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 Politics

A general election and governance that threatens the GSP Plus facility


Ranil Wickremesinghe,
Mahinda Rajapaske, G.L. Peiris
and Rohitha Bogollagama

President ponders mid year general election

UNP offers to give govt. 2/3rd majority
for constitutional amendment on ICCPR

EU tells govt., GSP plus will depend on full
implementation of ICCPR and human rights

Bogollagama says he is handling
GSP Plus but GL says he is

Mangala gets report on MIA soldiers

While President Mahinda Rajapakse was last week considering a snap general election mid year before the full impact of the worsening economic crisis and a possible stalemate in the war hit the people, the opposition geared to put the government to the sword before May Day with plans afoot for a mass agitation campaign which will precipitate a general election before the next budget.

Hitherto the government has survived despite the economic hardships the people were called up to face by marketing the war with assurances that the LTTE will be a thing of the past sooner than later but now with no end in sight in the foreseeable future, the President was forced to take stock of the situation and develop a new political agenda where a snap general election got top billing.

Realisation

For all the propaganda hype generated through the media, the ground reality in the north is that the security forces are finding the going tough with casualty figures also nothing the Commander-In-Chief would want to write home about and it is this realisation which saw the government shifting the goal posts for ending the war last week from April this year to end 2009.

In effect, what the President was looking at was continuing the war well past the budget this year and next and right up to the 2010 general election time table with nothing for the people to look forward to other than more price shocks and insecurity in an environment of war. And more war meant more human and economic costs with the resultant international consequences which will be brought to bear on the administration.

There was of course the possibility of the President going for an early presidential election end 2009 after completing four years in office but that move was also fraught with danger without any success to show on the military and economic fronts, prompting him to look at an early general election.

Escalating military costs

This option the President is seriously considering now given the ground situation which is bound to get worse before it gets better especially on the economic front due to the escalating military costs, with all predictions made earlier of ending the war in April going awry.

For having built up public opinion that the war will end by April, 2008 the government will be hard put to go for an election in 2009 without delivering on that promise and asking for more time, with no guarantees what is in store for Sri Lanka even in the coming months.

In fact no longer is the government saying it will end the war in April or bring down the cost of living soon thereafter with the enormous savings made from ending the war. On the contrary the prospect held out to the people now is more of the same with end 2009 held out as the earliest possible date for ending the conflict.

Thus it is a matter of time before the people begin to realise the call for them to tighten belts and bear the economic hardships till the war is ended will not be a reality in the foreseeable future and it is to prevent the opposition from tapping into this growing disenchantment that the President wants to strike first.

The current thinking of the President, given this reality, as bounced off some confidants is to ride on the public perception the war is being won by  intensifying the battle and hoisting the national flag in some area in the north and then asking for a fresh mandate from the people to finish the job within a year.

Show success

Such a move the President believes will also help the government minimise the negative impact of the economy on the people at the election and not place him in the politically untenable position of having to face another budget vote in November without being able to show substantial success either on the economic or military fronts.

With the JVP also starting an agitation campaign from this week, the President has taken the view that the government will be hard put to pass another budget this year and that if he is forced to go for a general election consequent to a defeat in parliament, it will be disastrous for the ruling alliance.

Further, President Rajapakse knows fully well he is skating on thin ice with regard to securing the GSP Plus facility from the European Union due to the government's failure on the good governance front and if that facility is lost end 2008, not only will it cost the loss of over 100,000 jobs for the garment sector but billions of dollars in export earnings spelling in the process economic disaster not just for the government but for the country as a whole.

Such a nightmare scenario going into an election year in 2009 too the President has told confidants could be devastating for the ruling alliance, whereas an early general election around July will not only help him market the war but stymie the opposition from getting its act together over economic and security issues.

Passing legislation

Of course the President could fulfill the criteria necessary to get the GSP Plus facility by passing the necessary legislation to give effect to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and even score some brownie points by implementing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution to activate the independent commissions, but that he believes will subject the government to more pressure on the human rights front akin to opening the Pandora's Box.

In addition with  an election in mind, the President is not keen to activate the Constitutional Council whereby the Independent Police Commission and the Independent Elections Commission will come into play, believing it will deprive him of much needed political leverage in dealing with the election at grassroot level.

It is with all these objectives in mind that the President last week told the people another 18 months will be needed to end the war, thus setting the stage to seek a mandate for the UPFA on that platform after making a show of capturing some areas in Mannar.

The game plan

The opposition of course is alive to this Presidential game plan and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe discussed the emerging scenario with Party Chairman Rukman Senanayake and SLFP (M) Convener Mangala Samaraweera on Thursday when they met in the corridors of parliament.

Wickremesinghe said the President is boxed in on both the economic and military fronts and plans to go for a snap general election before the people realise they were lulled into a false sense of complacency of ending the war by end March.

"Because of the fear psychosis and the emergency regulations in place, the real ground situation on the war front is not communicated to the people. The government is also facing a severe economic crisis and Mahinda will not be able to fund the war and keep the economy afloat beyond August. Therefore, he is planning to go for an early election so that he does not have a crisis on his hands at the next budget," Wickremesinghe said.

Not disagreeing, Samaraweera said he too had heard of the snap general election thinking at Temple Trees before the economic and military crises cripple the administration and that the opposition should prepare for such an eventuality.

Taken for a ride

"We are getting reports on the number of soldiers reported  missing by family members and that is another issue that must be looked at because the people are being taken for a ride by peddling disinformation while a few are minting money," Samaraweera added.

And bringing an additional dimension to the situation was Rukman Senanayake, who said the public agitation over the non-appointment of the Constitutional Council must also be built up since attempts would be made to manipulate the electoral process by using sections of the police force.

"We must push for the Constitutional Council so that the Independent Elections Commission and the Police Commission  can be activated," he said.

Responded Wickremesinghe: "Yes, let's plan our agitation campaigns with the build-up set for May. We will bring in other political parties and organisations also into the process and make it a mass movement for democracy," Wickremesinghe said.

The UNP Leader also pointed out that President's Counsel, K. N. Choksy had given him an opinion on the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and that the non appointment of the Constitutional Council can be an impeachable offence in that the constitution demands there must be a council in place at all times.

According to the legal opinion given by legal eagle Choksy, in terms of Article 41A (1) of the Constitution, 'there shall (our emphasis) be a Constitutional Council (in this chapter referred to as the 'Council') which shall consist of the following members....." The members of course are the prime minister, speaker, opposition leader, one person appointed by the president, five persons nominated by the premier and opposition leader to be appointed by the president, and one person nominated by the minority parties in parliament.

Reference

And Choksy has also drawn reference to Article 41 (5) which states, "The president shall upon receipt of a written communication of the nominations under sub paragraph (e) or sub paragraph (f) of paragraph (1) of this Article forthwith (our emphasis), make respective appointments." In effect, the president has no discretion in the matter.

Not stopping at that, Choksy had also adverted to Article 41 (H) where it is stated no court shall have the power or jurisdiction to entertain, hear, decide or call into question on any ground whatsoever or in any manner whatsoever, any decision of the council or any recommendation made by the council, which decision, recommendation or approval shall be final and conclusive for all purposes.

Choksy had in referring to this article said decisions of the Constitutional Council were the only decisions which cannot be challenged by a court of law and therefore had a far-reaching impact.

Wickremesinghe by drawing attention to Choksy's opinion said the President does not have discretion on the issue and his refusal to appoint the council can tantamount to an intentional violation of the constitution, which is impeachable.

Nodding his assent Samaraweera said he would prepare an action plan to move the process for democratic action forward while the UNP can also do so, after which they could meet and evolve a joint action programme, a proposal the UNP duo agreed to.

Serious danger

Having discussed the agitation campaign which Wickremesinghe said he will put to the party's Political Affair's Committee later on Thursday, February 21, the subject of the GSP Plus facility was taken up, with the UNP Leader stressing the serious danger Sri Lanka faces of losing out due to the government's failure on good governance issues and enacting legislation to give effect to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Wickremesinghe said the garment industry sources had made representations to him on the devastating impact the withdrawal of the GSP Plus facility will have not just on the industry and the loss of over 100,000 jobs but the overall economy when it comes to foreign exchange earnings. The UNP Leader said it was of paramount importance to address this issue without leaving the fate of the industry and the economy in Minister G.L. Peiris' hands.

The UNP Leader further said he would seek party approval to give the government the required two third majority in parliament to introduce a constitutional amendment for the enforcement of the ICCPR, thereby bringing Sri Lanka into the GSP Plus net.

In fact, the very day at the Political Affairs Committee, Wickremesinghe explained the concerns of the garment industry on the GSP Plus facility and obtained approval to support a constitutional amendment to enforce it, a decision he later communicated to several ambassadors representing the EU countries.

Economic well-being

The UNP has decided to give the government the required two third majority for a constitutional amendment to give effect to the ICCPR and now it is up to the government," Wickremesinghe told an European ambassador.

The UNP Leader told the Political Affairs Committee earlier the GSP Plus was essential for Sri Lanka's economic well being and not an issue for the party to play politics with irrespective of President Rajapakse's insincerity in dealing with the opposition.

The problem for Sri Lanka however is the President's reluctance to introduce a constitutional amendment to give effect to the ICCPR based on advise given by Minister Peiris that it was not necessary to do so, a point Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama disagrees with leading to a major tussle between the two.

The impact this tussle was having on Sri Lanka receiving the GSP Plus was best reflected at the Foreign Affairs Consultative Committee meeting in parliament last week when UNP MP, Ravi Karunanayake broached the subject.

Stressing the seriousness of losing the GSP plus facility, Karunanayake asked Bogollagama, whose ministry was dealing with the issue and pat came the reply, 'mine.'

Not satisfied, Karunanayake said there were other ministers who are claiming to handle the issue for the President, a charge Minister Bogollagama dismissed stating it was a matter entirely under the purview of the Foreign Ministry.

Bogollagama went on to say Foreign Ministry official Ravinatha Ariyasinghe was the ambassador designate to Brussels and that he would deal with the issue in consultation with the Foreign Ministry, a view not necessarily shared by the President. The President had in fact made it known that Minister G.L. Peiris will deal with the issue and told industry sources, he was assured by Peiris on the strength of statements made by the EU Ambassador Julian Wilson, the GSP Plus facility will not be lost.

Reservations

However while stating so publicly, privately the President was to express reservations given the government's decision not to proceed with a constitutional amendment to give effect to the ICCPR, fearing repercussions on the human rights front.

This in fact the President hinted is one major reason why he wants to first go for a general election before it became decision time in the EU on the GSP Plus.

As far as the European Union is concerned they have made it clear to both the government and the opposition, getting the GSP Plus facility is a matter entirely in the hands of Sri Lanka and subject to enacting the necessary laws in keeping with the EU rules. The GSP Plus, diplomats explained is a trade concession given by the EU to Sri Lanka for the effective duty free import of over 7000 products into the EU market.

This facility which is up for renewal end 2008 was given to only 15 countries worldwide and gave Sri Lanka a huge competitive edge in the European markets, especially when it came to garments.

Up for renewal

That facility was extended to Sri Lanka in 2005 and has helped in no small measure to boost the country's flagging economy with export earnings valued at over US$2 billion, providing for over 100,000 jobs.

The GSP Plus is now coming up for renewal for the period 2009-2011 and each country including Sri Lanka must reapply and as explained by the EU to the government is a technical exercise where Sri Lanka has to ratify and effectively implement 27 international conventions on labour rights, environment, good governance and human rights.

'We have looked at the GSP Plus law and the review exercise looks at ratification, national implementing legislation, effective implementation on the ground  and scale of violations of rights under the conventions. If a country has complied with these conditions, GSP Plus will be granted. If not, GSP Plus will not be granted,' one of the top experts who had studied the issue told this columnist.

Interestingly, the EU has informed the government in unambiguous terms, it clearly hopes GSP Plus will continue in Sri Lanka as it has been good for EU-Sri Lanka relations but that the EU's desire is neither here nor there.

Fair and technical

"The EU has very publicly stated that renewal of GSP Plus is entirely up to the Sri Lankan government. If the government effectively implements the 27 conventions GSP Plus will be renewed. The GOSL, WTO and Sri Lanka's competitors are watching this renewal closely so EU is being scrupulous to show it is impartial, fair and technical in its procedures so as to avoid litigation from one side or another," the government has been told by the EU.

In fact, it was pointed out countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh which are in competition with Sri Lanka for the European market are watching the situation closely and if Sri Lanka is afforded the facility without implementing the ICCPR, then they too would ask for the facility on the same premise, making it untenable for the EU.

The government has been further told, in Sri Lanka it appears that most of the conventions' rights seem available to the citizens but there were serious problems on the human rights' conventions cited under the GSP Plus.

Minister Peiris who has dealt on the issue with several EU ambassadors was specifically told  to get the government to address the two specific aspects cited below if  Sri Lanka is to secure the GSP Plus facility.

They are as follows:

1. The Sri Lanka Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that 'the rights under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are not rights under the laws of Sri Lanka. The government issued a new law to plug this gap. But the UN has  indicated this law is insufficient to assure compliance with ICCPR. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in October 2007 stated that 'The government's proposed legislation to address this problem tabled in parliament (ICCPR Bill adopted by Parliament in 2007) only partially addresses the issues and risk confusing further the status of different rights in national law." The Supreme Court has not issued any reversal of its decision of 2006.

2. There are strong grounds for stating that Human Rights Conventions are not being implemented effectively. None has been charged in the 15 high profile human rights abuse cases being examined by the Commission of Inquiry. The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) is ceasing its operations because the Commission of Inquiry falls short of international norms and standards. Various UN special rapporteurs and special representatives on human rights have visited Sri Lanka in the  last two years. Each reports serious violations of human rights in Sri Lanka.

It is these two factors that the government has to address if the GSP Plus facility is to be renewed and time is fast running out.

With that said the EU has been working closely with the government on how it can strengthen its application to renew the GSP Plus but has indicated to the likes of G.L. Peiris and Rohitha Bogollagama that no concrete action has been seen from the administration so far.

Simply put, the government has been told that if the actions stipulated above or other actions to improve the situation are not taken, there is a real possibility the GSP Plus facility will be stopped and with it of course will come immeasurable economic hardship.

Thus, the President's current thinking is to cut his  losses and seek a fresh mandate before the economic noose suffocates the people and take the stuffing off the government.  


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