BANGLADESH: What is really needed to maintain law & order

October 5, 2006

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

BANGLADESH: What is really needed to maintain law & order

The Daily Janakantha newspaper on October 4 quoted the Bangladeshi State Minister for Home Affairs, Lutfuzzaman Babar, as saying that, “This is our country. We shall not withdraw the RAB [Rapid Action Battalion] following any recommendations from foreigners. We shall do whatever is needed to maintain law and order in the country as we shall decide.” The minister made these comments in response to questions from journalists on a recent report published by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission, on the human rights situation of Bangladesh (Lawless law enforcement and the parody of judiciary in Bangladesh, online at The report concentrated much of its attention on gross abuses allegedly committed by the RAB, and proposed that the United Nations refuse to accept any more peacekeepers for international operations until such a time as the RAB is disbanded.

As the minister is known to be one of the persons who cooked up the RAB–as well as special police units like Chitah and Kobra–on the justification of needing to “maintain law and order” in Bangladesh, it is not surprising that he reacted with annoyance. But his response gives rise to many serious questions.

First, what does the minister mean by “whatever is needed”? Does this include the hundreds of ongoing extrajudicial killings committed by the RAB and police? If so, who gave them the licence to kill criminal suspects? After all, this licence is a violation of article 35(3) of the Constitution of Bangladesh, by which every one of those killed should have had a fair trial rather than being sent out to be shot dead on the pretext of “crossfire” in an “encounter” with criminal elements: cynically-used terms which send a chill up the spine of ordinary Bangladeshis.

Secondly, did the minister see reports by local human rights groups published on the same day that he made his comments directed at “foreigners”? Those groups have indicated that some 262 persons have been killed in “crossfire” in the first nine months of 2006, with the police and RAB running neck and neck. It is not only foreigners keeping the death toll: every month these Bangladeshi organisations are doing the same. Does the minister ever pay any attention to what they have to say? Does he have any comments on their findings?

Thirdly, what are the implications of the minister’s comments about foreigners in terms of Bangladesh’s international obligations? When it signs human rights treaties, it submits to being assessed according to the standards of those treaties, by foreigners. They too make recommendations, which the government is committed to implementing. Is the minister suggesting that they should be ignored because they are foreigners? If so, are the human rights commitments of Bangladesh to the United Nations of any significance at all? And why did it join the new UN Human Rights Council, except presumably for the purpose of defending its appalling human rights record?

Fourthly, what is the meaning of “law and order” to the minister? Does it include the notion of an independent and effective judiciary or not? Why is it that the state chose to establish de facto death squads instead of separating the courts from the executive as recommended by the United Nations? It has promised to do this for many years, and since been ordered to do it by the Supreme Court. But instead it has gone in the opposite direction by setting up the RAB and triggering off a “crossfire” competition between different agencies that has done away with any role for the judiciary at all. Is the state so frustrated with its own institutions that it also cannot be bothered in working within them any more? If so, what message does this send to the public in Bangladesh?

Fifthly, where is this law and order anyway? Recently it was reported that valuables were stolen from a Dhaka property owned by the RAB-4 commander while he was inside it. When the RAB is unable to protect the property of its own people, what good is it likely to be for anyone else? Perhaps the commander’s own men were responsible: it is not without good reason that RAB in some quarters is better known as “ROB”. Its personnel have themselves been implicated in numerous robberies, thefts and cases of extortion.

How far do things have to go before the government of Bangladesh takes somebody’s recommendations seriously? For a number of years it has been warned–with increasing alarm–by local human rights defenders and their organisations, United Nations bodies, international rights groups and others, that it is moving in the wrong direction. The recommendations of the Asian Legal Resource Centre this August are the latest in a long line of the same, and for persons familiar with the disastrous human rights situation in Bangladesh should not have come as any surprise. Among them was that the UN Human Rights Council should at the nearest possible time suspend the government of Bangladesh’s membership and the UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations should review the participation of Bangladeshi personnel in all future missions and suspend the country from sending further troops or police abroad until the RAB is disbanded and victims of extrajudicial killings and other gross rights abuses are given access to a fair means for obtaining redress in accordance with international standards. The recommendations also pointed for the need for the government to

a. Completely detach the judiciary from the executive, as required by both domestic and international law;
b. Remove all political control of public prosecutors and establish an independent prosecution department;
c. End its policy of extrajudicial killings through “crossfire” and investigate and prosecute all perpetrators;
d. Criminalise torture in accordance with international standards and remove its reservation on article 14(1) of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
e. Repeal law that is contrary to international standards of human rights, including section 46 of the Constitution of Bangladesh; sections 54, 132, 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure; section 86 of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance; the Joint Drive Indemnity Act 2003; Special Power Act 1974 and, the Armed Police Battalions (Amendment) Act 2003;
f. Establish a properly independent and powerful anti-corruption agency;
g. Designate an independent body to receive and investigate complaints against the police and other state officers; and,
h. Set up a national human rights commission.

These recommendations, if treated with any seriousness, may go some way towards dealing with “law and order” problems, not by doing “whatever is needed”, but by recognising the primacy of the rule of law as a solution. When order is placed before law, at whatever cost–as suggested by the minister–it is bound to fail, and take the lives of countless victims with it. Where the law is put first, and institutions used to ensure that its position is established and maintained, only then it is possible to talk with sincerity about what can be done for one’s country.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-236-2006
Countries : Bangladesh,
Issues : Independence of judges & lawyers, Indigenous people, Rule of law,