Saturday, December 25, 2010

Human Rights Watch Report on Border Killings

The Daily Sun, December 26th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The issue of killings of Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) has been a thorny one that has not been resolved satisfactorily. It has the potential to derail the positive steps that the two countries have taken in the last 2 years for a paradigm shift in their bilateral relations, given the emotional nature of the issue.

Bangladesh has protested these killings at various levels but without success. In the last decade, at least 1000 Bangladeshis have died at the hands of the BSF. The number alone underscores the seriousness of the issue. The reported cases of abuse and torture at the hands of the BSF have further complicated the issue of killings of Bangladeshis in the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Recently Human Rights Watch, one of world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to the protection of human rights, has published an 81 pages Report on the border killings/torture/abuse suffered by Bangladeshis (together with Indians) on the 2000 km border between Bangladesh and Indian province of West Bengal and the role of the BSF. The Report has documented indisputable evidence about BSF’s wrong doings and has shown that the problem is not really going to be resolved soon. The Report has been based on interviews with the families of the victims and in case of those abused/tortured, with the victims themselves. BSF officials and human rights groups in India and Bangladesh were also interviewed together with BDR officials.

The findings are grim. It has shown that the victims have been killed while involved in smuggling or cattle hustling or just being with those involved with those nefarious activities. It concluded that the relationship between the alleged crime and punishment was utterly disproportional and that in many cases, the victims were shot dead while fleeing. Some victims had been tortured to death simply on suspicion of being involved in smuggling. Children who were used by the smugglers to avoid detection had also been killed summarily.

There was almost no accountability in bringing the BSF personnel involved to justice and even the palpably evident cases of arbitrary killings had gone unpunished. The Report found the abuses and violation of human rights by the BSF acceptable to the Indian Government. The Indian Government argued that the BSF shootings had been necessary to check smuggling, mass migration of Bangladeshis and terrorists using Banagladesh as sanctuary to cross into India for terrorist attacks. The Report found that few of those killed had terrorist connections. Mass migration of Bangladesh was also an unacceptable excuse because India had fenced 3,200 km of the border. Smuggling was also not a good excuse to justify the killings because of fencing unless the BSF had connived and later, deals with smugglers had gone wrong.

The Report showed that Indian laws stood in the way to bring the “trigger happy” BSF personnel to bear responsibility for their acts. It also shed light to the fact that many of the BSF personnel involved in unlawful acts had gone to the Bangladesh-India border after a stint in Kashmir where security forces had been accused by both local and foreign human rights organizations of human rights violations.

The recommendations of the Report also pointed an accusing finger at BSF. It called upon the Indian Government to assure that the BSF followed UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms Law enforcement officials. It also recommended that the BSF officials accused of killing and abuses should be investigated by civilian courts as the BSF had failed to deliver justice in trying such cases. It also asked for an independent commission to try serious cases of violation of human rights by the BSF. The Report also called upon the Indian Government to remove all legal obstacles that provide immunity to BSF officials from prosecution. The Report called upon India and Bangladesh to accede to the request of the UN Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions to visit India, pending since 2000 and Bangladesh, pending since 2006, to inquire and document the killings in the hands of the BSF. The Report also recommended that BSF officials accused of wrong doings should be barred from serving as UN Peace Keepers.

The Human Rights Watch Report has thus upheld a widely held view in Bangladesh that innocent Bangladeshis are killed, tortured and abused by BSF. The defense by the Indian side that the Bangladeshis deserved to die because they were caught at a place where they were not supposed to be legally is unacceptable because those killed could have been apprehended as they were unarmed. The abuse and torture of Bangladeshis by the BSF manifested an anti-Bangladeshi mindset as well. These findings have come at a time when Bangladesh and India are involved in making a paradigm shift in their bilateral relations and hence could be provocative.

The first thing that the AL Government did upon assuming power was to assure the Indian government that its soil would not be used for terrorist attacks against India. Before Sheikh Hasina visited India in January this year, Bangladesh handed to India top ULFA terrorists for which a grateful Indian media urged its government to settle Bangladesh’s concerns in bilateral relations with India immediately. Bangladesh’s major demands like sharing of waters of the common rivers; a fair demarcation of the maritime boundary or a better deal in trade that is heavily weighed in favour of India have not yet been addressed by India.

The only offers that India has made to Bangladesh are a US$ 1 billion loan on soft terms for the communication sector and a promise to sell electricity. So far, a little over US$ 600 million of the amount has been earmarked for 14 communications related projects mainly linking mainland India with its Northeast provinces through Bangladesh. The opposition in Bangladesh has called the soft loan an Indian ploy to get from Bangladesh another of its important needs, namely the land transit that in the past Bangladeshi negotiators had considered as their only card against India.

The window of opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that Bangladesh officials have so enthusiastically drummed up will wither away unless India quickly concedes on Bangladesh’s major claims. A great deal will therefore depend on what the Indian Prime Minister has to offer when he comes on a visit to Bangladesh expected to take place early next year. The Report of the Human Rights Watch with all the negative manifestations will add extra pressure on India to relent. The ball is now in India’s court and unless India concedes, the agitation of the opposition against India will begin to gain momentum.

Writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Center for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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