Sri Lanka currently finds itself in the grip of the executive powers of a controlling president. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and a declining economy, the government, political opposition parties and civil society in Sri Lanka have become entangled in a politico-constitutional debate that has substantial implications for the democratic future of this Indian Ocean nation.
In November 2019, Sri Lanka’s former wartime defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, part of the country’s most powerful political dynasty and brother of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015), won the presidential elections with 52,25% of the vote. The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known for his nationalistic and authoritarian leanings, while still facing allegations of corruption and torture, raised fears about the future of human rights and religious harmony in the country.
Sri Lanka is now heading for parliamentary elections on 05 August 2020, but not without several postponements. The postponement of the election has caused constitutional uncertainties, as Article 70 of Sri Lanka’s constitution states that a general election must be held and a new parliament summoned within three months of the dissolution of the former parliament. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has refused to recall the old parliament which he suspended six months ahead of the end of the parliamentary term.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, the European Union (EU) was planning to deploy an electoral observer mission to Sri Lankan. In its annual report on “Human Rights and Democracy in the World” for 2019, the EU notes that Sri Lanka has failed to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which was one of the key commitments made by Sri Lanka to secure a favourable trading relationship under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+).
The report notes that the PTA, which enables detentions without charge, has not been replaced despite Sri Lanka’s commitment to do so under GSP+ and UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1. The Rajapaksa government chose to retain the current legislation and to withdraw the proposed counter-terror legislation. The EU maintains that the continued use of the PTA remains a serious issue of concern. Furthermore, the Rajapaksa administration has since disavowed commitments made under UN Resolution 30/1.
Fifty-eight percent of Sri Lanka’s exports benefit from the EU’s GSP+ scheme and Europe remains Sri Lanka’s largest export market. In 2010 Sri Lanka lost the benefits conferred to it under the GSP+ scheme due to its human rights record but this was reinstated in 2017. In 2018 exports to the EU grew 5%. The reinstatement of GSP+ in 2017 was met with widespread criticism from human rights organisations and Tamil civil society.
In February 2020, the European Union tweeted that the renewal of GSP+ trade preferences for Sri Lanka was not “automatic”, warning that it was related to the “effective implementation of 27 international conventions, related to human and labour rights, environment and good governance”. A statement from Sri Lankan Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, says his government was assured GSP+ tax concessions until 2023 following his meeting with European diplomats.
The EU will publish its biennial report on Sri Lanka later this year. The country is expected to have met a series of targets including repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), bringing torturers to justice and returning land to civilians in former conflict zones.
The EU will be monitoring Sri Lanka’s responsibilities and elections very closely.
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