COLOMBO // Thursday was not a good day for Sri Lanka: the United States said it had accepted a labour organisation's request to probe workers' rights issues in the country, and the European Union lent its backing to a UN panel examining the country's human-rights record. Adding to Colombo's woes, an EU deadline for the government to provide written guidelines to implement conditions for the extension of zero-duty imports into Europe ended on Thursday.
"It was missiles raining all over," said a senior economist working at a local think-tank who spoke on condition of anonymity. The external affairs minister, G L Peiris, had rejected the call for a "written undertaking" from the EU and denounced the UN panel as unwarranted. The EU ambassador in Colombo, Bernard Savage, said on Thursday that the July 1 date on the written guidelines was flexible. "Even if the government responds by Monday [July 5] we are prepared to accept it," he said by telephone.
The government has yet to respond to the US decision on workers' rights, which involves whether Sri Lanka has met the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) eligibility criteria related to workers' rights. The preference system is designed to promote economic growth in the developing world. Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan ambassador and permanent representative at the UN in Geneva, said of the AFL-CIO, the US organisation that filed the petition, that it "traditionally exercises a huge influence on the Democratic Party, its senators and congressmen.
"If we lose our access to the important US market, on top of losing the EU market, our economy and more importantly our working people and their living standards will be badly affected," he said in an e-mail. The US Embassy in Colombo said in a statement that a public hearing is likely to be held next month to discuss the workers' rights issues raised in the petition, adding that the Sri Lankan government will be invited to participate in the hearing.
The UN Panel on Human Rights appointed last week triggered a furore in Colombo with Wimal Weerawansa, a cabinet minister who represents one of the coalition partners in the government, cajoling the public to surround the UN office in Colombo as a protest against the appointment of the panel. He made the call at a press conference on Wednesday, which drew a response the following day from the government - in a statement - that Mr Weerawansa's view was his own and did not reflect that of the government.
Also on Thursday, Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, issued a statement welcoming the UN Panel and urging the government to fully co-operate. JC Weliamuna, a human-rights lawyer and executive director at the Colombo office of Transparency International, lamented the lack of diplomacy in Sri Lanka's dealing with the international community. "We need to display a sense of diplomacy and tact in our response," he said. "We need to save both trade pacts with the EU and the US, and we can do it. Unfortunately the president is ill-advised by a set of incompetent advisers and politically motivated persons, and is going by this advise," he said, declining to name the individuals.
"I am sure if the president gets good advice he can win over the international community like winning the war." President Mahinda Rajapaksa's armed forces crushed the Tamil rebels in May last year, ending a 30-year-long battle by rebels to set up an independent homeland for minority Tamils. Since then, Mr Rajapaksa has come under intense pressure from the West to respond to allegations that there were large-scale civilian casualties during the last stages of the conflict. He has repeatedly denied the claims and rejected any attempt by the international community to launch a war-crimes probe.