BANGLADESH: Ensuring human rights for ordinary citizens is an urgent need
The AHRC is publishing its 2009 annual human rights report on Bangladesh. A pre-publication version of the report can be downloaded at: http://material.ahrchk.net/hrreport/2009/AHRC-SPR-001-2009-Bangladesh-HRReport2009.pdf.
Once again the Human Rights Day on December 10 is knocking on the doors of Bangladeshis who have suffered gross violations, whether custodial torture, the extrajudicial killing of their loved ones, or the various other violent forms of abuse that have taken place unabatedly throughout the decades.
Human rights still exist on paper, such as in the Constitution of Bangladesh and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the latter of which is popularly discussed in certain circles, but rarely put into play on the ground among the ordinary people. Likewise, Human Rights Day survives in rhetorical speeches and statements in decorated rooms throughout the country, yet it is out of the reach of millions of ordinary folks, who struggle for these basic rights unknowingly.
The high politics of human rights debate fails to bring any of the intended benefits to the common Bangladeshi citizen whoever he or she may be. A large majority continue to live under perennial poverty, compelled to deal with the arbitrary abuse of power by governmental and non-governmental agents alike. Even more regrettable is the fact that there is no adequate, accessible mechanism of redress for their grievances. The powerful in Bangladesh are not only able to violate rights and dignity of poorer civilians at will, but to deny them their right to free expression. Complaints both official and unofficial are sweepingly repressed.
The struggle of a Bangladeshi to live with dignity currently finds little support from many of the civil society organisations who work to promote human rights. This is due to the unfortunate absence of a human rights mindset. Many of these organisations are so marred by infighting and petty bickering that they forget their primary mandate, which is to put up a constant, comprehensive, unified and uncompromising struggle for human rights.
The problems that continue to plague this struggle have led to a far more dangerous situation. In it, human right defenders and media professionals find the security and safety of themselves and their kin imperilled; the police, and paramilitary and security forces are seen to violate their rights with as much impunity as they can with less vocal citizenry; they seem to pose little threat. The State, which has itself successfully cultivated a culture of impunity, endorses these actions by hypocritically bluffing the nation, and by doing so simply multiplies the problems relating to human rights and the rule of law.
The situation ultimately illustrates that human rights have become comatose, and sunk beyond the reach of the average Bangladeshi citizen. The rule of law remains an illusion for the nation.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges the nation to wake up to the occasion of Human Rights Day. The current government has pledged to establish the rule of law, put an end to the practice of extrajudicial killing and bring rights violators to justice. To the United Nations it has guaranteed 'zero tolerance' for extrajudicial killings and promised to work to restore human rights to civilians. Now is the time for the government to act meaningfully. It must show the people a specific plan of action. To "observe" Human Rights Day with "messages" of political rhetoric is not enough if it is honest in its pledge to bring "change" to Bangladesh.
As a starting point the government must initiate a systemic, systematic overhaul of the criminal justice mechanism; abolishing all forms of impunity for members of security forces will be an adequate first step towards that. There is a bill pending that will allow as much: the Torture and Custodial Deaths (Prohibition) Bill 2009 must be enacted. The government must also ensure the immediate restoration of free speech to its citizens for this to effectively take place.
Human rights day should also prompt civil society organisations to rethink their mindsets, and inculcate this with a commitment to the cause of defending rights, regardless of rifts with fellow organisations. They should work as the eyes and the ears of the people so that they can bring issues to light, mobilise the fight for rights and help a system evolve in which perpetrators of human rights violations can be brought to book and prosecuted. The work and the mindset of those in the human rights field should refocus on the day-to-day problems of ordinary people and the obstacles that ruin their hopes and destroy their trust in their nation's legal institutions, and their fellow human beings.