GSP+: economy + social gains | Sunday Observer

GSP+: economy + social gains

Economic development is the biggest gain being celebrated after the European Parliament last Thursday voted overwhelmingly to endorse the renewal of the GSP+ concessions facility for Sri Lanka’s vital trade with the lucrative European market. But, while government and business celebrate, the ordinary citizen would be forgiven if she or he also celebrates the social and political gains built into the GSP linkage with Sri Lanka that is now set to resume after a lapse of six years.

In economic terms, the GSP+ facility will, once again, provide Sri Lanka with special concessional rates of import duties and special facilitation of Sri Lankan imports into the European Union’s giant ‘Common Market’. The GSP+ trade facility is offered by the EU to developing countries to support development of trade that will contribute to economic growth as well as social upliftment. It is offered in a graded manner depending on the country's need, with the poorest countries receiving the most concessions.

Sri Lanka, now a lower-middle income country, still enjoyed a level of concessions until the GSP+ facility was withdrawn by the EU when Sri Lanka’s then Government failed to meet certain standards of labour and human rights, good governance and, social equity that the GSP+ facility requires the beneficiary country to maintain. Worsening social and political conditions arising out of the ethnic conflict, but also the violations of basic human rights and labour rights under an increasingly repressive regime at the time, had been noted by the EU in its regular appraisals of GSP+ progress.

The EU repeatedly advised the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime that with failure to meet social and governance standards, Sri Lanka could not qualify to remain as a GSP+ beneficiary.

When Sri Lanka re-applied to the EU for a resumption of GSP+ with the onset of the National Unity coalition government in January 2015, Brussels agreed to consider renewal of GSP+ if Colombo worked to improve social and human rights conditions and governance in a manner that would enable Sri Lanka to match those basic requirements of the GSP+ facility.

What are these country conditions that needed improvement? They are nothing more or, less, than the very same issues that we, Sri Lankans – if in differing ways – have been raising over recent decades as conditions worsened around us. Both, blue and white collar labour has seen its rights eroded and its organizational strength reduced, ethnic minorities have experienced continued marginalization and communal hostilities, women remained subject to gender discrimination, while the general socio-political degradation had seen a rise in child abuse. Of course, there are a myriad other issues of socio-political injustice and ecological degradation, but the GSP+ social standards bottom-line only focussed on some.

The few points of human and labour rights, ethnic justice and reconciliation that required addressing under GSP+ standards are only the very salient problems currently being addressed by the Government. It has also had to manage continued post-war communal suspicions and tensions even as it also had to focus on other parts of the world, as the country strove to escape the geo-political straitjacket of Rajapaksa dependence on a single great power in foreign relations.

What the resumption of the GSP+ requires is that the Government adheres to its program of repair of the corruption-ridden and authoritarian political system to ensure more democracy and good governance on the one hand, and, on the other, a reform of repressive laws, redressing of human rights and ethnic rights violations and, continued protection of labour rights, especially those of women.

The EU now waits to see evidence of progress in the above as it prepares to induct Sri Lanka back into the GSP+ circle. On the one hand, the Government has already begun the reform and repeal of laws that had been enacted, under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’, to weaken the citizens’ rights and capacities to monitor and resist corrupt, authoritarian governance and oligarchic family rule. Thus, even aspects of the criminal justice system are being re-designed to ensure the fair treatment of all citizens and prevent future abuse of power to target people, especially, to silence critics.

The working conditions of women as well as the access of women to political and social power are also being addressed by the Government in its effort to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of social development and, at the same time, meet the requirements of GSP+.

Workers will appreciate the renewed commitment of the Government to protecting labour rights and, more, to ensure that the new profits gained from GSP+ export concessions are shared with the labour force. Already, Government ministers have called on business to take heed of the EU’s requirements to ensure that the benefits Europe offers to poorer countries genuinely reach the masses.

Ethnic chauvinists and unscrupulous political opportunists are raising the communal bogey over the aspect of inter-ethnic peace-building that is inherent in the ‘democracy building’ dimension of GSP+ requirements. However, there is no specific policy or concrete task imposed by the EU in this regard. All that is required is that inter-ethnic relations are brought in line with other standards of democracy and good governance. Thus, if equality and harmony between all communities requires a consolidation of the devolved democratic system, then it is up to Sri Lankans, under the leadership of their Government, to work to ensure that that aspect, too, is addressed.

The renewal of GSP+ will be an opportunity to renew our country’s role as a player in the global market even as we enjoy the social gains of citizenship to which our Government is committed to achieving under that same GSP+.