Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Human Rights and Bangladesh

Daliy Sun, April 18th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Human Rights Report that the US State Department publishes every year at this time of the year, is out. In the Report, the State Department grades the countries of the world every year and has been doing so for a long time now. The Bangladesh Country Report on Human Rights for 2010 is available on the website and the web address for it is: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/sca/154478.htm.

The Foreign Minister has taken serious umbrage with the report. In a press briefing, she said that the report on Bangladesh “has been weak, inadequately researched and poorly sourced.” According to her, credible reports on human rights are those documented and presented by internationally recognized human rights organization, like for instance the United Nations Human Rights Council. She also said that Bangladesh has twice been elected in this body that reflects the country’s standing on human rights issues.

It is not difficult to fathom the disappointment of the Foreign Minister. The report has made observations about nature of governance that does not show the Awami League led Government in good light. The main criticisms are:
1. Security Forces continue to kill people in custody and extra-judicial deaths in the hands of RAB continue to be a “matter of serious concern.”
2. The judiciary is becoming increasingly politicized that constrained the access to justice by the opposition.
3. Freedom of speech and press freedom remained threatened and journalists continued to be under pressure from security forces.
4. Right of assembly continued to remain an issue for those who did not belong to the ruling party.
The Report also spoke of other forms of discrimination as those against women, religious and ethnic minorities. It did not fail to mention about the 59 deaths in custody of those accused of BDR killings of February, 2009 as a matter of serious concern in violation of human rights.

A great part of the report consists of information of deaths of individuals in custody. It has gone to some depths in reporting these cases. Most of these have been based on information given to the media by leading human rights organization of the country such as Ain of Salish Kendra (ASK) and Odhikar. The report has also taken a lot of its information from the newspapers. In collating these information, the Report has underscored the fact that despite such cases of extra-judicial and custodial deaths being reported extensively in the newspapers and in the media as well as by human rights organization in their reports, very little to no action has been taken by the authorities to deliver justice for the deaths and violations of human rights.

An underlying message in the report is the political bias in the violation of human rights. The report said that “politically motivated violence is on the increase since the AL assumed office.” It quoted Odhikar to report that 220 deaths were suspected to be politically motivated in 2010 as compared to 251, the previous year.

It is unfortunate that the Foreign Minister has out of hand dismissed the US State Department’s Report. There are many elements in it that needs to be addressed. In that context, the Government should have taken the Report as an encouragement to address the issues raised because that would have enhanced the image of Bangladesh. One has to agree with the Foreign Minister on suggesting that the credibility of Bangladesh on the human rights issues has been enhanced by its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. But to assume that the membership of HRC sets aside the human rights issues reported in the US Report is not logical.

The reason is a simple one. No country has a perfect human rights record. Even the United States that publishes the yearly report on human rights across the world for reasons that it alone can explain has violated and continues to violate human rights. The Muslims for example have faced many basic human rights violations in the United States after 9/11. Therefore criticisms, no matter who makes it, are useful if the country in question is willing to accept it. In fact, acceptance will make it a better nation than rejecting it, especially when as is the case with Bangladesh, the issues and facts raised in the Report are those that everybody in the country knows to be true.

On the matter of our membership of the HRC, readers could find it interesting to see the names of some of the countries that are members of this Council or have been members in the past. For reasons of politics, countries with abysmal human rights credentials have found a place in the Council. There is a further issue that we need to look at carefully. Bangladesh depends on support and assistance of the international community. In this context, the support of the United States is critical. Whether we like it or not, our development partners, USA included, these days make it imperative that we stand firm on human rights credentials for their favours. Therefore, it may be poor diplomacy if we dismiss the US State Department’s Report publicly that will not enhance the country’s standing in any way but will put at risk the future of millions of our people.

And why should we dismiss the Report just like that? The extra judicial killings have become a Frankenstein. When it started, many people were happy because they thought RAB would take out those that the law and politics were protecting; thugs and crooks who were making lives of the common people intolerable. Before people had time to take a deep breath, RAB had become a power unto itself. In fact, while the extra-judicial killings started with the BNP, it did not recede under the CG. The AL that made an election promise to stop all forms of extra-judicial killings is stuck because such killings are going on like business as usual. Sadly, other law enforcing agencies have taken up RAB as their role model and these killings are going on as merrily as ever.

It is puzzling and unbelievable that no strong voice is heard from the so-called civil society on the story that accompanies each extra-judicial killing. The official story always is about a fight between RAB and the law enforcing agency and the suspect/s where the former is forced to shoot in self defense that ends in the death of the suspect. In these fictitious “encounters” in which many hundreds have died thus far, not even one law enforcing agent has been hurt. They are explaining these deaths as if those listening are children. It is incredible that the Government is accepting these explanations! To outsiders, it just shows how shallow we are as a nation.

If the Foreign Minister had instead argued against the right of the US State Department to bring out yearly such a report on all countries of the world , it could have hit the right chord with a lot of people. But that is a different issue. We have serious human rights problems and it is incumbent upon us to deal with it. It would not be wise to ignore the abuses just because the US State department has reported it.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

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