The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was urged to be given immediate and unrestricted access in the country’s North-West and South-West regions in order to investigate potential human rights violations in a resolution to the situation of human rights in Cameroon that the European Parliament passed in November 2021. Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, traveled to China in May 2022.
The Commissioner stated before the visit that she would need unrestricted access to Xinjiang, the Uyghur area, in order to undertake an impartial assessment. However, the Chinese government merely permitted a courtesy visit to foster communication. The Human Rights Commissioner was unable to obtain complete access to Xinjiang’s detention facilities for persecuted groups, people, and individuals, which was lamented by the European Union.
Understanding the matter better
In light of this, the government of Bangladesh extended a visitation invitation to the UN Human Rights Commissioner. The invitation suggests that the government respects global human rights organizations. There was a need for dialogue and engagement with the OHCHR because Bangladesh wishes to run for membership in the UN Human Rights Council as a human rights champion.
The UN Human Rights Commissioner highlighted, among other things, that Bangladesh has made significant economic and social progress in her report following a number of engagements with the pertinent parties. According to the report, Bangladesh has improved in several areas, including socioeconomic development, the eradication of poverty, access to health care and education, the mortality rate for women and children, and access to food, water, and sanitation, despite starting from a low foundation.
There has been significant progress, with an increase in the number of women working and improvements in girls’ education that have led to gender parity in primary schools. The Commissioner also emphasized Bangladesh’s role as a global leader in important human rights problems like migration and climate change.
In her report, the UN Human Rights Commissioner stated: “Given the long-standing frustrations at the lack of progress in investigations and other barriers to justice, I encouraged the Government to create an independent, specialized mechanism that works closely with victims, families, and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.” The Commissioner added that her office is prepared to offer guidance on how to create such a body in accordance with international norms.
Some political parties urged a UN probe into alleged enforced disappearances before the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s visit. Nine human rights organizations released a joint statement on August 10 this year stating that since the Sheikh Hasina government took office in 2009, hundreds of Bangladeshis had been slain, tortured, and forcefully vanished. Those vested parties and NGOs also urged the UN High Commissioner to support the formation of an impartial commission of investigation to look into all claims of extrajudicial executions, torture, and deaths in custody and to encourage the Bangladeshi government to do the same. It is important to note that since the USA expressed the same concern recently, claims of extrajudicial murders against law enforcement agencies have advanced.
To address the deteriorating law and order situation at the time, a combined security force made up of the army and other law enforcement organizations of Bangladesh was established in 2001. This joint security unit conducted “Operation Clean Heart” between October 2002 and January 2003. All of the 57 people who perished while being held captive during the operation were either terrorists or criminals. Through the passage of the Joint Drive Indemnity Act 2003, the Parliament provided insurance to the law enforcement personnel involved in the operation.
According to the Act, no one involved in the joint drive may be held liable for any arrests made between October 16, 2002, and January 9, 2003, nor for any deaths or injuries brought on by torture, any violations of a citizen’s rights, or any harm to their physical, mental, or financial well-being. In order to combat terrorism and criminality, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) unit was established in 2004 using personnel from the army and law enforcement organizations.
Human Rights Watch denounced the RAB force in October 2007 for allegedly torturing hundreds of additional detainees and killing 350 people while they were in detention.
Prior to the general elections in December 2008, Odhikar asserted that 322 individuals were killed in encounters by RAB during the interim government’s final two years in office. Human Rights Watch claimed in May 2009 that from 2004 to 2008, more than 1,000 persons in Bangladesh were killed extrajudicially; however, after the AL Government came to power in January 2009, the number of extrajudicial killings decreased. In light of this, the High Court requested the Government, police commanders, and the RAB agency to provide justification in June 2009 for why criminal charges should not be brought against such killings.
The Joint Drive Indemnity Act of 2003 was pronounced illegal, void from the start, and unconstitutional by the High Court in 2015. The Court further decided that any family member of a victim of “Operation Clean Heart” may file a lawsuit against the cops in question for torturing and killing their loved ones without following the law. The Court further stated that nobody, including personnel of law enforcement agencies, is above the law and that all citizens are equal before the law. As a result, offering compensation to the combined force members was against the law and unconstitutional.
In the infamous seven-murder case in 2017, 25 former RAB employees were found guilty. In the Refat Sharif murder case, the High Court stated in 2019 that extrajudicial killings are not permissible unless they are carried out by law enforcement to save the lives of those involved. For killing Major Sinha in a gunfight, six people, including three former police officers, received life sentences in January 2022 in the Major Sinha murder case, including two high-ranking former police officials. There aren’t many allegations of human rights abuses against the RAB unit that are being looked into.
There aren’t many pressing questions raised by the NGOs’ and BNP’s claims that hundreds of Bangladeshis have been tortured and killed extrajudicially since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina assumed office in 2009 and their desire for an independent investigation committee. Will the envisioned commission consider the crimes carried out under the guise of “Operation Clean Heart”? Would it assess the effects of the 1975 and 2003 indemnification Acts, passed by the previous Government to defend those who violated human rights? Will the commission look into the State-sponsored terrorist attack that occurred on August 21, 2004? Did the NGOs and other members of civil society voice their worries?
These problems are crucial because we cannot guarantee human rights and justice if we ignore some elements of the past. The successful prevention of future acts of violence, restoration of the victims’ dignity, and the healing process all depend on holding those responsible for past atrocities accountable. Even though they are one of the key tenets of democracy and the rule of law, human rights cannot be viewed in isolation or through a narrower lens. Regrettably, nations that aim to impose imperial plans on the world in the name of peace offer a formidable challenge to rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
Therefore, it is important to evaluate the question of human rights in relation to society, the state of law and order, extremism, terrorism, rising intolerance, and the stability of a particular nation. Terrorist acts not only undermine democracy, liberty, and human rights but also have an impact on a nation’s economic and social growth. Bangladesh has made impressive strides in the previous ten years in reducing poverty, fostering socioeconomic development, empowering women, and managing the vulnerability to climate change. All of these were made possible by the persistence of law and order.
Therefore, it is important to evaluate the question of human rights in relation to society, the state of law and order, extremism, terrorism, rising intolerance, and the stability of a particular nation. Terrorist acts not only undermine democracy, liberty, and human rights but also have an impact on a nation’s economic and social growth. Bangladesh has made impressive strides in the previous ten years in reducing poverty, fostering socioeconomic development, empowering women, and managing the vulnerability to climate change.
All of these were made possible by the persistence of law and order
Despite all of the accusations leveled at the RAB force and law enforcement organizations, these organizations have helped to uphold the peace and fight crime and terrorism. No radical attack has occurred in our nation since the Holy Artisan violence. According to experts, a criminal justice system that is only reactive is insufficient to combat terrorism, hence preventive measures are required. Our law enforcement forces have succeeded in achieving this goal, notwithstanding charges of human rights breaches against them. Member states emphasized that the protection of human rights and effective counterterrorism measures are not competing but rather complementary and mutually reinforcing priorities in the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy established by the UN in 2006.
Keeping this in mind, it is important that Bangladesh’s law enforcement forces receive thorough training and sensibilization to prevent them from violating human rights while battling crime and terrorism unless using force is absolutely necessary to protect their own lives. Bangladesh has a Human Rights Commission and an independent judiciary. These institutions should be enhanced to enable prompt and efficient resolution of any allegations of violence, extrajudicial killings, or wrongful detention against law enforcement organizations.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina fought for human rights even though she herself was still a victim of abuse. Her parents and brothers were brutally murdered, and she had previously experienced political violence multiple times. Political rivals of Sheikh Hasina have frequently disputed her civil rights, right to liberty, right to equality before the law, and right to equal protection under the law. But she never failed to feel sympathy for those who violated her legal rights and attempted to kill her.
In order to ensure that the war criminals and those responsible for her family’s murder were tried and sentenced, she turned to the existing legal system. More than a million Rohingyas, who endured horrific torture and violence in Myanmar, were housed by Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh is certain to overcome all obstacles to human rights and achieve genuine democracy under her leadership.
The writer is a London-based Bangladeshi expatriate who is a Bangladesh and Myanmar affairs observer, analyst, and researcher. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.