August 18, 2022
DHAKA – UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has raised deep concerns over the allegations of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing and torture in Bangladesh — many of which have been attributed to the Rapid Action Battalion.
She recommended an impartial, independent and transparent investigation into these allegations, expressing her office’s readiness to provide advice on how such a mechanism could be designed in line with international standards.
“There are continued, alarming allegations of both short-term and long-term enforced disappearances, and concerns about the lack of due process and judicial safeguards,” Bachelet said during a press conference at a city hotel, concluding her four-day visit to the country since August 14.
The UN rights chief has met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, ministers for foreign affairs, home affairs, law, and education, the National Human Rights Commission and representatives of civil society, foreign diplomats, leaders of the BNP and trade unions.
She also has visited the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar and spoken at a seminar on climate change.
At the press conference, Bachelet lauded Bangladesh for its leadership in international forums on issues like migration and climate change and for sheltering more than a million Rohingyas.
She also appreciated Bangladesh’s socio-economic progress and likely graduation out of LDC status soon, but added that it is now more important than ever to make critical reforms of institutions that improve governance, democratic practices, media freedom, civil society space and human rights.
“Particularly given the long-standing frustrations at the lack of progress in investigations and other obstacles to justice, I encouraged the government to create an independent, specialised mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing,” she said.
“As the biggest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, Bangladesh should ensure it has a robust system in place for the careful human rights screening of security personnel.”
Inviting the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit Bangladesh would also show a commitment to decisively address this issue, she said and called upon the government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Bachelet stressed the need for acknowledging the allegations against law enforcers, sharing her own experience as the president of Chile.
She said her father also died by torture in 1974 and she shares the pain of Sheikh Hasina whose father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members were killed in 1975.
“I always felt when I received any allegations of any kind, it is better to say what if it is true. Because it may not be my policy but something is happening. If you know that it is happening, you can do something about it.”
Referring to her meeting with the National Human Rights Commission, Bachelet said she got its report that acknowledged some of the incidents of extrajudicial killings and death by torture. So, it is important to implement the proposals made by the UN.
Her comments on rights issues are significant in that the Rab and seven of its current and former officials face sanctions imposed by the US in December last year over extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. The government denies the allegations but at the same time says it takes actions when allegations are raised.
HOLD NATIONAL DIALOGUE
While meeting the ministers, Bachelet suggested a national dialogue, especially when the people’s problems are increasing with the economy suffering in the wake of Covid pandemic and Ukraine-Russia war, and the general election is due next year.
All may not agree on all aspects, particularly ahead of the national election, but she hoped surely everybody can benefit out of the dialogue. Even people can see that and have trust on the institutions.
“The whole spectrum of political parties and civil societies — can you not agree on five to six issues and work on that?”
Bachelet said the election period will be an important time for Bangladesh to maximise civic and political space — including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly of political activists, human rights defenders, opposition parties and journalists.
“There needs to be space for more dialogue among political parties and with a wide range of civil society actors to prevent grievances from building and erupting in social unrest. The voices of women, religious minorities and indigenous peoples, and especially young people need to be heard.”
It is also important to ensure that law enforcement forces have the necessary training to manage protests without resorting to the excessive use of force, she said.
The UN rights chief noted that Bangladesh historically had a wealth of civil society expertise in various fields, but successive UN human rights reports have documented a narrowing civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals often leading to self-censorship.
“Laws and policies over regulating NGOs and broadly restricting the freedom of expression make it difficult — and sometimes risky — for them to function effectively.”
Bachelet said the UN Human Rights Commission and Bangladesh government are engaged in dialogue on review of the Digital Security Act.
She acknowledged the need for regulating the online space and checking online hate speech, disinformation and cybercrime. But, she said, addressing these concerns is not simple as regulating communications always creates risks for the protection of freedom of expression.
Her office has submitted recommendations for repeal and revision of certain provisions of the Act, with a view to ensuring their compliance with international human rights laws and standards, and preventing arbitrary application or misuse.
She also looks forward to the government’s feedback and timeline to expedite the review and discuss the importance of working closely with civil society and the UN to ensure that the new draft Data Protection Law and the OTT platform regulations meet international human rights standards.
Bachelet stressed the importance of protecting minority groups, such as Hindus and indigenous peoples from violence or land encroachments.
While lauding the Peace Accord in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, she called for its full implementation, demilitarisation of the area and unrestricted access for independent actors to visit there, given the continued allegations of human rights violations, linked with land disputes.
She said Bangladesh has a solid framework in its constitution, laws and international commitments to draw from in facing human rights challenges. Now it is important for the government to focus on implementation and an institutionalised system to follow up.
Bachelet said as Bangladesh continues to grow economically, effective, accountable and inclusive institutions — in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 16 — are essential for achieving the next level of development.
“Strengthening the independence of institutions, including the national human rights commission, the elections commission and the judiciary, will be key. The UN Country Team stands by to support implementation of all SDGs.”
She said two UN special rapporteurs — one on climate change and human rights and the other on human trafficking — will visit the country soon.