Blog post

The dangers of trade deals with the Sri Lankan military

Andreas Schüller
Blog post

Part of the idea behind this blog is to feature occasional contributions from colleagues who inspire and motivate me. Today’s piece was written by Andreas Schüller, head of the International Crimes and Accountability program at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. He works among other projects on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Sri Lankan civil war.
Berlin last week: German trade groups host the Sri Lankan-German Business Forum. The Sri Lankan delegation consists of President Maithripala Sirisena and three of his ministers. Sirisena and his colleagues are fervently drumming up business for Sri Lanka, where the decades-long civil war was brought to a bloody end in 2009. On the question of accountability and reconciliation, the Sri Lankan foreign minister reels off the list of promises made to the UN Human Rights Council: the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission (one such commission was set up in 2011 but failed to look at the most serious human rights violations), a special court (from which the government is keen to exclude international judges and prosecutors) and a commission on those who disappeared during the conflict.
Cause for skepticism
But anyone who’s been working on Sri Lanka for a while, including us here at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, can’t help but be skeptical in the face of these promises. Does the Sri Lankan government actually mean it this time? Will prosecutions be sought for all those responsible for war crimes? It doesn’t look like it: the United National Party, the country’s strongest party and a supporter of the president, just welcomed into parliament Sarath Fonseka, who served as Supreme Commander of the army during the civil war.
What about the economy? Sirisena’s Berlin delegation failed even to mention the Sri Lankan military, currently the biggest economic actor in the heavily militarized northern and northeastern regions of the country, the former conflict zones. How can it be ensured that trade agreements and investment do not end up profiting the military and thus strengthening its position in the region, denying the resettled Tamil population any development opportunities? The strong military presence that has persisted since the conflict ended continues to be a significant security problem – especially for war widows, who consistently report instances of sexualized violence. It is crucial that employment opportunities are available to civil war widows and orphans. To date they have not profited from projects on tourism, fishing or trade.
Careful scrutiny needed in Sri Lankan trade deals
Yet these ongoing problems don’t seem to be priorities for the German Ministry of Economy and the Foreign Office during Sirisena’s Berlin visit. A German trade visit to Sri Lanka is planned for this May. It’s unlikely that companies and trade associations will address the fallout from the conflict in northern Sri Lanka. But the current negotiations between the EU and Sri Lanka on tax exemptions (GSP+) offer a chance to call for new standards and evaluate the results of the previous negotiations in 2010. Without intense scrutiny of the root causes of the conflict, investment from Germany and other European countries risks reinforcing ethnic discrimination and hindering reconciliation in Sri Lanka.