The hue and cry for human rights protection amid allegation of state-sponsored impunity of persecutors are prevailing across the globe with little exceptions. Similarly, the trends of widespread violations of human rights are common in Bangladesh raising concerns of world bodies and conscious states. The flurry of commitments of the country for human rights protection under national and international laws have turned into a dark reality. As a result, the country is now under exponential pressure from diverse quarters.
Undeniably, no government since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 can be spared from the curse of human rights abuses. The successive trajectory of human rights violative issues has gone bad to worse. On the contrary, inadequate steps for the recognition, promotion and protection of such inalienable and universal rights have sparked national and international criticism. Reluctance of political leadership coupled with socio-economic and cultural backwardness pose a massive threat for human rights protection.
According to newspaper reports, the present government in power for the last 14 years has surpassed all the previous records and it is close to the undeclared championship in human rights abusive records. As per a report of the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), from 2009 to June 2022, at least 2658 people are victims of extrajudicial killing and 619 are of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. The report also points that most incidents are targeted at opposition political party activists, journalists and human rights defenders.
In most violative cases, accusations are pointed against the law enforcing agencies and attachment of the ruling party as key instigator. After imposition of sanction by the United States on December 10, 2021 on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its former and present high ups, the incidents of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing have drastically declined. In fact, external pressure practically works for halting transgression of human rights records of the government.
The visit of the United Nations High Rights Commission (UNHRC) chief Michelle Bachelet during 14 to 17 August stimulates anguish in the face of ruling party leadership and solace for the opposition political parties, journalists and human rights activists. The visit is significant as the UN human rights boss of such status visited the country for the first time in its 50 years history of independence.
In a press briefing after wrapping up her official visit to Bangladesh, Michelle expressed deep concern for human rights’ abusive records of the country and urged the government for establishing an independent, unbiased, credible and international standard commission to investigate the reported incidents of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial deaths and other forms of abuses.
As a part of feedback from a series of meetings with the of representatives from state and non-state actors, Michelle urged the government for the independent commission so that it can unveil the heinous actions of the perpetrators and ensure state accountability under national and international legal mechanisms. She also urged the government to hold national dialogue among political parties relating to the upcoming election in 2023.
Seemingly, the government welcomed her visit but it was a mere eye-wash from the part of the government to show national and international human rights watchdogs that the government is committed for upholding human rights for all without discrimination. But behind the shadow, there is gruesome and opposite picture.
The message of Michelle is the true replication of the words of opposition voices, socio-political activists, journalists, representatives of CSOs and others concerned. Before the visit of Michelle, nine international human rights bodies including Human Rights Watch urged her to raise the serious concerns on Bangladesh’s recent human rights violations including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial murders, custodial deaths, political persecutions and inhuman tortures. These organizations also urged the UN human rights boss to condemn the grave human rights abuses and call for a prompt end of such unacceptable misuses mostly by law enforcement agencies under the patronization of the government and their influential persons.
In her views exchange meetings with non-state actors and some members of victims’ families, Michelle is informed of the incidents of human rights abuses such as enforced disappearance, state-sponsored media censorship, declining trends of freedom of expression and shrinking space for civil society organisations (CSOs). It is not like she was unaware of these violations as a leading figure representing the UN human rights body but she paid cool head to listen to the issues as a skilled human rights diplomat. Conversely, the government ministers while meeting with her denied any human rights misapplications rather they blamed the previous military dictators who served as authoritarian rulers for their atrocities on human rights and civil liberties.
Some of the family members of the victims of enforced disappearances who got the chance to meet with Michelle blamed the government for not taking their allegations into cognizance and sought support of the UN to make the government bound in bringing the perpetrators to justice and ensuring accountability of various law enforcement service providing bodies.
Overall human rights issues including attack on opposition parties, rights activists, fictitious law suits, oppression on freedom of expression, suppression and torturing of journalists, media activists and bloggers, protection of minority rights, disability rights, environmental justice, indigenous people’s rights, rights of LGBTQ and issues of Chittagong Hill Tracks are also discussed during her meetings with stakeholders.
Regarding the allegations of human rights misuses, Michelle uttered that she cannot resolve any problem instantly with magical touch but she would raise the issues before the UN meeting together with her report on the issues. She also mentioned how several successive human rights reports of the UN have documented “a narrowing civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals often leading to self-censorship”. Michelle also stressed the need for Inclusive society for carrying out the right to development by Bangladesh to transform the model of development as sustainable development.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina after meeting with Michelle Bachelet blamed the 1975 post military dictators in powers for the poor human rights records while her four ministers blamed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government. Prime minister and some of her ministers also slammed the role of the United States for the imposed sanction and human rights watchdogs for their anti-Bangladesh role in the guise of human rights.
Prime minister categorically urged the UNHRC head to take strong actions by the UN to take back the Rohingyas hosting by Bangladesh despite its manifold limitations. She apprehended the risk of spreading radicalism, trans-national criminality and potential threat of regional stability if the stay of the Rohingyas gets protracted. Notably, 1.4 million Rohingyas are living in Bangladesh after their mass exoduses in 1978, 1992 and 2017. Three-fourth of the Rohingyas arrived in Bangladesh in 2017 to escape the mass persecution by Myanmar.
Regarding enforced disappearances, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen claimed that there is nothing of such issues in Bangladesh but he sarcastically acknowledged around 76 incidents of enforced disappearances in the last 10 years. Of them 10 people are found alive but he blamed the victim families for not cooperating with the law enforcing agencies giving proper information. He, however, uttered that the government will inform these cases to the UN. Regarding hindrances of the activities of CSOs by the government, he said several thousand CSOs are actively working in the country while he called the media vibrant against the backdrop of state-backed censorship on media houses after meeting with the UNHRC chief.
Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal denying the allegations of enforced disappearance incidents by Bangladesh pointed counter allegations of sabotage activities against some of them while most of them have been absconding to escape legal trial for their offences, family feud, loan default, failure in business, involvement of illegal trafficking and for other reasons including frustration. He also said to the press after meeting with Michelle that there is no problem of religious harmony and solidarity here.
Law, justice and parliamentary affairs minister Anisul Huq said that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina prioritizes human rights issues as she and her family are the worst victims of human rights violations on 15 August 1975, when a group of disgruntled military personnel unleashed heinous attack on her family and relatives killing most of them including her father, mother and brothers. The minister agreed and assured Michelle to train the law enforcement agencies about human rights norms and benchmark if any proposal arises from the UN. He also assured her about the amendment of the most debated the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018.
The situation of human rights in many countries including Palestine, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea is horrific. However, in case of Bangladesh, it is alleged that over empowerment of law enforcement agencies by the government to yield political dividends has been a key reason for human rights violations in the country tarnishing its image to outside world. The situation has reached such a level that opposition political parties or other anti-government voices reportedly fear to stage demonstration and express their opinions freely turning Bangladesh as a police state with fascist government controlled by bureaucrats. The culture of fear has also been penetrated among all general people by the ruling party with the support of law enforcing agencies.
In suppressing the opposition voices and their demonstrations, the government is vehemently using the law enforcing bodies and ruling party activists. A bundle of repressive laws including the DSA 2018 are weaponized to muzzle the anti-government movements. Before the enactment of the DSA, the government have misused the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006 to silence and suppress opposition voices, journalists, civil society organizations (CSOs) and government critics. Another half a dozen repressive laws including the draft Data Protection Act 2022 and the Over-The-Top (OTT) Platforms regulation 2022 are on the offing undermining international human rights norms and standards.
In June 2022, the ruling Awami League government cancelled the registration of a CSO named Odhikar accusing of false propaganda against the government and spreading of misleading information about enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights violations that led to embargo against the RAB and seven of its past and present high level officers by the US treasury department in December 2021.
In fact, the commitment of the successive governments as to protection of human rights has ended in dashed hope and turned as flurry of lies. The establishment of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Bangladesh in 2009 is a positive step but in reality, the NHRC is very much inactive as the body is under the control of the government in terms of appointments of its chairman and other high ups and also for budgetary issues. The clawless NHRC has no permanent infrastructural set up amid its legal loopholes.
Michelle also visited the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar and thanked Bangladesh government for sheltering the persecuted Rohingyas amid its own constraints and acknowledged the manifold difficulties in dealing with the persisting Rohingya crisis. She confidently expressed that the UN would take efforts to ensure the safe, peaceful and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar but she urged them to be patient.
The UNHRC chief also noted the possible upcoming visits by some UN special rapporteurs to Bangladesh in the process of the country’s efforts to streamline human rights and implement the UPR recommendations. It is alleged that a number of the UN teams attempted nine times to visit Bangladesh during 2009 to 2021 to know the incidents of human rights abuses but they were denied entry by the government.
BNP leaders including Mirza Fakrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the BNP in connection with the visit of Michelle Bachelet opined that the present government cannot deny the horrific human rights violations especially the record number of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and other types of persecutions on the opposition leaders and activists, journalists, CSO members, media activists and other persons with anti-government voices.
Mirza Fakrul termed the law enforcing agency as another wing of the Awami League led government unleashing all forms of human rights abuses. He mentioned the development of the Awami League backed government as the twisted development for corruption and money laundering and in truth the country is now on the edge of ditch. He also blamed Awami League for gradually taking Bangladesh close to Sri Lanka which is now bankrupt.
It may be pertinent to mention that there are 1,07,000 cases against 3.5 million leaders and activists of BNP from grassroots to central level between 2009 to June 2021 as per a report of an online news portal. A large number of law suits are also pending against the leaders and activists of other anti-government political parties, journalists and rights activists. Many people are forced to leave the country by the law enforcement agencies.
But Bangladesh government is busy with its own composed song of development. Regarding development projects of Bangladesh at the costs of democracy, good governance and rule of law, the words of nobel laureate Amartya may be relevant to mention for the policy makers of the incumbent authoritarian government. Amartya Sen opines that development is the “realization of freedom and abolishment of unfreedoms such as poverty, famine and lack of political rights”. He argues that development is enhanced by democracy and the protection of human rights. Such rights, particularly freedom of the press, speech, association, assembly and so forth increase the standard of peoples’ livelihood and good governance amid transparency and accountability.
Article 25 of Bangladesh constitution 1972 endorses global peace, security and compassion or solidarity. The preamble, part II and part III of constitution are the epitome of human rights engulfing its three core elements namely freedom, equality and justice. The country is a party to eight out of core nine international human rights instruments. It has kept out of the purview of the only convention relating to enforced disappearance.
So, it cannot deny its obligation to protect human rights for all citizens. The history of the country is aligned with the British and Pakistani oppression and struggle for independence in 1971 through a sea of blood. But the world cannot deny the contribution of Bangladesh in the global peace keeping mission in various conflict-ridden countries with the largest number of troops while its huge migrant workers have been serving in most countries.
On the contrary, a kind of modern day slavery is prevailing in many sectors of Bangladesh for extremely low wage and high working hours. The ongoing strike of nearly 1,50,000 workers in more than 200 tea plantations demanding pay hike from the present wage of about US $1.25 per day bears such testimony. Even they cannot buy a dozen of eggs by their wage of a toilsome daylong work.
As Bangladesh is on the rise in the dynamics of economic development, so the effective, accountable, participatory and inclusive institutions in consonance with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) 16 are the demand of time. So, strengthening of state institutions like national human rights commission, election commission and judiciary amid institutional autonomy and accountability are urgent.
There is a gulf of difference between the public avowal of the successive governments as to human rights promotion and protection and awful reality in Bangladesh. The victim family members are enduring a long-standing frustration and dearth of security for the lack of progress in investigations and other obstacles in access to justice for the brutalities committed to their family members. They also reportedly receive repeated threats from the law enforcing agencies for talking to media. Simultaneously, the persisting culture of fear, lawlessness and absence of justice have expedited their frustration together with their shrinking trust on the administrative and judicial functions of the country.
It is well known that lack of democratic practice accelerates human rights crisis in any country and the situation in Bangladesh has been close to North Korea, Myanmar and similar countries. However, the crisis of democracy is now persisting in around 80 countries and Bangladesh is one of them.
But the extreme fascism in Bangladesh is a serious impediment for the democratic growth and institutional independence of the country after two disputed elections in 2014 and 2018. The government prioritizes development over democracy as a ploy but it has failed to control endemic corruption and money laundering. More than US $8 billion is siphoned off every year from the country by means of mis-voicing in the name of international trade by scrupulous politicians, business persons and bureaucrats.
Though the UN has a strong mechanism for human rights protection, it cannot bind any country rather it can suggest for improvement of human rights governance. Under the UN system, every UN member is under the scrutiny of the universal periodic review (UPR) under the UNHRC as to its human rights situation in every five years.
Under the process, Bangladesh government accepted 178 recommendations from other UN member-states during its 3rd UPR in the 39th session of the UNHRC in Geneva on 20 September 2018. Among 178 recommendations 25 of them were attached with strengthening and protection of freedom of expression. In that session, a high level concern was raised against the potential abuse of the DSA 2018 which has turned true.
As per the provision of the UPR, Bangladesh government will have to submit a national report on implementation progress and existing impediments in June 2023 and participate in its 4th UPR in November of the same year. The country will have to face numerous questions from the UN member-states on the status of implementation of the UPR recommendations and adopted measures in ensuring accountability of those involved in human rights abuses.
The concept of human rights is not absolute rather a relative terminology. There is not a single country in the world where there is no violation of human rights. It is only possible to have 100 percent human rights compliance only in a utopian country not in a real one. Noted Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg in Harvard commencement address in 2016 says that the world is full of monsters and there is xenophobia, racism, homophobia, class hatred, political hatred, religious hatred and other forms of violence. As a movie director, he also said that his job is to make a world that lasts for two hours but he urged the Harvard graduates to create a world that lasts forever with their lasting impacts.
But who are to urge in Bangladesh for the promotion and protection of human rights. There are a very few visible actions taken against the violators of human rights in the country in 50 years. But the large number of perpetrators are enjoying state-sponsored undeclared immunity, impunity and indemnity for their gross violation of human rights ranging from 1971 to 2022.
There should have a timely mechanisms to stop human rights violations and establish the rule of law and good governance in all spheres of governance to avert further sanctions on Bangladesh by international community due to its poor human rights records. In parallel, the victims of human rights violations must be given acceptable redress guaranteed under national and international law, otherwise, the words of human rights will be like beautiful show-pieces with no utility. Can the UNHRC chief’s recent visit to Bangladesh be a wind of positive change? Let us be hopeful for the desired change in the human rights landscape in the entire world including Bangladesh harnessing true spirit of human rights and justice.
About Author: Emdadul Haque is an Independent Human Rights Researcher and Freelance Contributor based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Previously, he served academia for more than a decade and lastly as an Assistant Professor of Law at Southeast University. He holds Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws from Rajshahi University. He can be reached via email: [email protected] and on Twitter: @emdadlaw