United Nations human rights experts should lead an independent international investigation into enforced disappearances by security forces in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Monday. Senior UN officials, donors, and trade partners should step up measures to hold senior members of Bangladesh security forces accountable, stop enforced disappearances, and prevent future abuses.
The 57-page report, “‘Where No Sun Can Enter’: A Decade of Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh,” finds that, despite credible and consistent evidence that Bangladesh security forces routinely commit enforced disappearances, the ruling Awami League has ignored calls by donor governments, the UN, human rights organizations, and civil society to address the culture of impunity. Alongside the report, Human Rights Watch created a webpage tracking and profiling the cases of 86 victims in Bangladesh who were forcibly disappeared and who remain missing.
“Awami League leadership and Bangladesh authorities mock victims and routinely obstruct investigations, making clear that the government has no intention of meaningfully addressing enforced disappearances by its security forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As critics of the government live in fear of being forcibly disappeared, and families of the disappeared have little hope of getting justice from the government, UN human rights experts should open an investigation into enforced disappearances in Bangladesh.”
This report, based on over 115 interviews conducted between July 2020 and March 2021 with victims, their family members, and witnesses to enforced disappearances, finds that Bangladesh authorities consistently refuse to investigate enforced disappearances and to hold those responsible accountable. Human Rights Watch also found that the authorities use enforced disappearances – and the threat of enforced disappearances – to silence critics, chilling free speech.
Although security forces in Bangladesh have long committed grave human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial executions, including under previous governments, enforced disappearances in particular have become a hallmark of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s over decade-long rule.
Ahead of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30, 2021, concerned governments and the United Nations should stand with victims of enforced disappearances by increasing scrutiny of their relationships with Bangladesh security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres should make clear that the UN is unwilling to serve as a cover for the military’s abuses at home. The Department of Peace Operations should sever all ties with any units and commanders found responsible for serious human rights abuses, including commanders who failed to prevent or punish abuses by individuals under their command.
According to Bangladeshi human rights groups, nearly 600 people have been forcibly disappeared by security forces since Prime Minister Hasina took office in 2009. While some victims have been released or produced in court after weeks or months of secret detention, others became victims of extrajudicial killings that are falsely claimed to be deaths during gunfights. Scores are still missing. Many of the victims were critics of the ruling Awami League government.
The Bangladesh government consistently denies that its security forces commit enforced disappearances. Such denials trickle down from the government leadership, through the ranks of authority. Victims’ families repeatedly described outright refusal by the police and other security forces to file a case or conduct a legitimate investigation of alleged enforced disappearances, at times even citing “orders from above.”
The notoriously abusive Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is responsible for more enforced disappearances in Bangladesh than any other unit, according to Bangladeshi human rights organizations. Describing the unit as a “death squad,” human rights organizations have repeatedly called for RAB to be disbanded. In October 2020, 10 US senators published a bipartisan letter calling for sanctions against top RAB officials for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture.
The United States, UK, Canada, the EU, and other governments with similar human rights sanctions regimes should impose targeted sanctions on top officials with responsibility for ongoing enforced disappearances and other grave abuses.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres should ban Rapid Action Battalion officers from participating in UN peacekeeping missions and ramp up screening of those deployed under the UN flag to ensure its human rights screening policy is being effectively applied in Bangladesh.
“Members of a death squad should not be deployed in UN peacekeeping missions abroad,” Adams said. “The UN Department of Peace Operations should ban the Rapid Action Battalion from peacekeeping and the US should bring individual human rights sanctions against Bangladesh commanders implicated in serious crimes like torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.”