Ending the downward spiral in Bangladesh

by Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International

As British Airways flight BA144 takes off from Zia International
Airport in the darkness of the night, I look out of the window of the
airplane and think of the metaphorical darkness from which the people
of this country are seeking to escape.

For decades, Bangladesh has been caught in a downward spiral of
corruption, insecurity, political violence and organized crime in which
human rights and the rule of law have been the first casualties.
Political leaders have shown more interest in abuse of power for
personal gains than in poverty eradication. The powerful and the
privileged have acted with impunity, with no fear of being called to
account by weak and ineffective state institutions.

Repressive laws, including laws granting special or emergency powers,
have been used and abused by successive governments. Police and other
state officials have sided with the affluent and the influential, so
that the most vulnerable – women, minorities, the poor and the
marginalized – have been the least protected.  

The declaration of the state of emergency and the installation of a
Caretaker Government (CTG) in January 2007 were desperate measures to
save the country from ever-increasing levels of insecurity and
political violence, further bloodshed and mayhem, and set on track free
and fair elections for a democratic government.

During the Amnesty International visit to Bangladesh, journalists
constantly asked if the human rights situation in 2007 was better than
that in 2006. They were disappointed when I refused to give a simple
“yes” or “no” answer. And so, sitting on the plane, I turn on my laptop
in the hope of penning a more satisfactory response than I have given
so far.

Of course there has been an improvement in physical security and a
dramatic decline in human rights violations related to political
violence in 2007 as compared to previous years. Government figures also
show a fall in the number of extra-judicial killings by RAB and other
security forces from 195 in 2006 to 93 in 2007.

These developments are welcome but it would be wrong to endorse them as
indicators of improvement in the human rights situation without probing
more deeply into what is being done – and what more needs to be done –
to ensure that these positive trends will endure beyond the life of the

We need to analyse more carefully the quality of change being brought
by the CTG to ensure that they are not merely cosmetic. And we need to
ask – indeed demand – that the political parties will uphold human
rights and the rule of law when they come to power so that what is
being done now is not undone in the future.  

In a country where the state machinery – courts, police and military –
not only fails to deliver justice and security but is often the
instrument of persecution, institutional reform is necessary to convert
perpetrators into protectors. The CTG must be commended for taking some
much-needed, long-awaited reform measures but it needs to undertake or
at least set in motion some other measures to ensure that the reforms
are truly effective.

Guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary requires not only
separation from the executive but also other measures to ensure proper
recruitment, appointment and security of tenure of judges without
political interference. A new Police Ordinance will not end police
brutality and inefficiency unless it includes clear provisions for
independent scrutiny and greater accountability, for instance through
the establishment of an independent police complaints mechanism.

The National Human Rights Commission must be given real teeth to
investigate and take action against all organs of the state, including
the Joint Forces and RAB. The CTG must appoint individuals to the
National Human Rights Commission who are not only competent and
qualified but command such a high degree respect and credibility that
no future government will dare to sideline or undermine their work.   

These institutional changes, if carried out properly, will make a real
difference to the range of human rights violations, from police
brutality to gender violence, that plague the lives of ordinary people.

There are two key factors that will determine the ultimate success or
failure of the human rights reform agenda: first, the CTG’s willingness
to close its credibility gap on human rights, and second, the readiness
of the main political parties to embrace the changes and commit
themselves to upholding human rights and the rule of law.  

How can the CTG’s initiative to separate the judiciary from the
executive be taken as a true commitment to creating an independent
judiciary when there is widespread perception that the same government
is manipulating the criminal justice system to deliver some
pre-ordained outcomes in high profile political cases?

When I stressed the need for the government to be seen to be respecting
due process, the Chief Advisor responded that this government is using
existing laws and existing courts. Surely, that is not a satisfactory
answer when it is well-known that these same laws and courts have been
subject to substantial political interference in the past and so open
to the same level of interference now. A government committed to the
rule of law must show scrupulous regard for due process.  

How can the government’s commitment to freedom of information be taken
seriously when overt and covert pressure is exerted on the media? The
government was keen to point out to me that although the emergency
rules impose far-reaching restrictions, they are not being enforced
rigorously. So, why leave them hanging like Damocles’ sword over the
heads of media, creating uncertainty and encouraging self-censorship?

With such emergency regulations in existence, the chilling effect of a
telephone call from a  Directorate of General Forces Intelligence
(DGFI) official to a TV station owner, or from the local RAB commander
to a district correspondent should not be underestimated. Add to that a
case like that of Jahangir Alam Akash, who claims to have been detained
and tortured by RAB and charged in 2007 with extortion allegedly
committed in 2004, days after he reported an incident implicating local
RAB officials in an attempted extra-judicial killing.

Democratic institutions cannot develop in a climate of self-censorship.
A period of transition and change must be informed by a diversity of
views. That is why the government must immediately lift the
restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association,
including restrictions on the media.

How can people have confidence in the CTG’s drive to create a culture
of transparency and accountability when the government has failed to be
transparent and accountable about investigating reports of serious
human rights violations by RAB and the Joint Forces? Torture
allegations made by Rang Lai Mro, a prominent leader from  the
Chittagong Hill Tracts remain uninvestigated, as do the allegations by
Jahangir Alam Akash, or the death of Dulal in Bhola reportedly at the
hands of the Navy.

After much adverse publicity, the government set up a one-man judicial
commission to investigate the death of Cholesh Richil, a Garo leader,
allegedly tortured by a Joint Forces unit in March 2007, but has so far
failed to publish the report or open any criminal prosecution. I
welcome the statement by the Chief Advisor that the NHRC should have
the power to investigate human rights complaints against military and
security officials, including RAB, in the future. But justice delayed
is justice denied.

The Richil case cannot wait. Only by publishing the report of the
judicial commission and by following it up with criminal investigation
and prosecution in an open court of law can this government show that
it is determined to end the culture of impunity that has hamstrung the
rule of law in this country.

The past year has been marked by a creeping expansion of the role of
the armed forces in activities that should rightly be carried out by a
civilian administration, from law enforcement to electoral registration
and investigation of extortion cases. I was told by the Army Chief that
this is because of the lack of capacity and competency in the civilian
administration. Be that as it may, principles of transparency and
accountability, which lie at the core of human rights, require that all
activities by the armed forces should be circumscribed by law and put
under civilian scrutiny and accountability.

If the CTG has the courage to confront and close these credibility
gaps, then it will go a long way in creating public confidence in the
human rights reforms agenda that no future government will be able to
Turning now to the political parties, I fully agreed with the Chief
Advisor when he said to me during our meeting that institutional change
is a long term process and its success depends not only on the CTG but
on the commitment of future governments.

That is why Amnesty International’s recommendations on human rights
reform are addressed not just to the CTG but also to political parties.
That is why we asked all political parties represented in the previous
parliament to meet with us, and the Awami League, one faction of the
BNP (the other one led by Saifur Rahman did not return our call for a
meeting) and Jamaat agreed to do so.

In these meetings, my colleagues emphasized our call for political
parties to include a human rights agenda in their manifesto, and to
support human rights reforms when they are in parliament. The test of
the commitments which they declared to have for human rights will be in
what they will say publically and will do in Parliament.

Regrettably, human rights have yet to enter the lexicon of political
parties. They have little understanding about the relationship of human
rights to democracy and good governance, and even less of their role as
political leaders in upholding human rights and the rule of law. They
are primarily preoccupied with protecting the human rights of their
leaders who are feeling the brunt of the law.

They are yet to fully appreciate the irony that they themselves created
and nurtured the laws, systems and practices of which they are now
complaining. Now that they are at the receiving end of these repressive
laws, policies and practices, let us hope that they will take more
seriously Amnesty’s oft-reiterated recommendations, including repeal of
the Special Powers Act and the introduction of basic safeguards against
torture and ill treatment of detainees.

Knowing the role that democratically elected governments played in the
past in undermining the rule of law and human rights, civil society
must be vigorous in demanding that political parties demonstrate a
clear commitment to human rights. They must call on the political
parties to set out their vision on human rights and to insert clear
commitments in their electoral manifesto. In the run up to the
elections, there is an opportunity to educate the political leaders on
human rights as a means of good governance, and I believe the more
astute and progressive leaders are ready to learn.  

So, the right question is not whether the human rights situation today
is better or worse than last year. It is whether one should be more
hopeful or less that this country will turn a corner on human rights.

And there I am optimistic. The public today is more aware of human
rights than ever before. Civil society is more determined than ever to
hold their political leaders to account. The call for democracy is not
simply for free and fair elections but for a new style of governance
that is transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs, demands
and rights of the people.

I leave Bangladesh with a sense of hope, not because of what the CTG
has done, or what political parties promise to do, nor even what civil
society is determined to do,  but because of the growing realisation
and determination of ordinary people to stand up for their rights.

The day labourers in my ancestral village in Sylhet, the women in the
legal literacy projects in the village in Tangail, the fruit seller
from whom I bought oranges on the street corner in Gulshan, the CNG
driver who drove me to the market – they spoke to me frankly and simply
with no sophisticated understanding of law or politics. But in their
voices I heard the uncompromising demand for justice, equality and a
decent life and livelihood for all. No government, caretaker or
democratic, no leader, elected or unelected, can afford to ignore that

The flight is about to land at Heathrow and I must turn off my laptop.
But before I do that, I remember the words of the man guarding the door
of the passenger terminal at Dhaka airport. As I entered the building
with my luggage trolley, he recognised my face from TV and newspaper
pages, and came running after me. “You have said what many of us want
to say,” he said. “We all want to see change in Bangladesh.” Then, as I
waved goodbye, he called out, “Apa, please do not forget us.”

How can I ever forget people like him who give me hope that the struggle for human rights in Bangladesh will endure!