The European Union should publicly set out a clear framework with short timelines for Sri Lanka to comply with its human rights commitments and retain tariff-free access to the EU market, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the European Commission this week.
EU pressure over a sharply deteriorating human rights situation has led the Sri Lankan government in recent weeks to promise reforms, but these gestures have been superficial and unreliable. The EU should be clear during the forthcoming GSP+ assessment that concrete improvements, not mere pledges, are urgently needed for Sri Lanka to maintain its trading privileges.
“Under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan government has suppressed civil society, silenced protesters, targeted vulnerable minorities, further misused the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act, and reversed any progress on accountability for war crimes,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should call out these blatant violations of Sri Lanka’s obligations under the GSP+ rules and be clear about the consequences if human rights violations and impunity for war crimes persist.”
In 2017, Sri Lanka rejoined the EU’s GSP+ program, which grants Sri Lankan exporters tariff-free access to the EU market in exchange for ratifying and complying with 27 international conventions, including human rights conventions. At the time of the EU’s previous assessment two years ago, Sri Lanka was already violating those obligations. The government’s rights record under President Rajapaksa has only worsened since then, leading the European Parliament to adopt a resolution in June calling for GSP+ to be withdrawn unless there is sufficient improvement.
A key commitment Sri Lanka made to the EU was to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has enabled torture and lengthy periods of arbitrary detention since it was introduced as a “temporary” measure in 1979. Hundreds of prisoners, most from minority communities, have been held for years under the PTA without trial or judicial oversight, or are serving long sentences following convictions based on evidence obtained under torture.
In June, following the adoption of the European Parliament resolution, Rajapaksa pardoned 16 PTA prisoners who were nearing or had passed the end of their sentences. He has also appointed an “advisory board” that may recommend releasing other prisoners, but such ad hoc measures provide no credible legal protection against ongoing abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The Rajapaksa administration is also reportedly preparing to present EU officials with proposed PTA reforms. But after many years, repeated pledges to take action lack any credibility and would fall short of the need to repeal a law that contravenes fundamental human rights standards, Human Rights watch said.
The Rajapaksa government has rejected United Nations resolutions to promote accountability for past violations, including the EU-backed Human Rights Council resolution 46/1 adopted in March to collect and analyze evidence of international crimes. The authorities have suppressed peaceful protests and the activities of civil society groups. Victims of past abuses and their families, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others are routinely harassed, threatened, and in some cases arbitrarily arrested and detained.
UN rights experts and the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, have repeatedly expressed alarm over rights developments in Sri Lanka. They include the removal of constitutional safeguards; restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression; discrimination and incitement of hatred and violence against minorities; torture and abusive detention conditions; failure to investigate enforced disappearances; increasing militarization; systemic impunity for grave violations; and lack of progress on transitional justice.
The EU should set clear benchmarks for compliance and action, with short timelines for implementation, and send a strong message that Sri Lanka is in breach of its human rights obligations and needs to take concrete, urgent, and meaningful action to keep its GSP+ benefits.
The EU should appropriately use GSP+ to address the deepening human rights crisis in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should also consider UN High Commissioner Bachelet’s recommendation to impose targeted sanctions against individuals implicated in grave violations in Sri Lanka, as provided for by the EU’s Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.
“The EU should insist that the blatantly abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act be repealed immediately, and make it clear that it has had enough of empty pledges from Sri Lanka’s unreliable government,” Leicht said. “The forthcoming GSP+ review is the right time to secure meaningful reforms across the full range of pressing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka.”