Friday, 30 September, 2022

Narratives of Human Rights and Bangladesh Context

Farzana Mahmood

Narratives of Human Rights and Bangladesh Context
Farzana Mahmood

In November 2021 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in Cameroon which urged the Government of Cameroon to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) immediate and unfettered access in the North-West and South-West regions of the country to investigate potential violations of human rights. In May 2022, the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet  visited China. Prior the visit the Commissioner asserted that she would require unfettered access to Xinjiang, the Uyghur region, to conduct an independent assessment. However, the Chinese authorities only allowed a friendly visit for the purposes of dialogue. The European Union expressed regret that Human Rights Commissioner could not secure full access to persecuted groups, individuals and detention centres of Xinjiang.

Against this backdrop the Government of Bangladesh invited the UN Human Rights Commissioner to visit the country. The invitation implies that the Government is respectful to the international human rights mechanisms. As a defender of human rights, Bangladesh aspires to become a candidate for the United Nations Human Rights Council membership election; hence there was a need for discussion and communication with the OHCHR. 

After series of consultations with the relevant stakeholders in Bangladesh, the UN Human Rights Commissioner in her report acknowledged, among others, that the country has made remarkable economic and social progress. The report articulated that 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. There has been much progress, more and more women have entered the labour force and the country has witnessed improvements in girls’ education, with gender parity reached in primary schools. The Commissioner  also mentioned that Bangladesh has been a leader in international forum on key human rights issues such as migration and climate change.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner in her report observed that –‘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’. The Commissioner also stated that her Office is ready to provide advice on how such a body could be designed in line with international standards.

Prior to the visit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, BNP demanded UN investigation on alleged enforced disappearances. On 10th of August of this year nine human rights organizations issued a joint statement alleging that hundreds of Bangladeshis have been forcibly disappeared, tortured, and killed since the Government of Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009. The NGOs and the BNP also appealed to the UN High Commissioner that she should encourage the Bangladesh Government to create an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths, and offer the support of her office to form such a commission. It is worth noting that allegations of extra judicial killings against the law enforcement agencies started to progress since USA raised the same concern in the recent past.

In 2001, a combined security force, including the army and other law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh, was created to address the deteriorating law and order situation of that time. Between October 2002 and January 2003 ‘Operation Clean Heart’ was carried out by that joint security force. During the Operation, around 57 people died in custody and all of them were categorized as terrorists or criminals. The law enforcement officers engaged in the Operation were indemnified by the Parliament through the enactment of the Joint Drive Indemnity Act 2003.  The Act articulated that no complaints can be filed against anyone involved in the joint drive for any arrest, death, torture, violation of rights of any citizen and for any damage of physical, mental or financial nature committed by anyone of the joint drive between October 16, 2002 and January 9, 2003. Subsequently, in 2004 Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force was created with members of army and law enforcement agencies to fight against terrorism and crime.

In October 2007, Human Rights Watch condemned RAB force for the unlawful killings of 350 people in custody, and the alleged torture of hundreds more. While Odhikar, claimed that 322 people were killed by RAB in encounters during the last two years of the Interim Government prior the general elections of December 2008. In May 2009 Human Rights Watch accused that more than 1,000 people died in extra-judicial killing in Bangladesh between the period of 2004 to 2008, but the numbers had dropped since the AL Government took power in January 2009. Against this backdrop in June 2009, the High Court asked the Government and chiefs of police and the RAB force to show cause, why criminal proceedings should not be drawn against such killings.

In 2015 the High Court declared the Joint Drive Indemnity Act 2003 illegal, void ab initio and unconstitutional. The Court also ruled that any family member of the victims of ‘Operation Clean Heart’ can take legal actions against those officers responsible for the extra judicial killings and torture of their relatives during the Operation. The Court also observed that all citizens are equal before the law and nobody, including members of law enforcement agencies, is above the law. Therefore, providing indemnity to the members of joint force was illegal and unconstitutional. 

In 2017, in the notorious seven murder case twenty five former RAB personnel were convicted. In 2019, the High Court in the Refat Sharif murder case observed that extra judicial killings are not acceptable unless law-enforcing agencies have done it to save their lives. In January 2022, in the Major Sinha murder case two high-ranking former police officers were sentenced to death and six others including three former police officers were sentenced to life imprisonment for committing the shootout murder of Major Sinha. Few complaints of human rights violations against the RAB force are under investigations.  

However, the allegations made by the NGOs and BNP that hundreds of Bangladeshis have been subjected to extra judicial killings and torture since the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took her office in 2009 and their demand for an independent inquiry commission raises few burning questions. Would the proposed commission take into account the crimes committed under the name of “Operation Clean Heart”? Would it take into consideration the impact of the indemnity Acts enacted by the BNP Government in 1975 and 2003 to protect the violators of human rights?  Would the commission inquire into the State sponsored extremist attack of 21st August 2004? Did the NGOs and civil society members raise these concerns? These issues are important since human rights and justice cannot be ensured if we overlook certain aspects of the past. Accountability for the crimes committed in the past is a key to sustainable peace, restoration of dignity of the victims, successful prevention of recurrence of violence and reconciliation process.

Human rights cannot be seen in isolation or from a smaller prism even while it is one of the important pillars of democracy and rule of law. Unfortunately, rule of law, democracy and human rights are subjected to the enormous challenge of manipulation of the superpowers which want to impose imperial designs on the world in the name of peace. Therefore, issue of human rights should be considered in the context of society, law and order situation, extremism, terrorism, growing intolerance and stability of the specific country. Acts of terrorism not only destroys human rights, liberty and democracy, it also affects the economic and social development of states. In the last one decade Bangladesh has achieved remarkable progress in poverty reduction, socio-economic development, women empowerment and handling climate change vulnerability. All these have been possible because of stable law and order situation.

Despite all the criticisms against RAB force and law enforcement agencies, these bodies have contributed to maintaining peace, combat crimes and terrorism. Since the Holy Artisan violence our country has not witnessed any extremist attack. Experts claim that with regard to combating terrorism a solely reactive criminal justice system is insufficient and hence preventive measures are necessary. To achieve this end our law enforcing agencies have shown success, though in this endeavour there are some allegations of human rights violations against them. In the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy adopted by the UN in 2006, member states reiterated that effective counterterrorism mechanisms and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, rather complementary and mutually reinforcing. Keeping this in mind the law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh should be sensitized and provided with intensive training to ensure that they do not violate human rights while combating terrorism and crimes, unless in a given situation application of force is mandatory to save their own lives. Bangladesh has independent judiciary and a Human Rights Commission. These institutions should be strengthened so that any allegation of violence, extra judicial killing or unlawful detention against the law enforcement agencies can be addressed immediately and effectively.

Though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself remained a victim of human rights violation, she served as a human rights champion. Her parents and siblings were brutally killed and several times she had been subjected to politically motivated violence. On many occasions Sheikh Hasina’s political opponents had denied her civil rights, right to liberty, right to equality before law and equal protection of law. Nonetheless, she never failed to show compassion to those who denied her lawful rights and tried to kill her. She took recourse to the existing legal system to ensure the trial and punishment of the war criminals and the killers of her family members. Sheikh Hasina accommodated more than a million of Rohingyas, who faced severe torture and violence in Myanmar. Under her leadership Bangladesh is bound to overcome all the challenges to human rights and attain substantive democracy.


The writer is the International Affairs Secretary of Mohila League and Expert Member of Environment Affairs Sub Committee of Awami League