Just because you’re paranoid…
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was posted on The Agonist on September 30 2009. It still seems relevant following David Cameron’s visit in November 2013.
One can detect something of a siege mentality in Sri Lanka. There is a strong feeling that, after winning a long and brutal war, the country’s independence is threatened by unfair criticism from abroad. An important element in this is in the complex relationship with INGOs (International Non-governmental Organizations).
Susantha Goonatilake called his book on foreign-funded NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonization.
In his conclusion he wrote:”Sri Lankan NGOs emerged in the late 1970s when the then government cracked down on democracy, transparency and accountability and killed locally-grown civil society… Sri Lanka thus became a partial NGO franchise state, with the NGOs attempting to erode the country’s sovereignty …The NGOs are now being squeezed and widely criticised, not only by the media, but also through massive street protests and countrywide posters. The coming years will see an outcome of the struggle between real civil society and foreign-funded NGOs. This struggle, which is partly between a reconciliation agenda and local voices, echoes Sri Lanka’s 500-year-old struggle with western colonial powers.”
There is a common resentment among Sri Lankans about the perceived arrogance of NGOs and the foreign correspondents that rely on them for access and information.
Gomin Dayasri has written about this: ”It’s a stopover in paradise for a Foreign Correspondent to live majestically on his overseas allowance. Such comfortable digs are not in the market in the recession-stung home country. There is exotic food and groovy watering holes at affordable prices. NGOs provide the freebies and roll out the red carpet…With the LTTE gone where they will go? After a few more horror stories to demean the Security Forces and back to the west to face the shock treatment of recession. War is an investment relief to the Foreign Correspondent. The order will soon come to pack the flak jackets and return to a not so sweet home and to wait patiently for a call to another exotic destination?”
I used to wonder why the Sri Lanka government was so paranoid about NGOs and foreign criticism. It seemed a bit crass to seek international help and get all huffy about foreign interference.
During the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), to the outside world it would have seemed that the Norwegian facilitators were doing a difficult job in trying to bring peace to the war-torn island and getting very little thanks for it.
The leader of the Norwegian team was Erik Solheim, currently Norway’s International Development Minister. He recently called on the UN to investigate charges of war crimes in Sri Lanka, following the screening of a video on Channel 4 purporting to show Sri Lankan soldiers shooting unarmed Tamils. The Sri Lanka government claims that the video has been proved to be a fake.
The interrogation of Kumaran Padmanathan aka ”˜KP’, the LTTE’s arms procurer caught over two months ago, is helping to expose an international network that kept the Tigers in fighting trim. It has been revealed that the Norwegian government helped the LTTE to establish relations with Eritrea, which allowed the group to purchase arms, ammunition and equipment from China on Eritrean end-user certificates and other documents. Erik Solheim had been directly involved in forming the Eritrean-LTTE relationship. The LTTE had used Eritrean and also North Korean end-user-certificates to procure arms from China which were smuggled in several consignments before the Sri Lanka Navy destroyed eight floating arsenals September 2006 and October 2007.
Sri Lanka recently established diplomatic relations with Eritrea with a view to pursuing LTTE assets in that country. KP has revealed that an LTTE-owned business venture was entrusted with operating the International Airport in Asmara and that during the last leg of the war, it had been planned to smuggle the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran to Eritrea.
Over 90 per cent of the entire Tigers’ heavy equipment, including a range of artillery pieces and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns captured by the Sri Lankan army were of Chinese origin.
Many Sri Lankans have long been suspicious about Norwegian influence in their country. Eyebrows were raised when Norwegian People’s Aid, a Norwegian Government-funded NGO said its heavy earth-moving vehicles, trucks & tractors had been ”stolen” by the LTTE. NPA had been implicated in smuggling arms to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When the Sri Lanka Army captured the LTTE’s Stanley Base and other camps they found electricity generators, water pumps, tents, water dowsers belonging to INGOs. The massive bunkers could have been built with the stolen vehicles.
Norwegians were suspected of training LTTE Sea Tigers in Thailand. There was also speculation that Norway provided sophisticated satellite and communication equipment to the LTTE during the 2002 CFA truce.
CARE is a leading international organization based in Atlanta, Georgia which operates in more than 65 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. On its website it acknowledges that, although there is a great deal of poverty to be addressed in the USA itself, it prefers to work in foreign countries. It has more than 14,500 employees worldwide. More than 90 percent of CARE International staff are nationals of the countries where it operates.
According to the Kotahena Police, investigations have revealed that the bomb exploded at the Pittala Junction in Kollupitiya targeting Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was taken to Colombo from Kilinochchi in a vehicle belonging to CARE International. Police arrested Sivalingam Arunan, Patmanathan Iiyer Sriskandaraja Sharma and Arunasalam Arumugam Perumal in connection with the assassination attempt. The bomb material had been buried at a safe house in Wellawatte after being carried in a CARE International van. Later, it was transported to Modera and fixed to the three-wheeler of the suicide cadre Lateef Mohamed Faris.
Two Sri Lankan UN workers were arrested in June on suspicion of using NGO activity as a cover for aiding the LTTE. The two men in detention are a 45 year old employee of the UNHCR and a 31 year-old man employed by the UN Office for Project Services.
Recent reports indicate that five Russians were ”˜smuggled’ into the country in the guise of NGO personnel, to provide special training to personal bodyguards of Prabhakaran in the Wanni. A local bodyguard, who was arrested at a refugee camp in the Wanni, revealed that 35 bodyguards had been trained by the Russians. The training included firing, driving and dismantling a vehicle and reassembling it in a very short time. Prabakharan’s son Charles Anthony had received training from the Russians. An extensive investigation is under way to identify these Russians and the NGO that supported them. Defence officials suspect these Russians could be retired members of a Russian defence unit.
Police believe that some NGO employees in the IDP camps are Black Tigers whose mission is to assassinate VIPs visiting the camps. A report in The Island newspaper of 30 September claims that 20,000, believed to be LTTE cadres, have escaped from the IDP camps. Senior Superintendent Kasturiratne said special police teams from Kandy had been dispatched to the IDP camps in the north to conduct investigations. The SSP said that followers of the terrorist organisation were still moving around though the leadership of the movement had been destroyed. He said explosives and arms had been recovered from Pudikudiiruppu and other locations in the north and east on information provided by the LTTE suspects in custody.
Sri Lanka is waiting trepidatiously for the EU to report on GSP Plus, which, simply put, is a preferential tariff advantageous to the exports of the Sri Lanka garment industry. The EU created the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from the early 1970s onwards, pursuant to a series of decisions made by the signatories of GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).
Following a challenge from the WTO the EU had to redesign the GSP scheme. Countries lose the standard GSP scheme concessions when they are no longer classified as developing nations. The least-developed countries also lose their duty- free preferences once they become middle-income countries. They then fall into the standard GSP category and pay the 10% duty.
In order to qualify for GSP+ applicant nations had to ratify and implement 27 international conventions, account for less than one per cent of total imports into the EU, and its five main exports should account for more than 75 per cent of its total exports. If recipient countries fall short of the three GSP+ criteria, they will automatically be out of the scheme.
The EU seems to be implementing the GSP+ scheme in such a way as to spite the WTO for ruling against them. The EU is trying to disqualify Sri Lanka on the grounds that she is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What the WTO seemed to have had in mind were de-selection criteria in keeping with the ”˜development, financial and trade needs’ of the recipient country and stability and predictability in tariff regimes.
The EU paid local NGOs to make representations to itself to the effect that Sri Lanka was not in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Then they paid another committee of experts to examine the documents they had paid for earlier. Nobody knows who made submissions to this three-member committee of experts appointed by the European Commission.
The irony of the situation is that Sri Lanka is trying to recover from a horrendous thirty-year civil war and the garment industry has an important role to play in rebuilding the north and east by providing employment and helping rebuild the infrastructure.
The association of companies called Sri Lanka Apparel is contributing to post-war reconstruction by establishing a new garment factory, specialising in baby clothes, in the war-affected district of Trincomalee. The factory benefited from a special incentive scheme to attract investments into the Eastern Province and has generated 1,000 jobs. The factory opened in September, 2009 and will initially export all of its output to the UK. It has the capacity to produce 100 pieces per month and in six months will increase capacity to 1.2m – 2m pieces per month.
Another Sri Lanka Apparel member company has made water and sanitation the central theme of its corporate social responsibility programme. It has been building hygienic bathing facilities for displaced people in the camps at Menik Farm in northern Sri Lanka. The project employed people living in the camps and provided them with income.
That particular company has also supported the Government’s efforts to rebuild the economy of the Eastern Province by investing 250 million rupees in a factory at Punani in the Batticaloa District, which currently employs 220 people, most of whom are from families that were displaced by the conflict.
A key feature of the Sri Lankan garment industry is that it seems to do more than pay lip-service to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Sri Lanka, as a nation, has fostered enlightened, socially-responsible legislation and has committed itself to 27 of the ILO Core Conventions. The mission of the industry is to employ ethical practices, thereby contributing to the economic development of the country while improving the quality of life of the apparel industry’s workforce and their communities.
An initiative called Garments without Guilt enabled Sri Lanka Apparel to forge a niche for itself in western markets where companies and consumers were uncomfortable after revelations about Asian sweatshops. This success has been threatened by the financial crisis and will be further threatened if GSP + is withdrawn. Was ethical marketing merely a luxury of a booming world economy which will have to be jettisoned in grimmer times? Kumar Mirchandani of Sri Lanka Apparel told me that the association will not abandon its principles. Whatever the competition might try, Sri Lanka Apparel is committed to ethical business. ”There is no excuse for unethical behaviour, no matter what the economic conditions are. This is the message Sri Lanka Apparel is sending”.
It is ironical that because of the perceptions of the EU about human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, thousands of innocent Sri Lankan workers in an industry that achieved success because of its ethical business practices will be thrown out of work and factories in the war-torn north and east may have to close.
Much of what is called loosely ”aid” is in fact investment for a return or loans on which Sri Lanka pays interest. GSP + is not charity. Sri Lanka was one of the original 24 signatories to GATT in 1947, and what Article 1 of GATT envisaged was equal opportunity for everybody whereby member states would refrain from discriminating between one another and grant similar treatment to all countries. The stability as well as predictability of tariffs is essential for traders to make investment decisions. At the time they load their ships, they should know that the applicable tariff will not be higher when the goods reach the destination.
The EU may push Sri Lanka to the position where she has no alternative but to mount a challenge in the WTO.