| by Jehan Perera
(April 03, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Expo 2012 international export exhibition that took place last week was launched by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is a foremost proponent of the government’s dream of Sri Lanka as the Wonder of Asia. The venue was the country’s most prestigious conference centre, the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall gifted by China on the occasion of the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo in 1975. The high quality of the Sri Lankan export items on display ranged from industrial products to organic health foods. They were impressive testimony to the economic potential of the country and reflective of its relatively well educated labour force and tasteful Sri Lankan lifestyle. However, while there was large representation of the general public at the exhibition, the turnout of foreign buyers was limited.
Sri Lankan exporters who had taken stalls at the exhibition in order to display their products had a consistent message. Most of the potential foreign buyers had come from neighbouring Asian countries with a particularly large representation from China. Some of the exporters expressed concern that among the prospective buyers were those who had come to collect samples, which they would use to copy for the product lines in their own countries. The absence of a strong contingent of buyers from the Western countries was disappointing as Sri Lanka’s main export markets continue to be in the West. There was a suggestion that the close political cooperation with Asian countries that yielded political rewards in international forums would not necessarily translate into beneficial economic relations for Sri Lankan producers.
In making its decision to confront the Western countries on the issue of human rights with the backing of Asian and African countries, the government needs to be concerned about the impact on the country’s economic prospects. Whether in Asia or the West, economic markets are crucial to the country’s economic well being. It is a matter of historical record that all of the once poor countries of the third world that became economic powerhouses did so on the basis of their exports. While countries like China and India have huge domestic markets, these markets are not friendly to international exporters in view of domestically produced low cost goods available in them. On the other hand, the relatively high quality producers from Sri Lanka have a ready and large market for their products in the Western markets.
In heading for confrontation with the Western countries there is a need to recognize that a deterioration in political relations between those countries and Sri Lanka can see a shrinking of the Western markets to Sri Lankan exports, with negative impacts on income and employment within the country. Already the country has suffered the loss of the European Union’s GSP Plus tariff concession that benefited Sri Lankan exporters, particularly in the apparel sector which led to the closing down of dozens of smaller factories. Now the US labour movement has filed action against the grant of GSP concessions to Sri Lankan exports on the grounds of violations of human rights standards within the country.
The decision whether or not to grant such tariff concessions is often made on political grounds by the countries concerned. Where good political relations between countries exist, the likelihood of transgressions being overlooked and economic concessions being granted is correspondingly greater. The loss of such concessions may not be a direct assault on the lifestyles of the government leaders, but they will impact on the masses of people. The rousing of ethnic nationalism to fight against the Western imposition of human rights standards coupled with economic hardship that may well accompany such a confrontation can spell the end of reconciliation both within the country and internationally.
The defeat in Geneva has undoubtedly been a very negative experience for the government which had, hitherto, a track record of victory that would have created an impression of invincibility. Government leaders appear to have believed that like in 2009 they would be able to defeat the resolution in the UN Human Rights Council that called on Sri Lanka to probe human rights violations and accountability for alleged war crimes in the aftermath of the war. In this context they appear to be seeing their defeat in Geneva to be the outcome of a biased and politicized international order where double standards prevail. They are able to cite numerous examples of the Western countries protecting themselves and their allies, such as Israel and Bahrain, from censure despite criticism from other countries, and even a majority of them.
However, a realistic assessment of the international system is that it favours the interests of those countries that are most powerful in it and who contribute most to its sustenance. The international system is still in the process of evolution and has far to go before there is a World Government that is even handed, just and fair to all countries. This is not much different from an assessment of national systems in under-developed democracies where the Rule of Law does not prevail in full measure. One of the key recommendations of the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is that the Rule of Law be established in the country. Until such time, the challenge of diplomacy will be to survive, live one’s life and progress in a system that is full of double standards and impunity.
The military victory that the government scored over the LTTE must not lead it to believe that it can overcome the Western countries also. Until the very last phase of war, the entire world supported Sri Lanka in its effort to defeat the LTTE and restore peace and democracy to the country. The main protagonist that the government is combating today is no more the LTTE but the infinitely more powerful countries of the Western world. Proponents of the charisma of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the valour of the Sinhala nation may claim that the Sri Lankan government will emerge victorious from the unequal combat. They may advocate that it is better to fight injustice than to compromise. But the government’s case will be that much stronger if justice prevails within Sri Lanka rather than impunity and the rule of men, which the LLRC recommendations are meant to cure.
Hoardings have come up telling the Western world that it may have Abraham Lincoln as its hero, but Sri Lanka has Mahinda Rajapaksa. Both led their nations in times of civil war in which there was a very high level of destruction of life and property. One died while trying to bring about reconciliation after war. The other appears to be floundering at the present time. By implementing the LLRC recommendations he, too, can emerge a hero. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of the present time is not too dissimilar to those who once called LTTE leader Prabhakaran the “Sun God” and believed in his invincibility and the valour of the Tamil nation. Unless soon reversed, there is an acute danger of national catastrophe that arises from the current trajectory of the Sri Lankan government.