Democracy Reporting International’s Sri Lanka country office teamed up with Rights Now in Colombo on 12 August 2016 to exchange ideas about economic development for human rights, democratic values in society, and the potential impact of GSP+ (Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus) in Sri Lanka.
After ending its decades-long civil war and holding milestone elections in 2015, Sri Lanka is vying to get its foot back in the door of international support and trade collaboration. Due to the country’s poor human rights record in 2010, the European Union (EU) withdrew its support for GSP+, a scheme which grants trade preferences on goods and guarantees tariff-free exports to the EU. GSP+ remains a crucial step in gaining potency in the global market.
Sri Lanka formally applied for readmission on 29 June 2016 and the EU is currently considering the government’s application and its commitment to improving human and labour rights, sustainable development, good governance and safeguarding the environment.
Outlining the discrepancies between a comparatively strong economic development in Sri Lanka versus the political hurdles which civil society still faces, Udana Fernando, Executive Director of Centre for Poverty Analysis, highlighted the need for civil society organisations to equip themselves with knowledge, skills and strategies to play a significant role in the upcoming GSP+ process.
Dr. Nimalka Fernando, President of International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism emphasized that GSP+ was not primarily linked to working class’ needs or jobs, rather, its focus, she said, is first and foremost human rights. “GSP+ considers the freedom of trade unions and civil society along with land rights, cultural rights and the right of people who suffer from racial discrimination […]. GSP+ binds them together and thus covers a vast area,” Fernando noted. “I take advantage of the GSP+ as a safe and comprehensive discussion on human rights, not as an increment of my salary. It can be used as a tool to gain democracy,” she concluded.
Human rights issues and the economy are inextricably linked – an increase in food prices, unemployment rates or a lack of village development are just a few examples.
Sudarshan Gunawardena, Executive Director of Rights Now, explains: “When we go to the village to talk about reconciliation and democracy, people are asking those questions. Therefore, we need a solution economically. I see GSP+ as the place where democracy, reconciliation and economy are tied together. With GSP+, we will have the economic development and also the obligation to protect human rights.”
The EU is set to finalise its decision on Sri Lanka’s readmission within the next few months, with the country able to officially regain GSP+ status in about eight to ten months from now, should the EU decide in Sri Lanka’s favour.