Even as Colombo hinted at plans to resettle nearly one lakh of the 2.5 lakh war displaced, currently housed in relief camps in the North, by mid October, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollogama on Thursday raised the issues related to GSP Plus concession to the island nation with the EU.
On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Mr. Bogollagama urged the European Commission to show greater sympathy to the ground reality and engage with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government on a wider agenda rather than embark on an “investigative process” on issues of cooperation.
Major-General Kamal Gunaratne, the Competent Authority for the nearly 2.5 lakh war displaced, said steps were being taken to send at least 45,000 residents of Jaffna and 5,000 residents of the Eastern Province to their original villages in the coming days.
He said the displaced from the districts of Mannar and Vavuniya would also be resettled shortly. Major-General Gunaratne said pregnant mothers, the disabled, the sick and the elderly had also been permitted to leave with their relatives.
For those remaining in the camps, a monsoon-proof contingency plan was in place and the those likely to b affected would be shifted to government buildings.
A statement from the Foreign Ministry said discussing the EU-Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus review process, Mr. Bogollagama expressed concern on Sri Lanka having to fulfil changing expectations in order to retain the preferential trading terms on 7,200 items when he met Javiar Solana, Secretary-General of the Council of the EU.
The current EU GSP-plus concessions to Sri Lanka are to be reviewed in October and the subject has become a bone of contention between Colombo and Brussels. The government is faced with a major dilemma as withdrawal of the EU facility directly affects lives of 2.5 lakh workers in the garment and apparel sector.
The EU had given a list of questions on rights issues and had wanted to send a mission to the island to investigate allegations of human rights violations during the final stages of fighting between government forces and the LTTE which ended in May this year.
Colombo has said a firm “no” to the EU proposal to send a mission for investigations into Colombo’s compliance with the requirements of the GSP-plus concession on the ground that it was an affront to its sovereignty and dignity.
The zero duty for 7,200 Lanka products under the EU GSP Plus mainly benefits the country’s garment sector, which accounts for about 50 per cent of the country’s total exports.
EU is the second largest garment buyer for Sri Lanka, importing about 35 per cent of the apparels produced here.
In his interaction with EU representatives, Mr. Bogollagama said the Commissioners should be advised to engage with countries rather than embark on an investigative process on issues of cooperation and should seek to visit Sri Lanka as had been done by the EU political leadership.
“Secretary-General Solana acknowledged that Sri Lanka had completed the critical phase by defeating terrorism but there were related issues which needed to be addressed. He said that the displaced must return to their areas of habitat. He hoped that the GSP Plus review process will have a positive outcome through concerted engagement on the part of Sri Lanka and the EU,” said the statement.
In another development, a senior government official here described the U.S. State Department report on the war in Sri Lanka, presented to U.S. Congress on Monday, as a violation of the rights and sovereignty of the island nation.
The official said it was presented without giving Sri Lanka the right of being heard on the report prior to being presented.
“The contents of the report are not clear. But what is clear is that no U.S. official had visited the warfront during the last and concluding stages nor were anyone else able to visit in view of the dangers of being caught in the crossfire”.
“It would not be difficult to surmise that the report would be based invariably on hearsay material, third party reports of pro-LTTE outfits and media hypes such as the London Times report in May 2009 of 2,000 civilians being killed daily, without its reporter having had any access to the war zone,” he said.