A message to the people of Bangladesh & the international community

Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong

The scale of problems facing Bangladesh is enormous. Profound and long-standing institutional defects have been greatly worsened by Operation Clean Heart and the subsequent creation of the Rapid Action Battalion and other specialised anti-crime and anti-terror units. Many persons are struggling to understand what is happening; others are just trying to avoid getting hurt.

At such a time, particular groups of persons must redouble their efforts to find a way out of the mess that their society is in. Where leadership cannot be found inside government, it must come from outside.

Professional groups in Bangladesh must work closely together with the victims of abuses and their families. In Bangladesh, this is already happening in some places through the creation of local task forces against torture, comprising lawyers, doctors, journalists and community leaders, and similar groups. This and other like work should be greatly expanded and supported. Many more people can and must become involved. These groups are needed to:

1. Record and lodge complaints and offer medical and legal intervention at the first instance in cases of abuse;

2. Constantly expose the widespread violence and intimidation in Bangladesh through local and international media;

3. Lobby for legal and institutional reforms, in cooperation with experts, again at both the national and international levels; and,

4. Devise schemes to educate the public and encourage wider support for victims.

Professional groups should also extend and deepen discussion of the institutional problems that they see arising in their areas of expertise. In particular,

1. Lawyers need to critique the grave defects of the judicial system more strenuously. The Bangladesh Bar Council and local bar associations should make the separation of the lower judiciary from the executive and removal of political control over prosecutors the two most important priorities for the foreseeable future. They should also study in detail and propose reforms of laws that obstruct enjoyment of human rights.

2. Doctors need to critique the medico-legal system, or rather, its absence. Medical groups should hold constant discussions, inviting experts from abroad, on the establishing of effective forensic science facilities, in particular, an independent department of forensic medicine.

3. Human rights defenders need to better-document and report on the stream of gross abuses and its causes. They must study and use modern technology for documenting and communicating cases and issues at home and abroad much more than at present. They must examine and point to institutional gaps, especially the absence of any arrangement to compensate and rehabilitate victims, and protect victims and witnesses.

4. Journalists, many of whom are already at the forefront of the human rights movement, should lead an unceasing national outcry against the malpractices that have made Bangladesh infamous as among the most corrupt countries on the planet, and continue to work closely with other groups to bring all human rights and institutional issues to the fore.

5. Community and religious leaders have important roles to play in publicly discussing and addressing human rights abuses and related problems in Bangladesh in a non-partisan way. This discussion needs to be removed from party politics and kept firmly in the milieu of the ordinary people. Responsible local leaders have the ability and intelligence to make this happen.

6. Judges too can give cause for hope and set a better example for the future of justice in Bangladesh. Magistrates and lower judges throughout the country can take upright and principled decisions that support human rights. For instance, on 26 July 2005 Judge Shamsul Haque of the Women and Children Special Tribunal-5 in Dhaka chastised two police who had been responsible for harassing and detaining a complainant, requiring them to make an apology in court and warning them against attempting anything similar in the future. While reports of such instances are rare, they attract public attention and admiration and can bring some confidence back into the justice system.

All persons and groups concerned with Bangladesh must do much more to make the true stories of victims and the lives of people across the country known internationally. Most human rights organisations in Bangladesh have failed to take full advantage of new methods of communicating with the outside world. Too few have opened strong regional and international channels through partners abroad with which to have these stories heard. As a result, the real situation of Bangladesh is little known outside of the country.

The international community for its part must make a much more concerted effort to learn the reality in Bangladesh. This is particularly true for United Nations bodies, and especially the human rights bodies and experts:

1. The UN Human Rights Council should at the nearest possible time suspend the government of Bangladesh’s membership and prohibit it from reelection until it
a. Completely detaches the judiciary from the executive, as required by both domestic and international law;
b. Removes all political control of public prosecutors and establishes an independent prosecution department;
c. Ends its policy of extrajudicial killings through “crossfire” and investigates and prosecutes all perpetrators;
d. Criminalises torture in accordance with international standards and removes its reservation on article 14(1) of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
e. Repeals 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 Ordinance 2003; Special Power Act 1974 and, the Armed Police Battalions (Amendment) Act 2003;
f. Establishes a properly independent and powerful anti-corruption agency;
g. Designates an independent body to receive and investigate complaints against the police and other state officers; and,
h. Sets up a national human rights commission.

2. The UN Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers, extrajudicial executions, torture, and violence against women should request to make visits to Bangladesh at the nearest possible time and assess conditions there for themselves.

3. The UN Secretary General should consider appointing a Special Representative on Bangladesh to monitor and report on the country until such a time that there has been a marked improvement in conditions, with reference again to the points listed above upon which the Human Rights Council should act.

4. 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 Rapid Action Battalion 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.

International agencies and foreign governments with missions and involvement in Bangladesh also could play a far stronger role in addressing many of these issues. Money and training has flowed from abroad for various schemes that have never fully materialised, if at all. Donors should take stronger positions to ensure that they get their money’s worth. Those with established jurisdictions and medico-legal institutions should engage with government agencies and professional groups to raise discussion on how technical contributions can be made to realise similar agencies and structures in Bangladesh.

All international organisations and donors should take time to assess and understand the real situation in Bangladesh and how they can become most effectively involved. In countries where the rule of law is incapacitated and limited democratic institutions face huge problems, it is common for persons coming from developed jurisdictions and international bodies to have difficulty in arriving at a proper assessment of what is going on. The only way to overcome this difficulty is to spend time interacting seriously with victims, local partners and other well-informed and reliable persons. Local knowledge must be the starting point for activity, or otherwise there will be no good results. The failure of the government of Bangladesh to set up the proposed human rights commission, despite ample inputs from abroad for that purpose, is indicative.

The scale of problems in Bangladesh will take a long time to address. One, two, or five-year plans may yield some small gains, but only consistent pursuit of the same objectives by many parties over many years will lasting change be ensured. All cooperation and work to end the lawlessness and malfunctioning of institutions in Bangladesh must be understood as requiring a commitment over decades, not weeks or months.

People in Bangladesh are longing for change. This can come in a rational and orderly way, or a chaotic way. Bangladeshis have a history of rising up against autocrats when excesses of tyranny and abuses of fundamental rights have crossed the limits of their tolerance. The authorities of Bangladesh should take the lessons of history as a warning. There are still ample opportunities for change by rational and orderly means, but if these are not grasped then they may ultimately find matters taken out of their hands.

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