneficiaries of GSP+ will suffer the worst consequences and the government will not be able to bring them into the political mainstream as it will lose resources to do so. The situation in the IDP camps will worsen and this will lead to an extremely difficult situation.

The delegation had an audience with the Pope and spoke to him after his general audience. They also met with the Secretary of State of the Vatican and senior officials of the European Commission and the European Parliament in Brussels before flying to the UK to meet with senior British politicians and officials.

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