On 30 December 2018, Bangladesh will hold parliamentary elections. This election follows the convulsive electoral period of early 2014, which ended with a massive crackdown on political opponents, hundreds of arrests and dozens of extra-judicial killings. The 2014 elections were rejected by the international community as unrepresentative and due to the fact that conditions were not met for free and fair elections in a secure environment, compounded by the political opposition boycott, the EU, US, UK and other stakeholders did not send election monitors. The 2018 elections will be celebrated, despite former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia, being imprisoned on charges of corruption. Ironically, the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, was charged with similar conduct during the rule of the military government, but she has not faced trial. Against this background of selective justice and the curtailing of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms, several national and international institutions are reflecting on the situation in Bangladesh and on the ability of its state institutions to hold a free and fair electoral process. One may draw its own conclusions from the fact the EU has decided once against not to send election monitors.
With this in mind, on 15 November 2018, the European Parliament enacted a powerful resolution concerning the South Asian country's human rights record. The European Parliament resolution called on the government to urgently address the “deteriorating” human rights conditions in Bangladesh and to halt abuses such as the “ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly”, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, excessive use of force and the endemic use of torture.
More specifically, the European Parliament called on Bangladeshi authorities to conduct independent investigations into the disappearance of Maroof Zaman and Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem, the latter victim in which Guernica members have acted for several years, and bring those responsible to justice“in accordance with international standards”. Members of Parliament also expressed concerns about the case of eminent photographer and journalist, Shahidul Alam, calling on Bangladeshi authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release” him. The European Parliament made explicit reference to the next general elections in the hope that it will be“peaceful, transparent and participatory so that citizens can express a genuine political choice”. It is believed that following this pressure, Shahidul has now been released.
On the same day, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) of the U.S. Congress hosted the briefing“Elections and Human Rights in Bangladesh”. 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 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 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 Bangladeshi 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 Guernica Group welcomes the EU Parliament resolution and is fully dedicated to the improvement of the human rights situation in Bangladesh. On 20 April 2018, Guernica 37 International Justice Chamber submitted a communication to the ICC Prosecutor placing special attention to the “discernible pattern” of extrajudicial executions, mass arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances that the EU Parliament highlighted in its resolution.
The Guernica Group has further submitted a statement to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission which will be on the website from here.