UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday highly praised Bangladesh for making remarkable economic and social progress and is aiming to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status in a few years.
“Starting from a low baseline, Bangladesh has made strides in socio-economic development, poverty eradication, access to education and health, women’s and children’s mortality, access to food, water and sanitation,” she said.
It has also stepped up to provide refuge to more than 1 million Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee persecution and serious international crimes being committed against them across the border in Myanmar.
Bangladesh also continues to face challenges on the human rights front, and she has been able to discuss many of these extensively with the Government and civil society members, she added.
The UN High Commissioner arrived in Dhaka on Aug 14. In Dhaka, she met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ministers of foreign affairs, home affairs, law, and education and other state officials.
Bachelet also met the National Human Rights Commission and representatives of civil society, as well as members of the diplomatic community and academics. She was able to interact with students at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies on climate change and human rights.
The delegation from her Office was also able to represent her in meetings with other stakeholders, including trade unions and political parties.
“But successive UN human rights reports have documented a narrowing of civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals often leading to self-censorship.”
Laws and policies over-regulating NGOs and broadly restricting the freedom of expression make it difficult – and sometimes risky – for them to function effectively, the UN rights chief added.
She said Democratic and civic space, as well as effective checks and balances and accountability are essential as Bangladesh aims for the next levels of development.
“It also contributes to decrease the risk of corruption and other hurdles to sustainable economic development and sound fiscal management.”
Speaking about the election, she said the election period will be an important time for Bangladesh to maximise civic and political space, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly of political activists, human rights defenders, opposition parties and journalists.
It is also important to ensure that law enforcement forces have the necessary training to manage protests without resorting to the excessive use of force.
Bachelet said there needs to be space for more dialogue among political parties and with a wide range of civil society actors to prevent grievances from building and erupting in social unrest. “The voices of women, religious minorities and indigenous peoples, and especially young people need to be heard.”
She observes that Women's formal participation in political decision-making processes at local levels has improved in recent years.
“I also called on the Government to take proactive measures to increase the number of women in decision-making positions at all levels.”
There has been much progress – more and more women have entered the labour force in some sectors, and the country has witnessed improvements in girls’ education, with gender parity reached in primary schools, she said.
But despite the adoption of a number of important national policy frameworks, challenges to gender equality remain, she said adding that Violence against women, including sexual violence, remains high and access to justice and accountability for the victims remains difficult.
She stressed the importance of protecting minority groups, such as Hindus and indigenous peoples from violence or land encroachments.
The peace accord in the Chittagong Hill Tracts 25 years ago was an important achievement. But given the continued allegations of human rights violations, linked with land disputes and the need for demilitarization, she called for full implementation of the peace accord and unrestricted access for independent actors to visit the area.
Speaking about right issues in Bangladesh, she said there are continued, alarming allegations of both short-term and long-term enforced disappearances, and concerns about the lack of due process and judicial safeguards.
“Particularly given the long-standing frustrations at the lack of progress in investigations and other obstacles to justice, I encouraged the Government to create an independent, specialised mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.”
She said Her Office is ready to provide advice on how such a body could be designed in line with international standards.
Inviting the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit Bangladesh would also show a commitment to decisively address this issue, she said.
As the biggest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, the UN rights chief said Bangladesh should ensure it has a robust system in place to ensure the careful human rights screening of security personnel.
She said that she also discussed law reforms, to bring domestic legislation in line with international human rights laws.
“My Office and the Government have engaged in dialogue on review of the Digital Security Act,” she said, adding “I acknowledge the need to regulate the online space, addressing online hate speech, disinformation and combating cybercrime.”
Addressing these concerns is not simple, as regulating communications always creates risks for the protection of freedom of expression.
“We have submitted our recommendations for repeal and revision of certain provisions of the Act, with a view to ensuring their compliance with international human rights laws and standards and preventing arbitrary application or misuse.”
She said the UN Human Rights office look forward to the Government’s feedback and timeline to expedite the review.
“We also discussed the importance of working closely with civil society and the UN to ensure that the new draft Data Protection Law and the OTT (Over The Top Platforms) regulations meet international human rights standards.”