Monday 1 March 2010
Brisbane’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission urged the Federal Government to take a stronger position on human rights violations in Sri Lanka in the wake of the European Union’s announcement of its plan to withdraw preferential trade benefits to the South Asian country in six months unless human rights concerns are addressed.
Sri Lanka benefits from trade concessions in the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+), an incentive scheme tied to the improvement of human rights and good governance. The scheme provides tariff cuts to support vulnerable developing countries.
The European Union has repeatedly warned Sri Lanka that it must meet 27 international human rights conventions to retain its GSP Plus status.
Sri Lanka’s textile and clothing industry earned $3.47 billion in export income from the European Union in 2008. Suspension of the tariff benefit foreshadowed by the February 16 announcement by the European Union could seriously affect the industry.
The Justice and Peace Commission’s Executive officer, Peter Arndt, said that the Australian Government should add its voice to those of many other Western nations who have expressed serious concerns about the treatment of Tamils during and since the final stages of the conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers last year.
“The treatment of Tamil civilians by both the Tigers and the military during the final stages of the conflict last year was appalling,” Mr Arndt said.
“Tamil civilians were killed and injured in great numbers by actions on both sides,” he said.
“Since the end of the conflict, the Sri Lankan Government received repeated criticisms from many quarters for its treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils it detained in camps in the north of the country,” he said.
“Under pressure from the international community, the Sri Lankan Government accelerated the release of detainees late last year, but over 100000 people are still in the camps,” he said.
“Credible reports indicate that camp conditions are squalid,” he said.
“Despite claims of freedom of movement for those in camps, the truth is that people cannot leave without gaining approval and they must report regularly to police,” he said.
“For those who have returned to their home area, there appears to be little support or income,” he said.
“Throughout the whole of this period, the Government has restricted the capacity of international aid and human rights organisations to monitor the treatment of Tamil civilians,” he said.
“Journalists and critics of the Government, including Serath Fonseka who ran in the recent presidential elections, are arrested on what appear to be trumped up charges, are killed or simply disappear,” he said.
“The International Crisis Group is one of many respected international organisations which have released reports and statements expressing grave concerns about the treatment of Tamils and critics of the Government,” he said.
“The International Crisis Group issued a report recently calling for the Sri Lankan Government to address the legitimate Tamil concerns about systematic discrimination against them,” he said.
“The European Union’s threat of removal of trade benefits is part of a very loud and prolonged chorus of concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka and Australia must join efforts to put an end to this dreadful state of affairs,” he said.
“We in the Church in Australia should also heed the cries of those who suffer in Sri Lanka and the concerns expressed by the Church in that country,” he said.
“On the same day as the European Union announcement, the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka said there was a loss of faith in the democratic process and just governance,” he said.
“They called for the country’s political leaders to respect the rule of law and human rights and to uphold the principles of reconciliation, forgiveness, freedom of media, freedom of speech and the right to dissent,” he said.
For further information, please contact Peter Arndt on (07) 3336 9173 or 0409 265 476.