In the lead-up to the UN Universal Periodic Review, Bangladesh finds itself offering its citizens an environment amongst the most inimical to human rights since the nation’s inception. At the UN Human Rights Council’s UPR process on 29 April 2013, during the 16th Session of the UPR Working Group in Geneva, Bangladesh’s human rights record will be up for review.
Human rights conditions in Bangladesh have deteriorated rapidly since the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) and Odhikar, a Bangladesh based human rights organisation, jointly submitted their report to the UPR process in October 2012.
In order to respond to the ongoing situation, at least, six independent human rights experts of the UN Human Rights Procedures have expressed serious concern in a joint statement issued on 29 March 2013. Their joint statement has called on all parties in Bangladesh ‘to cease violence immediately and return to peaceful demonstrations,’ after worrying levels of violence have been reported following large-scale protests across the country since 5 February 2013. The statement details how violent clashes between security forces and various groups as well as between the groups have so far claimed the lives of at least 88 persons and led to the injury of hundreds of other people. There have also been worrying reports on attacks against members of the Hindu community, their homes and places of worship, as well as against journalists and other media practitioners.
Bangladesh’s undemocratic political culture, which always prefers to maintain a deeply flawed and dysfunctional criminal justice system, has largely shaped the present predicament. Citizens have been victims of the ongoing violence-stricken politics of arrogance and vengeance between conflicting parties, as well as within their top leaderships. No matter which party occupies office, their power-rabid nature and unabashed greed have goaded ruling politicians and their allies to amass substantial unaccountable wealth through corruption, acquire impunity for any crime, and enforce silence on criticism.
A flawed and rotten criminal justice system, along with coercive and lethal police and paramilitary forces, continuously contribute to the disastrous human rights realities in the country. Law-enforcement agencies and security forces, who suffer an acute lack of professional efficiency and credibility in their day to day work, rely solely on the use of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and extra-judicial methods, in the name of maintaining law and order. The government routinely abuses forces, police and paramilitary, by employing them as hired gunmen against any threat or political opposition. Authorities have tended to an entrenched culture of impunity, in order to benefit state-backed perpetrators of all forms of human rights abuses.
According to the Odhikar’s documentation, at least 665 persons have been extra-judicially murdered by law-enforcement agents between July 2009 and April 20, 2013. Not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice before the courts of Bangladesh. The authorities, instead, have awarded many of the perpetrators of extra-judicial murder with gallantry awards and lucrative promotions and postings throughout this period. Enforced disappearances too have been rising in Bangladesh during this period; cases where the relatives have accused state agents for abducting and disappearing their family members, have risen to 78. Registering any complaint accusing the State agents is, however, impossible due to constant denials and stone-walling by the agencies and the criminal-justice system.
The ordinary citizens’ rights to liberty, life, and protection from torture, and the guarantee of a right to fair trial, do not exist in Bangladesh today. Minority communities have been under attacks on numerous occasions, while their houses, places of worship, and business centres have been burned, demolished, and looted by non-state actors. Freedom of assembly and association for opposition has been actively denied by state authorities, while supporters and allies of government have received not just encouragement, but direct support and state protection for enjoying the same.
Small-scale criticism against the government, regarding corruption and other forms for crimes is tolerated. Such tolerance is token, to show that the media enjoys freedom. Dissident voices face tremendous threat, harassment, fabricated charges, and deprivation of personal liberty for criticising the authorities. The judiciary, in routine, sits leaning toward the government, even more so in recent years due to complete politicisation of the institution by ruling political parties.
The UN Human Rights procedures should be aware that the Bangladeshi authorities have expertise in both making rhetorical speeches and suppressing the rights of the people, simultaneously. The UN should make its human rights monitoring systems effective so that victims can avail protection and justice from their country’s institutions, which, it must be noted, do not comply with international human rights norms and standards. The authorities of Bangladesh must be held accountable for their pledges made in the first cycle of the UPR process in 2009. A mere ritualistic Review will not help improve the human rights environment in Bangladesh, as far as guarantees of fundamental rights, right to fair trial, protection from torture, and protection from deprivation of life through extrajudicial methods are concerned.
The ALRC and Odhikar urge the UPR Working Group and the international community to make the Universal Periodic Review process effective to the extent that the original victims get justice rather than mere official formality of the UN human rights mechanism. The UPR Working Group should hold Bangladesh accountable for not allowing key civil and political rights based mandates to visit Bangladesh in the last four years, despite repetitive pledges.
The ALRC and Odhikar call upon the Working Group of the Universal Periodic Review and the Human Rights Council, to ensure that the Bangladeshi authorities:
i. Reform its dysfunctional criminal justice institutions, enabling them to function independently;
ii. Ensure independence of judiciary and the functioning of basic systems like complaint mechanisms, criminal investigation, and the prosecutorial system;
iii. Criminalise torture by adopting the Torture and Custodial Death (Prohibition) Bill-2011 immediately;
iv. Put a halt to all extra-judicial executions;
v. Establish an independent commission to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearance, extra-judicial killings, torture and other grave abuses; and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice;
vi. End the use of torture and ill-treatment as tools of the policing system, and bring perpetrators to justice in accordance with international standards for fair trial;
vii. Take legislative, administrative, and judicial measures to administer justice to the victims of violence and discrimination against women;
viii. Protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities;
ix. Develop a comprehensive protection mechanism to protect the rights of the workers in compliance with international standards;
x. Ensure adequate compensation to victims of gross human rights abuse, without obstruction;
xi. Repeal all repressive laws, and refrain from enacting the proposed repressive NGO Affairs Bureau Bill to regulate NGOs;
xii. Fulfil its voluntary pledges and obligations under international human rights mechanisms and instruments;
xiii. Accede to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances;
xiv. Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and remove its reservation under the Convention Against Torture.