Is Yahapalanaya trapped in CNN Effect?
European Commission (EC) last Thursday proposed to restore the special concessions under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP Plus) facility to Sri Lanka, probably the only silver line in sight amongst many dark clouds that are looming over the current Unity Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
However, the removal of customs duties would be accompanied by rigorous monitoring and conditional on continued commitment to sustainable development, human rights and good governance.
Announcing its decision EC said "that a significant part of the remaining import duties on Sri Lankan products should be removed by the European Union in exchange for the country's commitment to ratify and effectively implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour conditions, protection of the environment and good governance. These one-way trade preferences would consist of the full removal of duties on 66% of tariff lines, covering a wide array of products including textiles and fisheries."
Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said: "GSP+ preferences can make a significant contribution to Sri Lanka's economic development by increasing exports to the EU market. But this also reflects the way in which we want to support Sri Lanka in implementing human rights, rule of law and good governance reforms. I am confident of seeing timely and substantial further progress in these areas and the GSP+ dialogue and monitoring features will support this reform process. This should include making Sri Lankan counter-terrorism legislation fully compatible with international human rights conventions.
Granting access to the GSP+ scheme does not mean that the situation of the beneficiary country with respect to the 27 international conventions is fully satisfactory. Instead, it offers the incentive of increased trade access in return for further progress towards the full implementation of those conventions, and provides a platform for engagement with beneficiaries on all problematic areas. As is the case for all GSP+ countries, the removal of customs duties for Sri Lanka would be accompanied with rigorous monitoring of the country's progress in the area of sustainable development, human rights and good governance."
Sri Lanka had already benefited from GSP+ in the past. In 2010, the EU decided, however, to stop the preferential treatment for Sri Lankan imports due to the failure to address reported human rights violations in the country. In 2015, the new Government of Sri Lanka set out a path of major reforms aiming for national reconciliation, respect of human rights, the rule of law and good governance principles, as well as sustainable economic development. The Sri Lankan Government applied for GSP+ in July 2016 and the Commission's assessment has concluded that it met the GSP+ entry criteria set out in the EU Regulation.
Sri Lanka has taken important steps to improve the respect of human rights and extend good governance, EC observed.
"A significant development is the 19th Constitutional Amendment, which re-establishes the independence of key institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission. Sri Lanka has also taken concrete actions among other things: ensure cases of missing persons are examined; offer better protection of witnesses and victims; release persons detained under controversial anti-terrorism regulations; combat child labour. Sri Lanka has also re-engaged with the UN system, in particular the UN Human Rights Council, where it has made commitments to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights. Moreover, Sri Lanka has achieved most of its Millennium Development Goals, especially in health, education and gender equality."
At the same time, more needs to be done to improve on issues of concern. Sri Lanka must ensure its counter-terrorism legislation is fully in line with international human rights conventions. As a matter of priority, it must put a definitive stop to the use of torture by security forces and the related impunity. The government must also see through policy and legislative processes to improve the rights of women and children, for example with regard to discrimination, domestic violence, minimum age of marriage, sexual exploitation, as well as harassment of trade unions. All of these issues would be subject to GSP+ monitoring to ensure that positive progress continues to be made.
The EU is Sri Lanka's biggest export market accounting for nearly one-third of Sri Lanka's global exports. In 2015, total bilateral trade amounted to €4.7 billion. EU imports from Sri Lanka amounted to €2.6 billion and consisted mainly of textiles as well as rubber products and machinery.
There are currently 8 GSP+ beneficiaries: Armenia, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Paraguay and the Philippines.
Drought is acute
While Sri Lanka's hopes rise on increased Forex with possible resumption of GSP +, the drought country is facing, worst since 1973-74 period, may have greater impact on the GDP at the end of the year with agriculture in at least 13 districts affected.
Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy was quoted in media as saying that Sri Lanka's economy which is expected to expand 5.5 – 6.0% in 2017, up from an estimated 4.5 – 5.0% last year, but downside risks remain, particularly, from the drought.
Inflation will remain in the mid-single digits, around 4-6%, he said in a speech on the Central Bank's monetary and financial sector policies for 2017.
"In particular, if current drought conditions prevail, there could be adverse implications on price levels, while impacting economic activities, notably agriculture and power generation," he noted.
It is not only the economy that would suffer if dry weather conditions to continue for the next few months, but it was also warned that social crises too may occur.
Deputy Minister of Mass Media and Parliamentary Reforms Karunarathna Paranavithana on Friday said social conflicts can arise in the next few weeks.
"There were already rumblings about farmers threatening to cut tank bunds to get water. In the past, droughts have resulted in conflicts over access to wells and streams. The drought could get acute from January to March, until rain comes in April," he noted.
Paranavithana's remarks comes at a time President Sirisena, taking into consideration the gravity of the situation, deploying members of the three armed forces to assist the public officials in providing relief measures to affected people. This will be monitored and coordinated by Presidential Task Force appointed all relevant ministers.
With water levels receding remarkably due to prevailing weather conditions hydro power generation may limit till February, the government warned.
At present, the major reservoirs hold only an average 27 per cent of their capacities, while medium-scale reservoirs contain less than 30 per cent, officials said.
Monsoonal and off-season rains failed to appear last year and the heavy rains in May and November were not enough to meet the total water requirement of the year.
The Ministry of Power and Energy said the remaining water in major reservoirs could not be utilized completely on hydro power generation as there should be a balance allocation for providing potable water to people and released for agrarian purposes.
The demand for drinking water has meanwhile, gone up by 15%, National Water Supply and Drainage Board said.
The government on Friday urged the public to be economical when consuming water and electricity as uninterrupted provisions may get hindered if the dry weather continued for three more months.
The Department of Irrigation has stopped issuing water for cultivation as drinking water has taken priority.
Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) last week warned that Sri Lanka is moving towards a major power crisis if appropriate action in not taken by 2018.
"Under drought conditions, even with planned plant additions, Sri Lanka faces energy capacity shortages in 2018-2019 and beyond," PUCSL has warned the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB)
PUCSL stated that depending on the Norochcholai coal-fired power plant is not practical (due to its regular black outs) and this in turn will lead to capacity shortages in 2018 and 2019.
Power and Energy Ministry Spokesperson however, assured there will be no power cuts even though hydro power generation may get hindered as government is planning on buying electricity from 'other sources'.
"Two out of three Power Plants in Norochcholai is in action now and the phase one which went under routine repairs will resume power generation once it is tested within next two to three days," he added.
In less than 24-hours of EC announcing the restoration of GSP Plus concession would be accompanied by rigorous monitoring and conditional on continued commitment to sustainable development, human rights and good governance, Human Rights Watch in its latest report alleged that recommendations of the UN human rights resolution remained largely unimplemented by the Sri Lanka Government.
Sri Lanka acted to address some longstanding demands for accountability and political reconciliation linked to the 27-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in 2009. The government conducted two public consultations, one on constitutional reform and another on implementing an October 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on transitional justice.
Although the government, elected in January 2015, did not deliver all reformist promises made during the election campaign, media and civil society groups in the country largely enjoyed continued freedom from surveillance, harassment, and attacks. A long-promised Right to Information Bill was enacted in June 2016. There was some progress on emblematic cases linked to the civil war, such as the murder of a prominent newspaper editor, the enforced disappearance of a political cartoonist, and the killing of five youths by State security forces in the eastern district of Trincomalee, the report stated.
"However, despite its pledges, the government failed to abolish the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and instead used the preventive detention law during a series of arrests in April and May. A draft version of a law intended to replace the PTA retained many problematic clauses including troubling expansions of police powers. The government's unwillingness to consult adequately before enacting legislation to establish a permanent Office of Missing Persons damaged public trust during the transitional justice process.
The newly appointed Constitutional Council moved rapidly through the year to appoint members to the National Human Rights Commission and the Police Commission, and is expected to continue to work towards restoring the independence of other public service commissions."
In October 2015, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a consensus resolution in which Sri Lanka pledged to undertake many human rights reforms, including resolving the many transitional justice demands arising out of the civil war. Under the resolution, Sri Lanka promised to establish four transitional justice mechanisms, including a special court "integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators" with an independent investigative and prosecuting body. The resolution also called for an office on missing and disappeared persons, a truth-telling mechanism, and a mechanism designed to guarantee non-recurrence and reparations.
A government task force designed to hold public consultations nationally on the four transitional justice mechanisms was slow to get off the ground. Shortly after, the government announced a framework to create an office to discover the fate of those missing and forcibly disappeared, leading to an outcry over inadequate public consultations. This lack of trust has marred the ongoing public consultations on the other three mechanisms.
The government failed to properly implement important recommendations to improve the human rights situation in the country, including a repeal of the PTA and reforms to the Witness and Victim Protection Law. Other undertakings, such as broader reform of the security sector and return of private lands confiscated by the military, were halting at best. An update from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2016 mentioned the need for greater progress, and was due to provide a more comprehensive report to the Human Rights Council in early 2017.
"Senior members of government continued issuing contradictory statements on the need to have international participation in the four transitional justice mechanisms, with the President and Prime Minister both claiming these would be wholly domestic processes, contrary to the Human Rights Council Resolution."
Fishing in troubled waters
While HRW Report remains open for debate, its reference on members of the government issuing contradictory statements is apt as majority of crises or alleged crises incumbent Yahapalana Government is facing at present were due to contradictions.
Be it about Volkswagen assembling plant in Kuliyapitiya or constitutional reforms, more than the matter in hand, what gets highlighted is the confusion or contradictions amongst different members of the same government.
While SLFPers say that President Sirisena is going to contest for the second time another group denies it. What is noteworthy is that Sirisena himself has not opened his mouth on the matter, yet.
When the Finance Minister announced government's plans to grant temporary residence visa up to five years for foreigners who deposit more than US$ 300,000 in local banks, another Cabinet Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe ridiculed the move by saying only beggars will come.
However, these developments have only provided ample ammunition for the Opposition members to rant on. Inefficiency of the propaganda mechanism of the Yahapalana Government, especially of the President and the Prime Minister's, despite having media units in numbers, has thus far failed to effectively communicate with the public.
Failure to take positive messages to public and miscalculated communication by the government propaganda mechanism has only contributed in further damage.
In short, Yahapalana Government of President and Prime Minister has become a victim of CNN Effect – a theory that relates how stories published in the media influence or amplify current trends.
"Until 1977, the country was used to governments of five years. Then came the era where a government would at least lasts for two decades. Also, before 1977, media was not this vibrant. Today, media has evolved to an extent where even public feels they should know all the views of different parties to a problem. And, with Yahapalanaya, where a journalist could pose questions to politicians without any fear, we witness opinions of different people and political parties are being sought, even on minor matters. It is at this juncture that contradictory statements on the same topic pops out," a political analyst opined.
When two parties compete with each other for more than a half a decade, it is not surprising that contradictory views on the same topic are expressed.
"On one hand you have SLFP members who are facing a threat of losing its vote bank to former rulers in an imminent threat of them splitting from the party. On the other hand, you have members who were in the Opposition for almost twenty years and they are competing with each other to gain what they could not in twenty years. While these podiyans engage in attacks and counter attacks, it is noteworthy that the top brass of the Yahapalana Government and parties which supported it to power remain more composed. It seems while others react in haste, those who have a clear idea as to what this whole thing is going to end up as, remain calm," he said.
Economists have already opined that if the Hambantota Port Project and Colombo Financial City go as planned it will have major positive impact on the debt crisis the government is facing.
Despite being provoked at many occasions, former President Rajapaksa has so far not given a clear answer as to why he went for an election two years in advance. Nevertheless, it is clear that the debt and economic crises the previous government was heading for, led to this decision. They may also aware that if Hambantota Port Project goes ahead they might also lose the spotlight.
The knowledge of where the economy may finally be heading may have provoked President Sirisena to publicly demand from the Prime Minister to give the development project to Polonnaruwa if Hambatota people do not want it.
While, some Tamil politicians like Suresh Premachandran are provoked by remarks made on constitutional reforms by certain SLFP ministers to the effect of not approving power sharing, TNA MPs like R. Sampanthan and M. Sumanthiran continue to trust the process, because it is they who know what actually is taking place.
In December 2015, there was a massive opposition by farmers and vested interest groups when the government took measures to stop issuing fertilizer as subsidies and replaced it with giving funds. Similarly, there was a big confusion when the Education Ministry decided to replace issuing uniform materials with vouchers. However, as the public got used to it these protests automatically subdued.
While, there were grouses for many years about school Grade1 admission and how corrupt it is, the first step to end such corruption was started by Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and his ministry officials from no less a school than Royal College, the alma mater of the Prime Minister.
It is however, not fair, to judge as to how each runner is going to end the 5,000 metre race at the first 200 metres or 400 metres. Those who run faster at the beginning may drop out of the race half way through and those who are seemingly weak may end the race in a dignified manner.
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