I recently represented CIVICUS recently on a trip to Geneva to participate in Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions at the UN Human Rights Council. CIVICUS had made UPR submissions for Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all of which were being examined at the 16th session in April this year. Of particular interest was the session on Bangladesh for CIVICUS has been very active in its advocacy on that country in recent months. Trips to Dhaka, press releases on the NGO law and now a side-event at the HRC with FORUM-ASIA entitled ‘Bangladesh: Towards a conducive environment for Human Rights Defenders’ on 25 April 2013 have made us busy indeed.
The Bangladeshi activists that flew in from Dhaka for the event were clearly being watched carefully by officials from the Bangladeshi Mission. The Mission did not make much of a secret of it. They were there for all to see in the Serpentine Bar at the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva, their camera phones held up taking pictures of the activists. I also saw them recording what the activists said at the CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA side-event. Although it is welcome that the Bangladeshi Mission attended, their attentions, which felt akin to surveillance at times, did not make for an altogether pleasant interaction with the activists. Particularly when it is noted that one of the NGO’s – Odhikar, had experienced surveillance coupled with the threatening and harassment of its staff back in Bangladesh in recent years. What is more surprising though is that these intimidating attentions were occurring in the serene environs of Geneva, amidst a faux-convivial air of polite handshakes and back slapping between the activists and the Bangladeshi delegation.
In addition to Odhikar, the other NGOs in attendance were ‘Ain O Salish Kendra’ and ‘Human Rights Forum, Bangladesh’. They attended so that their activists could speak about their experiences at home and the current climate for activism. Through their attendance, it was hoped that the activists’ words detailing their real life experiences would compel the countries in attendance to issue forceful recommendations to Bangladesh on how it may improve its treatment of civil society and human rights defenders.
It is unfortunate however that neither the side-event nor the Bangladesh UPR were well attended by the different country missions, particularly given what Bangaldeshi human rights defenders experience daily, details of which are available in the CIVICUS Bangladesh UPR submission. Since its publication however, the situation for Bangladeshi civil society has continued to deteriorate.
The draft Foreign Donations Bill, currently under discussion in Bangladesh, has the potential to seriously impede the independence of civil society from the state if passed. It would introduce a protracted approval process for foreign funded projects requiring multiple clearances at various levels, while at the same time providing no time frame for approval, no clear grounds on which to deny an approval and excessive powers to inspect the activities of NGOs. In its current form, it will contravene the right to peaceful association in the ICCPR, an international covenant which Bangladesh has ratified, and which enshrines the right of groups to operate freely away from undue interference.
Meanwhile as the state continues its pincer movement on civil society, protest movements are also being brutally suppressed in this, an election year. Violence killed dozens in February, March, and April after protests and counter-protests broke out after the announcement of verdicts by the country’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islaam also led protests in Dhaka and elsewhere on May 5-6, to which the police responded with disproportionate force. It is said estimated that 50 people died in the protests, while many more were injured including eleven journalists.
Coupled with these assaults on human rights norms, are the continuing attacks on human rights defenders such as Mahmudur Rahman, currently receiving treatment in hospital. Medical reports suggest that he was severely tortured whilst in custody. He has injuries on his limbs caused by iron nails as well as electricity. Mahmadur, an editor of the newspaper Daily Amardesh which was closed and sealed by police without a court order on 11 April 2013, was arrested the same day. He had published articles exposing corruption scandals involving high profile ruling party politicians including the Prime Minister and her family members. He also denounced the killing of 172 civilians by police during government clashes with the opposition last February.
Worryingly as the world steps in to offer its condolences on the recent building collapse which killed 1,127 people in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, those attempting to protect the workers have also been targeted. Aminul Islam, who campaigned for higher pay and better working conditions, was found tortured and murdered in April 2012. A year later, there has been little progress into the investigation of his death. Human rights defender F M A Razzak, the President of Human Rights Development Centre, also suffered an extremely violent physical attack in April 2011 by persons connected to an army officer who had a grievance against Razzak. Razzak was abducted, tortured and had his limbs fractured and his eye severely gouged, before being left for dead.
Against this frightening backdrop, it was a privilege and honour to receive the brave activists from Odhikar, Ain O Salish Kendra and Human Rights Forum, in Geneva. It was however, disappointing to see the PR exercise laid on by Dipu Moni, the Bangladeshi Minister for Foreign Affairs, and her mission. When it comes to the treatment of human rights defenders and civil society, and the other recommendations handed down at Bangladesh’s last UPR, it was apparent that little progress had been made. The extensive condolences from all country missions regarding the Savar building collapse also, for the most part, failed to follow-up on the situation of the poorly paid workers that work in unsafe environments in Bangladesh and the activists that defend them.
It takes strength to bare criticism! I wish the Bangladeshi mission would recognise it.