BANGLADESH: Failure to establish National Human Rights Commission makes Bangladesh unsuitable for UN Human Rights Council

This is the last in a series of five open letters that the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has felt compelled to write to the UN Human Rights Council over the horrible human rights situation in Bangladesh, and its causes. As we have noted throughout, we are doing this as we are deeply concerned for the integrity and credibility of the Council if Bangladesh is permitted to sit as a member for the coming three years as intended. 

In the previous four letters we wrote about the failures of the Government of Bangladesh to address widespread and institutionalised torture, extrajudicial killings and corruption, and to make the country’s judiciary independent of the executive.   

In our fifth and final letter for now, the AHRC wishes to speak on the sixteenth pledge of the Government of Bangladesh for its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, that it would “establish the National Human Rights Commission as soon as possible”. 

It is widely recognised that a national human rights institution set up in accordance with the UN-endorsed Paris Principles is not a panacea for human rights problems, and is no substitute for effectively functioning courts and investigating agencies. However, it is also acknowledged that many have played a positive role at one time or another in contributing to a dialogue on human rights and have had some good–albeit limited–effect on other national institutions. 

For these reasons, it could be expected that the Government of Bangladesh, which is keen to show off its supposed human rights credentials at international events, would set up a commission as soon as possible. In fact, elsewhere in its April statement, the government says that, “Much work in this regard has already been done and the Commission is expected to be functional soon.” 

What does this mean? The AHRC is aware that the Government of Bangladesh had received international funding for its now defunct project to establish the National Human Rights Commission. What it has to show for that funding is less evident. The project itself was in its final days run by a retired national police chief, a fact omitted from the enthusiastic statements about the seemingly imminent commission referred to in the delegation’s statement. How a police officer could be responsible for the establishment of a nationwide human rights body has not yet been explained. Perhaps the Government of Bangladesh is getting lessons from neighbouring Myanmar, where an army general–who is also a government minister   –heads a bizarre human rights committee that at one time was intended as the precursor to a fictional human rights commission under management of the country’s military regime.

A quick examination of documents from various UN bodies also reveals how representatives of the Government of Bangladesh have for years lied about the intention to set up a human rights commission “soon”, such as before treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2001 [CERD/C/SR.1458] and the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1997 [CRC/C/SR.381], and the Third Committee of the 51st General Assembly in 1996. 

The AHRC seriously doubts that the Government of Bangladesh has any real intentions to set up a working National Human Rights Commission. This is self evident. The government has had over five years and lots of foreign funding with which to complete its so-called project and start the real work of the commission. Instead there is nothing but a few token gestures to show for this. There are no discussions going on with human rights groups in the country, or with concerned journalists and lawyers or other professionals to suggest that there is any actual activity that will lead to the establishment of this much-talked about body any time soon. As a result, the people of Bangladesh will continue to lack the opportunities that may be afforded them through a national agency for human rights to at least have their grievances heard and perhaps investigated where other agencies have failed to do this much. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission has in its previous four letters recalled that the Government of Bangladesh has pledged to “remain prepared to be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during its tenure in the Council”. For the fifth and final time for now the AHRC urges the Council to call on that pledge, and review the status of Bangladesh as a member of the Council as soon as the means is established to do so. The failure of the government to establish a National Human Rights Commission as promised is a shame upon it and a disappointment for its people. It is nothing more than a big joke on the international community, not least of all those countries that gave money and guidance, with goodwill and sincerity, expecting that it would materialise into something real and useful. Instead it has remained a deceptive mirage. This failure is the characteristic not of a country that is engaging in a global and national culture of human rights and prosperity but is rather the characteristic of a country that is being misguided by disinterested incompetents. It is also a country that is being represented abroad by ridiculous frauds who talk in circles and invent mythologies that have nothing to do with the lives and experiences of people in Bangladesh. We urge the international community not to be deceived. 

I request that your office transmit this letter to all members of the Council for their consideration.  

Yours sincerely

Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong 

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-042-2006
Countries : Bangladesh,
Issues : International human rights mechanisms, Victims assistance & protection,