EU warns Sri Lanka trade depends on rights record
19 March 2008
(Updates with ICRC criticism)
By Rob Taylor
COLOMBO, March 19 (Reuters) - The European Union has told Sri Lanka it has "very serious concerns" about civil war human rights abuses and that lucrative trade concessions could be at risk if they continue.
Rights watchdogs have reported hundreds of abductions, disappearances and killings blamed on government security forces and Tamil Tiger separatists since a bloody civil war, in which 70,000 people have died since 1983, resumed in 2006.
"The EU continues to harbour very serious concerns about continuing reports of human rights abuses," senior officials said in a statement issued late on Tuesday after a three-day visit to Sri Lanka to discuss concerns.
The so-called EU Troika, representing current president Slovenia, incoming president France and the European Commission, also told the government to get serious about prosecuting abuses through the courts and allowing independent monitoring.
"It is also vitally important ... to create a more favourable environment to allow NGOs, the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to work effectively, without undue criticism," the group said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department, in its annual report last week on human rights, said the Sri Lankan state’s respect for human rights continued to decline in 2007, citing reports of killings by government agents and collaboration between the state and paramilitaries accused of major rights abuses.
The Sri Lankan government said those accusations were "vituperative exaggerations", releasing secret ICRC assessments pointing to a "downward trend" in unexplained killings.
But the ICRC, in an extraordinary public criticism, on Wednesday accused the government of misrepresentation.
"Extra-judicial killings and disappearances are part of a terrible pattern of abuse in Sri Lanka which must be stopped," said Jacques de Malo, the ICRC’s South Asia operations chief.
The EU hinted at trade implications if rights abuses continued unabated, warning Sri Lanka was taking "considerable advantage" of lucrative EU duty concessions for the country’s apparel and textile exports.
The so-called GSP+ scheme, due to expire in December this year, helped Sri Lanka net a record $2.9 billion from EU markets last year, representing 37.5 percent of total export income.
"The legal provisions of the GSP+ scheme also spells out the linkage between trade preferences and human rights," the troika said, adding negotiations would depend on "objective criteria".
Sri Lanka’s garments and textile industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of largely rural poor, would be hard hit if the special trade terms are axed.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe accused the EU of dwelling on the negative.
"What we are telling them is we hear you. Don’t only talk about the negative side. Talk about positive side also," he told Reuters, foreshadowing a lobby effort to ease EU concerns.
The troika warning came as Sri Lanka’s military said on Wednesday it had killed 93 Tamil Tiger, or LTTE, rebels in fresh fighting in the past week in the island’s north.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting for an independent state in north and east Sri Lanka, were not immediately available to confirm the toll. (Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez; Editing by Alex Richardson)