Deputy Minister of External Affairs Neomal Perera spoke to the Daily Mirror on the upcoming Commonwealth Business Forum, the Rizana Nafeek case and the handing of the Geneva sessions. He also commented on the accusation by foreign governments that the people-smuggling emanating from
Sri Lanka was due to an environment that did not offer equal opportunities.
Q. You were one of the primary individuals involved in the negotiations to obtain a pardon for Rizana Nafeek; when the attempt by the government was unsuccessful it came under a lot of criticism. Some even termed it a diplomatic failure, which showcased the weakness of the government’s ability to negotiate with a foreign government. How did you take all this criticism?
This is a criticism by those who did not follow the Rizana Nafeek case and are trying to take advantage of the situation. There are many people who don’t follow issues carefully, instead they criticise whatever the government does or does not do. A person criticising the government only looks at where the government has failed; the government has not done enough, but what is enough? A biased critic does not want to know, what the government has done, they only want to criticise for the sake of criticising and bring disrepute to the government and make it unpopular with the people.
Q. When it comes to the Rizana case the government was not even properly aware of the situation; moments before she was executed the Minister of Foreign Employment claimed there was still hope and the government was still doing what it could to bring her back. How can the government have been so out of the loop, if there was good communication between the two governments?
From the beginning we have done what we could, there are two individuals who are serving a jail sentence for having forged Rizana’s birth date and another person has been given a deferred sentence.
When the embassy got to know about Rizana’s arrest in Saudi, they got activated and began working towards her benefit. They did what they could and once she was sentenced they went for an appeal. The appeal carried out was under Shari’ah law and whether we like it or not, that is the system carried out in that country; we may have been unhappy with the manner in which it was carried out, but it was the final decision made by the judge.
Once the appeals failed the UNP, the SLMC and Human Rights Groups began shouting about this situation; everyone got activated—no one was waiting till Rizana got killed so that the blame could be passed around, everyone did what they could. However you must remember that all the appeals they made went unheard. The only person who was listened to by the Saudi authorities was the appeal by the President.
The Saudi government went to the extent of wanting to help the family of the dead child, by providing medical expenses for their second child who was also having health issues. The Saudi government was willing to give that child treatment in an European hospital, however they refused. The Saudi government was willing to undertake a huge financial burden, because of the appeal by the President, Minister Dilan Perera and the Ministers of the Foreign Ministry.
Also, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi Arabia was not informed that Rizana would be beheaded, until after it had taken place. Therefore how can anyone blame the minister for making this statement, when we were never informed of her beheading?
Q. Due to this case, the government has introduced a plan to reduce the number of housemaids going overseas, the age limit has been increased to 25. However the housemaids bring in a large amount of foreign remittances, how will the economy fare without this income?
Many countries don’t send female domestics overseas. The intention is to send them with more language training, more skills training and get a higher salary. At the end of the day we will not lose on income, instead we will reduce the risk. It is not the money; we treasure our people more than money. Therefore we want to reduce the number of young people going overseas, because we believe that at a young age they need to stay home with their parents. This is important for them to live with their parents, as a foundation for their future. It will not deter or reduce the income that the government will earn. Now there is a steady increase in males who are going abroad.
Q. One of the main reasons that the housemaids are going abroad is due to the lack of opportunities in the country, therefore isn’t it more important to provide them with appropriate opportunities locally? Wouldn’t this be a better means of deterring them from going abroad? As well as reducing the issues of people smuggling?
Thirty-years of violence and intimidation by the LTTE and living in fear - there was no time to concentrate on improving employment in this country and the economy. The economy improves for a few days, then a bomb goes off or some planes get blown up and then all of a sudden we are back to the economy being low. No country can face development in a situation like that.
But since the end of the war, we have rehabilitated all the people living in this country and every inch of the country has been development and we can see that employment opportunities have been growing. We need investment for the economy to grow and the government is bringing in investment, infrastructure and mega projects. We are also trying to improve the macro economy and focusing on the micro economy. We are looking at the villages and within five to 10 years, the issue of Females or Males going overseas for low salary jobs will not be as much of an issue as it is now.
Q. However we know that there is a big issue of people smuggling going on and this is mainly due to the fact that people feel that the environment in Sri Lanka is not one that is conducive for them to build a stable life. This is the reason that the visiting Canadian and Australian delegations which have been here, to counter the issues of people smuggling, have been repeatedly saying. Sri Lankans are willing to risk their lives to travel to other countries, to earn some money, even if it is for a short time. What is the government’s response to the claims by these countries that they are being burdened by illegal immigrants because the government is unable to provide suitable conditions locally?
If you look at countries like India, any country in Asia; there are people wanting to live in Australia or Canada.
Q.When it comes to Australia one of the officials that was here a few months back said that of the individuals being processed, for illegal immigration, nearly 40 percent are Sri Lankans. That shows that we are huge contributors to this global issue.
Because of the opportunities in those developed countries, people want to go. We have just started to develop, because of the unrest that we had. If it takes another ten years for us to become like Australia then for another ten years there will be people who want to go to Australia.
It is not persecution; there is no persecution in Sri Lanka at all. People are living very freely, people don’t have to worry about the LTTE or the EPDP or any tiger movements. They have nothing to worry about extortion of money or anything like that, which is happening everywhere else in the world.
We don’t have cases of four or five people raping young women; it’s very safe to be here.
Q. You can’t say cases of that nature are not happening in Sri Lanka.
But it is very less, the police are entertaining complaints. The police may miss one or two percent, but when you compare with other countries in the region, it is very much less. These things are happening in the USA as well.
Q.There has been a lot of discussion about CHOGM and whether it will take place due to all the opposition from various countries. What is the government’s plan - and preparations for the event?
We are going ahead with all the plans as usual. I am heading the Commonwealth Business Forum (CBF); we have already asked the foreign embassies to recommend their top ten businessmen for the president to invite them to participate at the CBF. We are expecting about 1000 business leaders in their countries to come to Sri Lanka. Many sectors are involved; from manufacturing, marketing, advertising and tourism promotion. The CBF is being held in Sri Lanka for the first time and it is being held in Asia after 25 years; therefore many countries that are close to Sri Lanka are helping to make this an event that will highlight Sri Lanka.
We want this to be a meeting place for businessmen, a little lower than the world economic forum and we are certain that this will be a success regardless of the kind of pressure we have to face.
Q. There is some confusion with regard to the handling of the Geneva sessions, during the past few sessions, the Ministry of External Affairs was involved with Prof. G.L. Peries as the Minister and the Ministry also has a monitoring MP. At the same time Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe is involved as the Special Envoy for Human Rights: however very recently he was not even aware of certain letters exchanged between the Ministry of External Affairs and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Who has the ultimate responsibility when it comes to Geneva?
Our Ministry is in charge of dealing with any foreign organisation; therefore it is Prof. G.L Peries. When it comes to Human Rights Minister Samarasinghe has gone many times, we keep him informed of any communication and he helps with the process
The MInister is not only confusing in his answers about Rizana's case but also disingenuous to say the least. And his statement that the Otaibi's "second child who was ALSO having health issues" suggests that the other baby may have succumbed to similar health issues!
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