By the Asian Human Rights Commission  From the day on which Rizana was arrested on a false charge of murder to the day of her execution, seven years elapsed. During this time, if a proper diplomatic effort was made with the required seriousness, the life of this young girl could have been saved. The following [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Lessons to be learned from the failure to save Rizana Nafeek


By the Asian Human Rights Commission 

From the day on which Rizana was arrested on a false charge of murder to the day of her execution, seven years elapsed. During this time, if a proper diplomatic effort was made with the required seriousness, the life of this young girl could have been saved. The following are some of the reasons for the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to get this girl released.

The absence of a proper chain of command

Under the present Executive Presidential system, there is no effective chain of command between the various layers of officers who are to carry out orders at the demand of the President. A system in which each officer in the chain of command has to take responsibility for their part in carrying out a command and reporting back has ceased to exist. The President acts in an ad hoc manner when things come to his notice, particularly by way of public protest.

Then, he makes some commands and sometimes sends out a delegation. There is no consistent follow-up to ensure that the matter is fully resolved. In this instance, saving the life of Rizana Nafeek could have been done at the early stages if the Sri Lankan Consulate in Saudi Arabia intervened and provided her the necessary legal assistance. However, until the BBC Sinhala Service brought the case to public notice, about 10 days after the death sentence had been passed, the Sri Lankan mission in Saudi Arabia had not made any intervention. By then, a fatal and wrongfully obtained “confession”, from which there is hardly any escape within the flawed Saudi Arabian legal system, had already been used against her. The second attempt to save her should have been to file an appeal immediately. The government refused to do that and claimed that they had a policy of non-intervention for Sri Lankan workers who are criminally charged outside the country. It was the intervention of the Asian Human Rights Commission and its supporters that made it possible to file an appeal. They raised the money for the appeal. On that basis, she was taken off of the execution list and had about five years before the execution. During these five years, the only way of saving her life was through effective negotiation with the family of the deceased infant. The government of Sri Lanka failed to achieve this negotiation. All kinds of gestures were done; Ministers travelled up and down from time to time. However, they failed to establish direct contact with the family and to deal with the issue. If they had in fact succeeded in making contact, they could have either made arrangements to pay the blood money or otherwise obtained mercy from the family.

The establishment of this contact would have required consistent efforts on the ground, given the cultural and language problems that exist. It was only through diplomacy on the ground by diplomats based in Saudi Arabia that this could have been done. However, the nature of the foreign ministry work under the present Sri Lankan system of administration means that consistently following up and monitoring does not happen and there is no one to be held responsible for carrying out such a mission. Whenever there was public demand for action, the Ministers made public statements, even to the parliament, stating that efforts are being made. This was done merely to appease the public discontent.

Most of the time, the ruling these days is done only by way of the state media and giving public statements. No substantive work is done at a practical level. At the heart of the system, there is no logically consistent system that links the leader with his staff.
Absence of an effective communication network between the people and the government Rizana Nafeek’s case was a rare event, in which the entire public of Sri Lanka and millions of people in foreign countries came together in an attempt to save the life of Rizana. None of those who made efforts to save her got any kind of encouragement or a positive response from the government. The government treated the intervention by people for each other’s sake as a problem that creates political issues for itself rather than a positive development of a society that cares for each other. The government is completely negative towards the efforts of citizens to help each other. Its campaign against civil society activism and NGOs as a foreign conspiracy against itself has created mentalities within the government which stifle civic initiatives and the people’s cooperation to deal with their common problems. At the heart of the ruling philosophy is a deeply hostile attitude towards the initiatives of the people. The government’s response to the people’s intervention is to merely make public statements or to make some gesture and not to attempt to understand what the people’s concerns are and to respond to them in a genuine and serious manner.

Absence of a sense of obligation to protect the citizens and, particularly, an extremely unsympathetic approach to the least advantaged groups in society Rizana Nafeek, as a 17- year old girl, volunteered to help her deeply impoverished family from a remote part of Sri Lanka. She went abroad solely for this purpose. She is one of a large army of people, particularly women, who make enormous sacrifices by way of leaving their country to work in harsh circumstances in order to assist their families. The government benefits from these least advantaged persons in the country by way of earning a large portion of the foreign exchange, but they fail to take any effective measures on their behalf. The worst part of it is the extremely inadequate services provided by diplomatic missions in the workers’ time of need.

Neglect at the core of the system

It was a combination of factors that contributed to the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to save the life of this young girl, who was innocent and she was wronged by the country where she went for employment. These factors arise out of the Executive Presidential system of Sri Lanka, which, by its very nature, is unable to develop and maintain an administrative machinery that is able to serve the interests of the people. Rizana Nafeek is a poor victim of this system. No amount of blaming other factors would serve any purpose that is beneficial to Sri Lankan people so long as the negligence that is a logical product of this disconnected system is addressed.

Rizana Nafeek is also a symbol. A symbol of the vast section of the Sri Lankan people who belong to the least advantaged sections of society. The symbolism that her situation demonstrates is that the government machinery as we have now is completely careless, insensitive and irresponsible when dealing with this segment of our society. Her tragedy is an illustration of the tragedy of all the people who are in her condition.

Saudi Arabia

Rizana Nafeek’s case is a clear illustration that the system of “justice” in Saudi Arabia is fatally flawed and does not incorporate the basic notions relating to fair trial that are universally accepted. In this instance, there was no evidence of murder at all, but the verdict given was for murder. The infant in this case most probably died of some natural cause. As there was no post-mortem, there is no evidence as to what the cause was.

An enormous amount of interventions were made to the Saudi authorities by millions of people throughout the world, asking to grant her pardon on the basis of the unjustness of the verdict given by a primitive legal system. The President of Sri Lanka himself sent an appeal for mercy to the King of Saudi Arabia twice. There were high level interventions, such as by the European Union and by Prince Charles from the United Kingdom. In reply to a letter sent to Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham Palace stated that, as the constitutional monarch of the country, she had referred the letter to the Prime Minister for necessary action. Despite all such interventions from individuals and organisations, no action was taken.

Asia leads world in domestic worker numbers, but legal protection, working conditions lag

BANGKOK (ILO News) – More than 21 million people across Asia and the Pacific – 80 per cent of them women – are employed as domestic workers, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO). But although Asia Pacific has more domestic workers than any other part of the world, the report found that the region lags other regions in guaranteeing domestic workers the basic work-related rights and protections that other workers have, in particular related to working time, minimum wages and maternity protection. Only domestic workers in the Middle East (many of whom are migrants from Asia) have weaker legal entitlements. The report, domestic workers across the world, estimates that 52.6 million people worldwide – more than four out of five of them women – are employed as domestic workers, a group equivalent to the entire working population of Viet Nam.

Of these, 21.5 million (41 per cent) domestic workers are in Asia Pacific and 19.6 million (37 per cent) in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Asia Pacific one in thirteen (7.8 per cent) of all women with a waged job were domestic workers in 2010. Despite the significant numbers of people involved, the report found large differences between the rights and conditions experienced by domestic employees and other waged workers, particularly in Asia. According to the report only three per cent of Asia’s domestic workers are entitled to a weekly day of rest, whereas globally more than half of domestic workers have this right. In addition, only one per cent of domestic workers in Asia Pacific have statutory limits to their normal maximum weekly working hours; by contrast, more than three-quarters of their counterparts in Latin America enjoy such protection.

Just 12 per cent of domestic workers in Asia Pacific are covered by statutory minimum wage legislation. Only the Middle East has lower coverage. In all other regions of the world more than six out of seven domestic workers can expect to be paid at least the minimum wage. For maternity leave and maternity cash benefits, 76 per cent of Asia Pacific’s domestic workers have no entitlement. By contrast, in Latin America – which has almost the same number of domestic workers – all such workers qualify for maternity leave and a large majority for related benefits. “Excluding domestic workers from basic labour protection reflects an outdated view that domestic work is somehow not real work”, said Malte Luebker, a Senior Specialist at the ILO’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and a principal author of the report. “We must recognize that domestic workers don’t just care for families, but create value for the economy by allowing more workers, often with valuable skills, to leave the house and take up paid work. Domestic workers clearly deserve a better deal”. The report’s publication follows the adoption of a new ILO Convention and Recommendation on domestic work in June 2011. These new international standards aim to ensure decent working conditions and pay for domestic workers worldwide. Three countries (Mauritius, the Philippines and Uruguay) have already ratified the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), which is due to enter into force in September 2013, while others have begun the process. “The Convention sets a new global benchmark which countries can use to assess their own legislation”, said Yoshiteru Uramoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “It’s very encouraging that some Asian countries, such as Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore, are moving in the right direction with labour reforms. But this report makes it clear that more action is needed, by more countries”.

The report, which was launched at the ILO’s Geneva headquarters, also found that the number of domestic workers has grown significantly in the past 15 years (from 33.2 million in 1995). Within Asia, the greatest numbers of domestic workers are found in India (4.2 million), Indonesia (2.4 million) and the Philippines (1.9 million). All the figures in the report exclude an estimated 7.4 million children (aged below 15 years) engaged in domestic work.

The report is based on data from 117 countries and territories, including 18 in Asia Pacific. A limited amount of information from China is also included.

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