Julie Bishop doorstop, CHOGM


Subjects: CHOGM, human rights in Sri Lanka

Statement, E&OE, proof only

14 November 2013

JULIE BISHOP: Shortly I will be returning to the Foreign Ministers' meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting as we are concluding a communique to send to the heads of government who will be arriving for meetings tomorrow and on Saturday. I express my appreciation to the Sri Lankan Government for hosting this CHOGM meeting. From my perspective, it's been a success because it's given me an opportunity to express Australia's support for the Commonwealth. It is an extraordinary organisation where the members are committed to a set of values based on democracy and diversity, and tolerance, collaboration, human rights, rule of law. And we're all not perfect as members but nevertheless we support each other in ensuring that we commit to these values.

I've also had the opportunity to meet with a number of foreign ministers and I've had meetings with the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, William Hague, with Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato from Papua New Guinea, the foreign ministers of Seychelles, Zambia, others, and the theme of many of these meetings has been on trade and investment, and opportunities for economic growth, and job opportunities. I've also promoted Australia's chairmanship of the G20 for next year.

Being in Sri Lanka has also given me the opportunity to meet with a number of government ministers. In particular I met with the Minister for Economic Development, Minister Basil Rajapaksa, and we talked about the potential for greater trade and investment between Australia and Sri Lanka. And there are a number of Australian business people here this week and the investment opportunities are immense and I believe that there is great potential for Sri Lankan investment in Australia. As I said earlier the investment of Australians in Sri Lanka currently stands at about $25 million, Sri Lanka in Australia about $19 million, and two-way trade is about $330 million. We think that given that Sri Lanka is emerging from a 30 year civil war there is much infrastructure needed in this country, Australian investment will be welcome. So all in all it's been a very productive trip from my perspective. And I look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Abbott here tomorrow morning as he takes on the task of representing Australia at the Heads of Government meeting on Friday and Saturday.

QUESTION: Has there been any thought, Minister, to the tone that you'll bring to discussions, or Australia will bring to discussions, with Sri Lanka on the issues of human rights?

JULIE BISHOP: I have raised the human rights issues in all of my meetings with Sri Lankan ministers. This morning I met with three Members of Parliament from the Tamil National Alliance. We had a very good meeting at the High Commission. They raised specific matters with me and I likewise raised those matters with the Sri Lankan ministers. So I have been having that discussion with them face to face. In relation to the Commonwealth meeting more generally, that's obviously focused on broader issues than just one country.

QUESTION: Can you give us an insight as to what your message was to them on human rights in this country.

JULIE BISHOP: I have been encouraging Sri Lanka to continue down the path of reconciliation. They are committed, they tell me, to ensuring that through economic growth and development they believe that there will be opportunity for reconciliation to occur more quickly here than possibly other countries. We have to put this in the context that it was only four years ago when a 30 year civil war came to an end and in that time there's been significant reconstruction work. I've travelled through the north, I've travelled to Jaffna and Kilinochchi, and to the east through Trincomalee. I've seen the level of investment in the north–an area that had so little investment for 30 years, and that provides job opportunities. AusAID and the Australian Government have been supporting a number of projects in the north as well. So a lot has been achieved, but there is a lot more to do. And I encourage the Sri Lankan Government to continue down the path of reconciliation. It won't be easy. It will take time. But I believe the commitment is there.

QUESTION: Did you speak with William Hague about his idea for an independent probe into the use of sex crimes and torture during the final days of the war?

JULIE BISHOP: William Hague presented his Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and I attended that presentation that he did, as I did when Secretary Hague made that presentation at the United Nations. And I am a personal champion of his Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and so we didn't discuss that specifically because I was present at his presentation.

QUESTION: Does the reconciliation path necessitate going back to that time in 2009 and having this full investigation into just what happened?

JULIE BISHOP: I believe that the Sri Lankan Government is dealing with the end of the war. It was a very bloody conflict by all accounts. The LTTE was one of the most notorious terrorist organisations; it was a proscribed terrorist organisation. And the Sri Lankan Government was determined to stamp it out, and it deserves credit for having rid the world of, and particularly this country of, a dangerous terrorist organisation. So in that context reconciliation is going to take time and that means coming to terms with what happened during the whole civil war, not just the last two weeks.

QUESTION: There are allegations that this is a PR exercise for Australia to please the Sri Lankan Government because of the boat people issue in Sri Lanka. Would you like to comment?

JULIE BISHOP: Attending CHOGM is not a PR exercise on our part. We are great supporters of the Commonwealth. We think it's an organisation that should be treasured. It's a very distinct organisation. We have supported it for the whole of its existence, and so I reject any suggestion that Australia attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting would be a PR exercise. There are many countries represented here because we're committed to the Commonwealth. The fact that Sri Lanka has chosen to host the meeting is to their credit. They've put themselves out on the world stage. They have their detractors, and they've been prepared to face up to that by holding an international meeting of this stature. So the cooperation that we have with the Sri Lankan Government on the issue of people smuggling is the kind of cooperation that we want with all countries that are involved and impacted upon by the scourge of people smuggling.

QUESTION: How is it though that we have yourself, the Foreign Minister, making representations about human rights and the Prime Minister quite strenuously saying he won't, and in fact saying he praises the Sri Lankan Government which seems to contradict (indistinct)…

JULIE BISHOP: No we're not contradicting each other at all. I said that the TNA raised issues with me and I raised them with the Ministers. So…

QUESTION: Which issues did you raise?

JULIE BISHOP: They raised issues about what's happening in the north. Now the point the Prime Minister is making is absolutely valid. We're not here to lecture other countries publicly, to embarrass them. We're here to encourage Sri Lanka and other countries to continue down the path of reconciliation. Sri Lanka is not the only country that's going through challenging times and I think we should put them in context that it is just four years since the cessation of hostilities. And so many of my counterpart ministers have raised with me contrasting situations where 20-30 years later, countries are nowhere near as advanced as Sri Lanka has been in the short period since the end of the civil war.

QUESTION: Can I ask you to address the other part of the question before? What relationship is there between the position you're taking and Australia's need for cooperation with the Sri Lankan Government on the asylum issue? What do you say to the suggestion that seemed to be implicit in that question that you're going soft on the Sri Lankan Government because you need their help with asylum seekers?

JULIE BISHOP: I rejected the suggestion that this was a public relations exercise. I made it quite plain that we would attend a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting wherever it was held if that country is a member of the Commonwealth, and Sri Lanka is an active member of the Commonwealth. So it (indistinct) here.

QUESTION: Particularly on the issue of asylum seekers, is there any relationship between your attitude to the Sri Lankan Government and your need for cooperation with them on asylum seekers?

JULIE BISHOP: We have a strong level of cooperation between the Sri Lankan Government and Australia over the issue of people smuggling. They share with us a concern that criminals should not profit from human trafficking. They share with us a concern that people are being promised a boat ride to Australia without clearly understanding that their lives will be at risk. So we have that common interest in stopping the people smuggling trade and stopping people getting on boats and risking their lives and being promised obviously what will not be delivered should they seek to get to Australia. We have that same desire as we do with Indonesia, with Malaysia, with other countries to stop the people smuggling trade. In the case of Sri Lanka, they are Sri Lankan citizens in the main and so the Sri Lankan Government obviously wants them back and doesn't want their citizens putting their lives at risk. So we share a common interest in stopping the people smuggling.

QUESTION: Are you aware of reports that a senior Sri Lankan naval officer has been arrested for his part in people smuggling operations – a Lieutenant Commander who I believe was also advising the Australian Government on the Sri Lankan navy's operations in this regard?

JULIE BISHOP: I am aware of that report and I certainly welcome the fact that the Sri Lankan Government is obviously taking the issue of people smuggling very seriously and cracking down on alleged corruption. So I do welcome…

QUESTION: There are four Sri Lankan sailors who have been arrested for this including one very senior officer. Are they a reliable partner in combatting people smuggling? Can you trust the Sri Lankan navy?

JULIE BISHOP: Well you obviously know more about it than I. I am only aware of the report that there was a senior officer, but the fact that they have been arrested indicates that the Sri Lankan Government is serious about working in partnership with Australia to crack down on the people smuggling trade. And so I do welcome this report.

QUESTION: Are you able to advise us what information the Australian Government shared with this individual, the Lieutenant Commander?

JULIE BISHOP: No, I'm not in a position to do that. I've been told of the report of the arrest, that's all I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Minister, just on your trip to India. Obviously there are talks underway regarding the sale of uranium. Bob Carr and Rudd and Gillard governments had a very broad approach to the type of agreement they want as far as safeguards …

JULIE BISHOP: The Rudd Government didn't have any agreement with India on this …

QUESTION: No, they didn't have an agreement but they had a broad concept about what they wanted incorporated into that agreement. Do you have a more kind of a narrow concept of what sort of agreement you want in order to get that done quickly?

JULIE BISHOP: These are matters that we'll discuss with the Indian Government. Of course we have an understanding of what the Australian Government wishes to achieve and that's always been to ensure that the sale of uranium would be within the international safeguards and they'd also meet our requirements. But it's a level of negotiating detail I'm not prepared to make public at this stage. I've not even got to the country yet so I think it's a discussion that will be had with the Indian Government.

QUESTION: What's your general approach to it? Do you want non-proliferation safeguards built into it?

JULIE BISHOP: Obviously.

QUESTION: We've seen the arrest of these Sri Lankan navy personnel. There's also been previous allegations about corruption in Indonesia. Does it worry you that you can have these meetings with high level officials or the prime minister or whoever it might be but there's corruption below them that's always going to be there?

JULIE BISHOP: Well that's your allegation. I won't adopt your words. But I welcome the fact that the Sri Lankan Government is showing evidence by this arrest that they are serious about cracking down on corruption within the people smuggling trade and the impact that it might be having on officials. So surely this is a good sign, that Australia should welcome the news, that even people involved in the government are not immune from the rule of law in this country.

QUESTION: It's not more a sign that it's systemic in some way?

JULIE BISHOP: One arrest?

QUESTION: Well there seems to be four or five people involved so far.

JULIE BISHOP: What, one incident? I don't have the details. If you've got more I'd be happy to hear about it but I don't have the details. I'm not aware of the details.

QUESTION: But isn't the point that he was advising the Australian Government, all the time sending people to Australia. Doesn't that undermine our relationship with Sri Lanka in this regard?

JULIE BISHOP: But isn't it good that it's now come to light and that the Sri Lankan Government has acted? And we welcome that.

QUESTION: Your meetings with the Tamil representatives, did they raise concerns about the (indistinct) express returns of asylum seekers that are from Sri Lanka?

JULIE BISHOP: No, they were very keen to have Tamils in particular returned from Australia to Sri Lanka. And it's a discussion I've had with the TNA previously when I was here in January. I had a long meeting with representatives of the TNA at that time as well. And they are very keen to have the diaspora return to Sri Lanka to help build this country to the potential that it clearly has. And so they are likewise very keen to have Tamils come back to Sri Lanka and help rebuild the country. So it was a message that I got in January and it was a message I got again today.

QUESTION: Do you raise any concerns about (indistinct) last weekend of Lee Rhiannon with Sri Lankan ministers that you met today. She says that DFAT sent a letter before she went so that they were advised. She's an Australian Senator. Did you raise any concerns about it?

JULIE BISHOP: Lee Rhiannon requested that a Third Person Note be sent to the Sri Lankan Government because, as I understand it, she was intending to travel on her personal passport on a tourist visa and she sought advice. We informed her that she would have to abide by the conditions attaching to a tourist visa but if she was to do anything other than tourist activities it could put her in breach of the tourist visa. After consultation with my office, we issued a Third Person Note that had been cleared by her personally and she requested it be sent to the Sri Lankan Government. There is always a risk for people who travel on a personal passport and on a tourist visa that they will be questioned if they are potentially in breach of a tourist visa. I came here as a parliamentarian in January. I travelled on my official parliamentary passport and I travelled on an official visa. I had no difficulty at all travelling around the country, seeing what I wanted to see, meeting who I wanted to meet. I had no difficulty at all. I wasn't questioned by anybody about that.

QUESTION: Can you explain what the Third Person Note says and what that means?

JULIE BISHOP: A Third Person Note is issued by our High Commission which sets out the activities that a Member of Parliament is likely to undertake while in the country. And the wording of the Third Person Note was cleared by Lee Rhiannon personally and she requested that it be sent to the Sri Lankan Government.

QUESTION: So you seem to be saying you consider the problems she got into were her own doing and does that mean that you didn't raise it with the Sri Lankan Government?

JULIE BISHOP: What problem did she get into?

QUESTION: Well she was present when there was a raid on a meeting that she was attending and she was questioned as we understand it.

JULIE BISHOP: Well my understanding is that she was asked to produce her passport and her visa. She didn't have them on her. She went back to her hotel. She produced them and she left the hotel and caught a scheduled flight home.

QUESTION: Three hours later.

JULIE BISHOP: She caught her scheduled flight home.

QUESTION: She had her passport taken from her.

JULIE BISHOP: She was on a tourist visa. Was she here as a tourist?

QUESTION: Well what were the activities that were in this Third Person Note?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I can get a copy of it, sorry, subject to her agreement, because it was a document that was sent on her instructions. She requested that it go so obviously she would have a copy of it and it's her personal note. She can release it.

QUESTION: So I gather from your answer that you didn't raise her detention?

JULIE BISHOP: Senator Rhiannon has never raised it with me. She didn't ask for consular support at the time. She hasn't contacted my office to raise any complaints since. And in fact the last time my office heard from her was on the Friday, I believe, before she left for Sri Lanka. Since then, we've not heard from her so if Senator Rhiannon has an issue, given that she's been working with my office before leaving for Sri Lanka, I would expect that she would have contacted me. She didn't. So I don't raise people's matters willy nilly if they haven't raised them with me. I don't think that would be appropriate to just go off on a frolic to raise somebody's visa issue if they haven't asked me to do so. That wouldn't be an appropriate level of consular activity.

QUESTION: Minister, just on the nature of people getting on boats from Sri Lanka to Australia. Do you think most of them are economic migrants looking for greater job opportunities?

JULIE BISHOP: That is the opinion of the Sri Lankan Government and it seems to be the opinion of the TNA representatives that I met today.

QUESTION: Is that your opinion too?

JULIE BISHOP: Well I haven't met any of them and I'm not on any assessment panel. I can only go on the judgement that the Sri Lankan Government and others make. But it certainly seems clear that the civil war is over here, that the people who have been returned are not being ill treated and that the grounds for claiming asylum as far as I can see would not apply.

QUESTION: Amnesty International is saying today that there is unquestionably grounds for people to believe they're being persecuted for their political beliefs, for speaking out, that human rights protections are in fact deteriorating in their view in this country. So is it your view that there are none of these people who are seeking to get to Australia would have in the normal course of refugee convention requirements a well-founded fear of persecution?

JULIE BISHOP: That's my understanding.

QUESTION: Minister, what steps is the Government taking to ensure, satisfy itself, that the people aren't being mistreated when they return as you say?

JULIE BISHOP: Well we obviously have a mission here. We make inquiries and I've asked questions both of the TNA and of the relevant ministers. And on both occasions in my discussions with the ministers, and my discussions with the TNA no issue about the treatment of people being returned has been raised with me.

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