Bangladesh’s Struggle: State Power And Suppression Of Voices – OpEd


Human rights violations are commonly recognized as infringements upon the fundamental principles that every person should be entitled to. When these violations are done by the state, deliberately aimed at particular groups such as political opposition parties, particularly members of Jamait Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party members, intellectuals, critics, and journalists, they have a detrimental effect on democratic values, the rule of law.

This is particularly relevant in the context of Bangladesh, where there have been concerns raised about the occurrence of human rights abuses as human rights violations in Bangladesh have raised concerns about the infringement of fundamental principles and freedoms, there have been instances where these violations have occurred, raising concerns about the state of human rights in the country. 

Bangladesh’s involvement of state actors in perpetrating and supporting these abuses implies that the violations are not isolated incidents, but rather a systematic approach endorsed or condoned by the government. Such state-sponsored violations often target specific groups, including opposition parties, intellectuals, critics, and journalists, with the intention of silencing dissent and stifling freedom of expression.

Shaikh Hasina Wajid after coming to power (2009) had launched a crackdown against opposition political parties. The deliberate targeting of these opposition parties undermines the democratic principles of political pluralism and fair competition. It restricts the ability of individuals and groups to express their dissenting views, participate in political activities, and contribute to the democratic process. By suppressing opposition parties, the government is limiting the diversity of opinions and hampers the development of a vibrant and inclusive political landscape.

Similarly, increasing attacks in Bangladesh on journalists and others exercising their right to freely criticize government policies and practices, is alarming. Widespread restrictions on freedom of expression undermine conditions for open political debate ahead of elections, scheduled for January 2024. Sixty-six journalists have been targeted by government & its supporters in first three months of 2023. The targeting of critics, and journalists has a distressing effect on freedom of expression and the right to information. Intellectuals play a vital role in shaping public discourse. They are being subjected to harassment, intimidation, or violence, custodial torture stifling intellectual debate and eroding the foundations of a democratic society. Critics and journalists serve as watchdogs, holding those in power accountable and informing the public about important issues. However, they have become targets of state-sponsored violations, in Bangladesh it is creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. Journalists are facing threats, arrests, and even physical harm, leading to a decline in investigative reporting, transparency, and the flow of information to the public.

These targeted violations are encroaching on the human rights of individuals and undermining the principles of democracy, rule of law, and freedom of expression. It has created an environment of fear, suppress dissenting voices, and impede the development of a vibrant civil society. Addressing these concerns is crucial for upholding human rights and ensuring the establishment of a robust democratic system in Bangladesh.

These violations pose significant challenges to the democratic norms and values upheld in Bangladesh. A healthy democracy thrives on the principles of pluralism, inclusivity, and the ability to voice differing opinions. However, when the state suppresses or targets individuals or groups based on their political beliefs or criticisms, it undermines the democratic fabric of the nation. Moreover, human rights violations have a detrimental impact on the rule of law. The rule of law guarantees equal protection and fair treatment for all individuals, irrespective of their affiliations or perspectives. When human rights abuses occur, it erodes the trust and confidence in the legal system and weakens the overall governance structures. This, in turn, hampers efforts to build a just and equitable society. Additionally, human rights violations also disrupt social cohesion within Bangladesh. A society that respects and upholds human rights is more likely to foster harmonious relationships among its citizens. However, when certain groups face targeted abuses, it breeds fear, division, and resentment. This undermines the unity and solidarity required for a cohesive society.

In Bangladesh, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an anti-terrorism force, has been utilized against opponents and critics of the government. This raises serious concerns about the misuse of RAB’s power and its impact on human rights. While the primary purpose of RAB is to combat terrorism and maintain public security, there have been instances where this force has been allegedly deployed to target individuals who are political opponents or vocal critics of the government. This includes activists, journalists, and members of opposition parties. There has been extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances and RAB enjoys impunity, under the aegis of Hassina Wajid’s government.

The utilization of RAB against opponents and critics is a clear violation of democratic principles, as it undermines the fundamental rights of individuals to express their opinions and participate in political activities without fear of reprisal. It creates an atmosphere of intimidation, silencing dissenting voices and obstructing the democratic process. The Government is harnessing this elite force for political gains, with tacit approval from the highest offices of Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina Wajid.

Furthermore, the misuse of RAB raises concerns about accountability and transparency. When an anti-terrorism force is employed to suppress political opposition, it compromises the impartiality and credibility of the institution. There is a need for effective oversight mechanisms in Bangladesh to ensure that RAB operates within the boundaries of the law and respects the human rights of all individuals. It is essential for the Bangladeshi government to address these concerns and ensure that RAB operates in accordance with international human rights standards. Upholding the principles of democracy, rule of law, and freedom of expression requires the protection of individuals’ rights, regardless of their political affiliations or opinions. This includes safeguarding against any misuse of security forces for political purposes and promoting an environment where peaceful dissent is valued and respected.

In Bangladesh, the Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018, an anti-cybercrime law, was enacted with the objective of curbing propaganda and extremist content online. However, there have been concerns about the misuse of this law, as well as the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006. While the intention behind these laws is to ensure a safe and secure digital environment, there have been instances where they have been misused to stifle freedom of expression and target individuals for their online activities. The broad and vague language of the laws has provided authorities with wide-ranging powers that can be used to suppress dissent and silence critical voices.

The misuse of the DSA and ICT Act poses a significant threat to freedom of speech and undermines the principles of a democratic society. These laws should be applied in a manner that respects standards of human rights, including the right to express opinions, engage in peaceful assembly, and access information. It is essential for the Bangladeshi government to review and amend these laws to ensure they are not used as tools to silence political opponents, activists, journalists, or any individuals expressing their legitimate opinions online. Safeguards should be put in place to prevent abuse of power, and mechanisms for independent oversight and accountability should be strengthened.

Bangladesh being a democratic state must foster an inclusive and democratic society where individuals can freely express themselves, access information, and participate in online discourse without fear of reprisal. Addressing human rights violations in Bangladesh requires an approach that involves the government, civil society organizations, and the international community. It is essential to hold accountable those responsible for these violations, ensure impartial investigations, and provide reparations to victims. Strengthening institutions, promoting transparency, and fostering a culture of respect for human rights are crucial steps towards creating a more inclusive and just society in Bangladesh.

Asma Khan Durrani

Asma Khan Durrani is an expert in Strategic Affairs. She is a student of Defense and Strategic Studies. She has done M.Phil. from SPIR Quaid-I-Azam University Islamabad. She has also been published internationally. She tweets @AsmaKhan_47

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