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EU may end Sri Lanka trade deal over human rights

[Times Online UK, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 09:55 No Comment]

The EU has little alternative but to withdraw trade benefits from Sri Lanka after publishing a report today alleging grave human rights abuses during the war against the Tamil Tigers, the top EU trade official has told The Times.

“Unlawful killings are a major problem in Sri Lanka, perpetrated by soldiers, police, paramilitary groups or others, not only during the course of active hostilities,” the report by three independent experts said.

“There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that during the final months of the conflict significant numbers of civilians were unlawfully killed in military operations.” The report concluded that Sri Lanka had violated the UN Convention against Torture, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The EU has waived import taxes on Sri Lankan garments and other items since 2005, allowing Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Next and other big retailers to import billions of pounds’ worth of cheap clothes from the island.

But Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the EU Trade Commissioner, said the concession was almost certain to be withdrawn because it explicitly obliged the government to meet international human rights agreements.

“The purpose of it very clear,” she told The Times. “The rules are very clear. And if the rules are not kept, the outcome if very clear.”

The Commission must now make a formal recommendation on whether to withdraw the benefits, which must be put to EU member states before a final decision around the end of the year.

But Baroness Ashton said the result was almost a foregone conclusion. “It’s very difficult to see any other recommendation than to suspend it,” she said. “The report is clear in showing consistent human rights problems and no action from the government to address them.”

The EU grants the benefits, known as the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+), to help developing countries boost their economies while improving human rights, labour and environmental standards.

Sri Lanka was granted GSP+ after a tsunami in 2004 and is the only country in Asia to benefit from the scheme, which explicitly obliges beneficiaries to adhere to 27 international rights agreements.

Withdrawing it would be the most severe international response yet to the war’s bloody finale — in which U.N. officials estimate 20,000 civilians died — and to the subsequent detention of 300,000 Tamil civilians in internment camps.

It would add about six percent to the cost of most Sri Lankan imports to the EU and could force retailers like M&S to buy from China, India or Bangladesh.

That could devastate Sri Lanka’s garment industry, which it says accounts for 10 per cent of GDP, employs about 250,000 people and recorded exports of $1.4 billion to the EU last year alone.

The EU had warned Sri Lanka last year that it would not renew GSP Plus until it had investigated alleged rights abuses, but the government refused to allow an EU team to investigate.

So the EU hired the three experts to investigate alleged abuses independently.

Sri Lankan officials have called their report “outrageous”, and accused the EU of failing to account for exceptional circumstances during the war, and seeking to punish ordinary garment workers.

But Baroness Ashton said that making an exception for Sri Lanka would undermine the entire system by setting a precedent for other beneficiary countries.

[Full Coverage]

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