The European Union (EU), Sri Lanka's largest export market, has strongly urged Sri Lanka to lift import restrictions which have prevented many European products from entering its market.
The EU called for the removal of any further impediments in the exercise of labour rights and fundamental freedoms and invited Sri Lanka to provide further updates on progress.
This was conveyed during the 24th meeting of the Joint Commission of the European Union (EU) and Sri Lanka held on February 8 in Brussels.
The EU also stressed the need to continue reducing the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and to undertake further practical and administrative steps to release on bail those detained under the PTA without charges.
Despite welcoming the submission by the Government of Sri Lanka of amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the EU, however, noted that important elements had not been included in the Amendment Bill gazetted.
The EU strongly encouraged Sri Lanka to continue cooperation and engagement with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms and underscored the importance of independence and effective functioning of the independent institutions.
Furthermore, the EU and Sri Lanka concurred on the importance of empowering civil society and giving it the necessary space to function in all its diversity.
The meeting was co-chaired by Deputy Managing Director for Asia and the Pacific at the European External Action Service, Paola Pampaloni and Foreign Secretary Admiral (Retd) Prof Jayanath Colombage.
The meeting reviewed bilateral relations and entailed an exchange of views and updates on a wide range of topics of bilateral interest – ranging from governance, reconciliation and human rights, to trade, development cooperation, climate change and environment, sectoral cooperation, security and counter-terrorism, and cooperation in multilateral fora.
The EU and Sri Lanka also agreed to convene the next Joint Commission meeting in Colombo in 2023.
The meeting also provided an opportunity for updates on developments, relevant action and legislative initiatives in the EU and Sri Lanka. The discussion focused on democracy, governance, rule of law, human rights, including the rights of minorities, women, children and labour rights, and freedom of expression and association.
10 key areas
(1) Human rights and reconciliation
Sri Lanka apprised on progress in reconciliation and in the independent institutions, notably the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR), the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL).
The EU strongly encouraged Sri Lanka to continue cooperation and engagement with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms. In this context, the EU underlined the importance of independence and effective functioning of the Independent Institutions.
The EU and Sri Lanka concurred on the importance of empowering civil society and giving it the necessary space to function in all its diversity.
The EU reiterated its continued commitment to support Sri Lanka in justice reform and reconciliation.
(2) Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)
Sri Lanka reiterated its objective to achieve measurable, tangible and verifiable results on the ground in meeting its commitments. In this context, the EU welcomed the submission by the Government of Sri Lanka of amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
However, the EU noted that important elements had not been included in the Amendment Bill gazetted.
Sri Lanka took note of the views expressed by the EU to take further steps to make the PTA fully compliant with international norms.
In the interim, while taking note of the administrative steps taken in the form of directives issued by the Inspector General of Police, the EU urged Sri Lanka to continue reducing the use of the PTA, and to undertake further practical and administrative steps to release on bail those detained under the PTA without charges.
Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah was detained for over 22 months under the PTA
(3) Security and counter-terrorism cooperation
The EU and Sri Lanka reviewed ongoing cooperation in the area of security and counter-terrorism.
Sri Lanka appreciated the EU’s continued listing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a terrorist organisation.
Both sides stressed the importance of adherence to international norms and standards in the fight against terrorism. They reiterated willingness to further enhance cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness.
(4) Import restrictions
The Joint Commission took stock of the conclusions of the Working Group on Trade and Economic Cooperation held virtually on 26 January 2022. The EU and Sri Lanka noted the significance of bilateral trade relations.
In this regard, the EU strongly urged Sri Lanka to lift forthwith import restrictions preventing many European products from entering its market.
Sri Lanka clarified that it has imposed temporary import restrictions on non-essential items, strictly as an interim measure, due to a foreign exchange shortfall resulting from the impact of the global pandemic. Sri Lanka noted that these measures are subject to continuous and progressive review.
Sri Lanka appreciated the valued contribution of the GSP+ regime to the country’s sustainable development.
The EU acknowledged the constructive engagement by Sri Lankan stake-holders during the GSP+ monitoring mission in September 2021.
The two sides reviewed Sri Lanka’s compliance with 27 International Conventions related to human rights, labour rights, protection of the environment and good governance covered by the GSP+ scheme.
Sri Lanka reiterated its commitment to effective implementation of the 27 conventions, and noted its adherence to the principle of non-discrimination, and the removal of any further impediments in the exercise of labour rights and fundamental freedoms. The EU invited Sri Lanka to provide further updates on progress.
(6) Mitigating the impact of Covid-19
With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU congratulated Sri Lanka on the country’s effective vaccine strategy.
Highlighting the need to address vulnerabilities and inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, the EU emphasised its commitment to making the COVID-19 vaccine accessible to low- and middle-income countries in a fair and equitable manner.
Sri Lanka also appreciated the EU’s continued contribution to global vaccine equity.
(7) IUU fishing practices
Sri Lankan fishermen participated in a large-scale protest extending from the seas of Mullaitivu to Point Pedro in the Northern Province against poaching by Indian fishers in October, 2021
The EU and Sri Lanka agreed on the importance of continued cooperation in deterring and eliminating IUU fishing practices, and honouring commitments of the partnership.
(08) Higher education and technical cooperation
The EU and Sri Lanka exchanged ways to deepen cooperation in higher education and research and technical cooperation under the Erasmus+ programme, the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie programme, and the Horizon Europe framework programme.
(9) Climate change
The EU welcomed Sri Lanka’s update on its Nationally Determined Contributions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the country’s commitment to ambitious targets.
The EU looked forward to working closely with Sri Lanka, bilaterally and in multilateral fora, on climate action and environment protection. Both sides exchanged views on priorities ahead of the 27th UN Climate Change Conference (COP27).
(10) 'Global Gateway'
The EU and Sri Lanka highlighted their commitment to continue joint efforts in the promotion of a rules based international order and effective multilateralism.
They also discussed regional developments, and cooperation in the Indian Ocean.
The EU presented Global Gateway, the new EU plan for major investments in infrastructure development around the world, which was launched on 1 December 2021. The initiative was welcomed by Sri Lanka.