By Shakhawat Hossain

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has asked the government of Bangladesh to investigate all cases of arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances and excessive use of force, and prosecute and punish perpetrators. The inter-governmental UN body also called for establishing the truth about the fate and whereabouts of victims of the disappearances.  Furthermore, ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (ICED) was stressed.

Such recommendations were made at the ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR) organised by the council in Geneva on Monday.

Referring to violence and excessive use of force by state actors during the previous general elections, the UN Human Rights Committee insisted that Bangladesh should ensure the safety and security of all voters during elections. Some countries such as USA, Australia, Switzerland and Japan have learnt to put stress on ensuring free, fair and inclusive polls in Bangladesh.    

Attending the Geneva meeting, Banglasdesh Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Anisul Huq addressed the concerns put forward by the member countries and responded to their recommendations.

The report, presented there, said from May 2013 until September 2017, 845 cases of extrajudicial killings, about 48 cases of torture to death and about 300 cases of enforced disappearance were documented.

The national report, submitted by Dhaka, however, claimed that the government of Bangladesh “under the leadership of prime minister Sheikh Hasina maintains a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ with regard to criminal liabilities of the members of the LEAs [law enforcement agencies].”

“The law in general neither accords immunity to the members of the LEAs from criminal prosecution nor makes any discrimination [sic] their favour,” added the report.

Dwelling on the culture of impunity to law enforcement, the UN reports, compiled by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, regretted that Bangladesh did not accept that enforced disappearances occurred. The UN recommended establishment of an independent commission to carry out transparent and accountable investigations and prosecutions, repeal the Special Powers Act and reform other relevant laws.

However, the Bangladesh report blamed the Rohingya issue for certain human rights problems at home.

Dhaka pledged to continue to host the “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals” until they voluntarily return to their homeland in safety, security and dignity.

The Bangladesh report made at least eight future pledges including further strengthening “national institutions that promote human rights, democracy, good governance and rule of law”.

‘Dhaka fails to respond to UN concerns’

According to Human Rights Watch, the Bangladesh delegation to the United Nation’s ‘Universal Periodic Review (UPR)’ in Geneva on 14 May, failed to respond to pressing human rights concerns in the country.

The New York-based rights group insisted that the Bangladesh government should use the UPR at the UN Human Rights Council as a “time for reflection, not self-congratulation”.

Instead, HRW said, the law minister, Anisul Huq, speaking for the government, highlighted only what their administration considered to be positive steps.

The minister had just glossed over concerns about critical issues such as enforced disappearances, secret and arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and a crackdown on freedom of speech and association, HRW said in report “ Bangladesh: Skirting the Issues at the UN” issued on Wednesday.

It recommended that Bangladesh should show its commitment to human rights by giving full consideration to recommendations from other countries and accepting those that would significantly improve its compliance with international human rights standards.

“Bangladesh needs to stop ignoring and start addressing serious human rights violations, such as when its security forces engage in enforced disappearances, killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests, many of them politically motivated,” said HRW Asia director Brad Adams.

The report, however, mentioned that a number of member countries rightly praised the government’s willingness to open the Bangladesh border and provide aid to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities by the Myanmar military.

The Bangladesh delegation spoke at length about the progress on handling the influx of the Rohingya refugees but responded with silence and denial to questions and recommendations by several countries, including concerns about extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and attacks on human rights defenders, the report pointed out.

“Bangladesh says it remains committed to doing right by the Rohingya refugees, but it should embrace that same principle towards its own citizens,” Adams said.

“With national elections next [this] year, it is essential for the government to expand democratic space and provide room for debate and dissent.”

Human Rights Watch and other groups have reported for many years about human rights concerns in Bangladesh, and many of these concerns were simply not addressed adequately by Bangladesh in the hearing., the report said.

It recalled that the government pledged during the previous periodic review in 2013 to thoroughly and impartially investigate and prosecute all allegations of human rights violations, in particular by the security forces.

“But it has ignored and denied reports of violations since then, including about violence by the security forces during the 2014 elections and against people who protested the conduct of the elections. The government delegation claimed that it is taking action against those responsible for abuse, but there is little evidence or transparency on this,” the HRW report observed.

It said Human Rights Watch has also documented several cases in which members of the political opposition have been forcibly disappeared or secretly detained without charge. “Scores of Bangladesh National Party (BNP) supporters were unlawfully detained and several remains disappeared.”

Another key concern to which the government delegation responded inadequately is attacks against critical media and nongovernmental organisations, HRW pointed out.

Many people have been and continue to be jailed or charged under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which includes “vague and overbroad provisions to target free speech”. Section 57 has also been used to target key civil society leaders and institutions, the report added.

  • —   Shakhawat Hossain is Dhaka-based freelance Journalist and political commentator.
  • Courtesy — Friday, May 18, 2018.