BANGLADESH: Victims of Enforced Disappearances Denied Access to Justice

A Written Submission to the 45th Regular Session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council by the Asian Legal Resource Centre

BANGLADESH: Victims of Enforced Disappearances Denied Access to Justice

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) is set to hold its 45th Regular Session. Enforced Disappearance is one of the thematic issues on which the independent experts of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) is scheduled to present their annual report in this Session.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) draws the attention of the UN Independent Experts and the Human Rights Council. Questions should be asked regarding what improvements have been achieved in terms of holding the perpetrators of enforced disappearances accountable in countries like Bangladesh. In that country, this particular crime against humanity continues under the direct patronisation of the highest level of State authorities.

The Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Mechanisms needs to analyse the response received from the State and the information obtained from the victims and independent human rights organisations. This concerns the improvement of access to justice for the victims of the heinous crime of enforced disappearance. The UN, while advocating for its Agenda 2030 to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), will hardly achieve the SDGs without sincere actions from the States. These actions must lead to transformation of the States’ respective Rule of Law Institutions to allow universal access to justice for everyone.

It is important to understand that States like Bangladesh keeps committing the crime of enforced disappearances for 11 years in a row. It demonstrated utter disrespect despite being party to the international Human Rights Instruments. From January 2009 to July 2020 there have been at least 572 documented cases of enforced disappearances. Among them, 19 people disappeared from January to July in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The actual number of disappearances are much higher than this figure. The ALRC has not counted those cases where the families are afraid to confirm the involvement of the Law-Enforcement Agencies for disappearing their loved ones. Bangladesh remained in the HRC as a Member during most of the years while the incumbent Government used disappearance as one of the tools to silence the dissidents for seizing power without the peoples’ true mandate.

Documentations of human rights organisations confirm the identities of victims of enforced disappearances. They include members of mainstream opposition political parties. They are professionals such as lawyers, doctors, academics, researchers, journalists, and dissident writers. The pattern clearly suggests that the Government systematically used enforced disappearances to create fear in society as whole, for the incumbent’s political gains. In many cases, the bullet- riddled bodies of many disappeared people were later found across the country. Officers of the Law-Enforcement Agencies termed these to be deaths in ‘gun fights’ or ‘crossfire or ‘encounters’. Many disappeared persons were resurfaced in prions after having been charged in serious crimes.

It is equally significant to understand, that committing crimes like arbitrary deprivation of life through extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances becomes possible in those territories where the Judiciary is highly dysfunctional in discharging its normative responsibilities. In another words, having a competent and effectively functional Judicial System in place and maintaining a pattern of disappearing citizens cannot coexist in a State at the same time. If any Government claims to have an independent Criminal Justice Mechanism, while its law-enforcement agencies enjoy impunity for arbitrary deprivation of life, must officially be making untrue statements. Bangladesh has consistently been doing this.

The latest review reports and concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture as well as the recommendations of the 3rd Cycle of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) reflect the human rights realities of Bangladesh. These review reports, individually and collectively, expose how Bangladesh’s incumbent Government undermines international norms and disregards the recommendations of the UN independent human rights experts.

One of the regrettable aspects is this. A number of Member States of the HRC, having democratic reputations and functional Rule of Law Systems, provide training, arms, surveillance and spying technologies to Bangladesh’s Law-Enforcement Agencies. These technical, financial, and logistic resources are being used against the dissenting voices and ordinary citizens in Bangladesh – where access to justice for victims is non-existent. States and Companies based in the developed Democracies should not be acceptable to their own people and the International Community for their allegiance to perpetrators of gross human rights violations in other jurisdictions. Such cooperation has failed to comply with the UN principles of the Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights. The International Community must wake up and raise their voices against the continued enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. The UN bodies and other influential entities should not keep endorsing the incumbent government of Bangladesh simply for preventing the Rohingya refugees from migrating to Europe. Bangladesh Government’s catastrophic human rights records should not be overlooked for partnering the campaign of the alleged ‘war on terror’.

The time has come for demonstrating a sincere commitment to human rights, democratisation, and the Rule of Law that Bangladesh’s 160 million people deserve and strive for. The Human Rights Council should not be a platform for staging bureaucratic dramas while having the smell of blood on their hands. There needs to be practical engagement, allowing the WGEID to visit Bangladesh, so that it can report back to the Council about the realities on the ground and steps to be taken in accordance with the independent experts’ recommendations. The transformation of the criminal justice institutions of Bangladesh is a must for ensuring universal access to justice for the victims of gross human rights abuses. The justice mechanism must acquire the capabilities to replace the coercive law-enforcement system, abolish impunity, and establish unhindered accountability of the perpetrators. The head of Government must be held accountable for masterminding the crimes against humanity.

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The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) works towards the radical rethinking & fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in Asia, to ensure relief and redress for victims of human rights violations, as per Common Article 2 of the International Conventions. Sister organisation to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the ALRC is based in Hong Kong & holds general consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations.

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