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Bangladesh Human Rights Record Under the Microscope

On 15 November 2018, the People's Republic of Bangladesh came under intense scrutiny for its failing human rights record, culture of state impunity and climate of fear as the 2018 parliamentary elections approach.

Bangladesh has for a number of years been a country of concern for many within the international community, as despite its rhetoric and protestations to be a democracy, the reality is very different, with countless mass human rights violations being committed with worrying frequency, to such an extent that it can be seen as State sanctioned policy. Further, emboldened by the lack of consequence for its actions, the Government of Bangladesh has adopted overt policies to reduce democratic space and consolidate its grasp on power. The Government of Bangladesh and its security services now have statutory authority to continue to oppress civilians, oppression that thus far, has been free from consequence, other than ‘statements of concern’ from some quarters of the international community.

It is respectfully suggested that is no longer be enough to issue statements of concern, as they are simply ignored by the Government, or devalued by reference being drawn to an alternative position that may have offered positive comment, no matter how limited.

The Government of Bangladesh is adept at manipulating the facts to suit its own ends, and will not hesitate to rely on mischaracterisations, statements used out of context, and on occasion, falsehoods, to give credence to its positions.

On 15 November 2018, the European Parliament adopted a powerful resolution, condemning the appalling human rights record in Bangladesh and calling for those persons responsible for mass arbitrary arrests, torture in custody, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances to be held accountable. On the same day, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) of the U.S. Congress hosted a briefing entitled “Elections and Human Rights in Bangladesh”. The Panel was comprised of John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at HRW; Waris Husain, policy analyst from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Laura Bramon, Senior Programme Manager of Child Protection and Education at World Vision US.

The Panel reflected on how the political tension surrounding the upcoming elections is impacting the human rights situation in the country. The discussion was held in what it was considered a “climate of fear”, as the Government is currently targeting political opposition groups and proponents of free speech, thus threatening“to shutter civil society and increase extremism”. The panelists analysed the human rights situation within this complex environment and offered recommendations to the U.S. institutions and, more generally, to the international community, in the hope that these recommendations would encourage Bangladesh to protect individual freedoms and issue guarantees of freedom and fairness throughout the upcoming elections.

Of note, John Sifton recommended that members of the U.S. Congress communicate to the Government of Bangladesh their concerns about the current crackdown and, more importantly, inform them that if Bangladesh institutions continue to engage in broad human rights abuses, the U.S. Congress will have no choice “but to impose restrictions on future US-Bangladesh military-to-military ties and assistance, and possibly impose new penalties on the economic front”.

The briefing was well attended with former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, in the audience and Guernica co-founder, Toby Cadman.

The Government of Bangladesh was represented by its Ambassador and Bangladesh envoy to Washington DC, Mohammad Ziauddin, the Deputy Chief of Mission, Mahbub Hassan Saleh and a number of members of the U.S. branch of the Awami League.

Ambassador Ziauddin, whilst attending the briefing, departed abruptly after the first 10 minutes and left his Deputy Chief of Mission to read out a pre-prepared rebuke of the allegations. He started his remarks by thanking “for this opportunity to share Bangladesh’s record on human rights, a record we are proud of”. This statement represents the typical and continued blatant denial by the Government of Bangladesh of the atrocious human rights violations taking place on a daily basis – a denial which resonated throughout his remarks.

Having provided a one-sided account of the 1971 War of Liberation accusing the political opponents of the crime of genocide, he stressed the help provided to Rohingya refugees. However, he omitted the allegations against the Government concerning the treatment of the Rohingya in Bangladesh over the last few years and attempted to brush away the announcement by the Bangladesh authorities that they are ready to repatriate 700,000 Rohingya Muslims back to Mynamar.

In a written statement from the Ambassador it is stated that his government had to grapple with a number of issues as well. He went onto say that “[a]s we near another national election this year, the BNP is again attempting to stir violence and spread lies, some of which are being offered as facts at forums like this one.” The statement, accusing the political opposition of acts of violence and sedition, was essentially stating that the panelists and everyone else who spoke in criticism of the Government had lied. The Ambassador also conveniently forgot to mention the human rights violations perpetrated by his own government against the members of the opposition in general and in relation to national elections in particular. It is no secret that the ruling Awami League and its State Security Forces being responsible for thousands of unlawful arrests and detentions and enforced disappearances, and dozens of extra-judicial killings, and the crackdown on the freedom of expression and association. The Ambassador offered some fantastical explanations for what is going on in Bangladesh in what was described as debunking the myth of disappearances.

For example, the BNP did not participate in the 2014 national elections. The Ambassador’s explanation why the BNP boycotted the elections is worth quoting to understand how the Bangladeshi authorities are prepared unashamedly to misinterpret the situation in Bangladesh:

Prior to Bangladesh’s 2014 national election, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, looked at the polling data and concluded it stood little chance at the voting booth. People of Bangladesh recognized and appreciated Awami League party policies that have helped grow the economy, broadened women’s education and participation in the workforce, increased life-span and reduced infant mortality. Because BNP knew its policies would fail in the market place of ideas, it turned toward disruption and violence.”

The truth is that the political opposition boycotted the 2014 elections because the Awami League would not agree for the elections to be overseen by a neutral caretaker government to ensure free and fair elections, something the Awami League had violently fought for whilst in opposition. The BNP, knowing that there was no prospect of free and fair elections, did not participate. The EU and others shared this view and decided not to send any election observes to Bangladesh in 2014.

The Ambassador also stressed the government’s efforts to ensure free and fair elections in 2018 by engaging with the opposition parties and the Election Commission. However, the fact is that yet again the Government refused to accommodate the opposition calls for the elections to be overseen by the neutral caretaker government. And yet again the Awami League will be in charge of the elections. That not much is thought of the supposed “fairness” of the 2018 elections is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the EU, USA and Commonwealth Office have declined to send election observers this year as well.

Moreover, the brutality of the Awami League regime was confirmed during their crackdown on the recent student protests for better road safety after two school children were killed when two bus drivers recklessly raised on the road. According to the Ambassador apparently “[o]pposition and extremist agitators collected school uniforms from the shelves of stores and dressed as students. Thus disguised, they began committing acts of violence in the demonstrations, forcing the police to intervene.” Hardly a plausible explanation and it is particularly astounding coming from a senior diplomat. Clearly, the Ambassador takes his audience for fools simply unable to conduct a simple intellectual examination into the reality on the ground.  

Reacting to the arrest of a prominent journalist Shahidul Alam, the Ambassador emphasised his “secular” government’s commitment to preventing violence in the “multi-cultural society” in Bangladesh by adopting anti-hate speech legislation. In truth, this legislation criminalises innocent journalists and activists for criticising the ruling Awami League.  Further, the Deputy Chief of Mission in his remarks, accused Alam of inciting violence, a truly remarkable attack on a highly regarded journalist.  The irony should not be lost that just days after the Congressional briefing, Alam was finally granted bail and released.

Regarding the claim of 'secularism' frequently made by the Government. Let us not forget that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, has criticised atheist bloggers in the past, has referred to the Washington Times newspaper as a 'Jew newspaper' and has adopted a worryingly close relationship with the fundamentalist group Hefazat e Islam in Bangladesh. Claims of secularism are therefore a further example of thinly veiled rhetoric.

He protested that the whole of the police force cannot be judged by actions of “some” rogue officers and that all the extra-judicial killings were in fact justified in the war on drugs, despite many of the deceased families claiming that their loved ones were not involved in the drug trade. On the issue of the enforced disappearances, he speculated that many of the “disappeared” were runaways from the law and that “[s]ome might have gone into hiding to avoid huge social embarrassment due to personal and financial wrong-doings.”

In conclusion, the Government's position in highlighting its commitment to the rule of law,  human rights and fundamental freedoms, in once again thinly veiled rhetoric, or as Senator Patrick Leahy put it "“blanket denials, obfuscation, and even falsehoods“.

The Ambassador claimed that “[b]eing a member of an opposition party – or for that matter the governing party – doesn’t permit anyone to be above the law”.   But this is exactly what is happening in Bangladesh. The Awami League considers itself to be above the law doing everything they can to strengthen their grip on power in Bangladesh – arguably a one-party state since 2009.

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