Bangladesh: An open letter to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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The success of Bachelet’s visit to Bangladesh depends on her not mincing her words, and not accommodating the country’s authoritarian government.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Photo: Alamy
Dear High Commissioner,Welcome to Bangladesh! You are visiting what in many respects is a thriving country with many positive social and economic indicators, but as the UN human rights commissioner, the country’s civil society expects you, indeed relies on you, to draw back the curtain and call out the government’s non-democratic nature and its dire human rights record — something that they themselves are unable to do without the fear of repercussions.

Non-democratic government
It is important that you first recognise that the Awami League government is only in power now because in 2018 it systematically rigged the elections. You must have read the numerous media and human rights reports of what happened. The very fact that the opposition was only allowed to win 7 out of 300 seats speaks volumes.

In fact, you should understand that the only relatively free and fair election that this government won was the initial 2008 vote that brought them to power for its first five-year term. Very soon after winning this election, the Awami League changed the constitution to remove the legal requirement for elections to be held under a non-partisan caretaker government — which had been the reason why elections since 1990 had been seen as credible. As a result, unsurprisingly, the opposition parties boycotted the 2014 vote and the Awami League returned to power for its second five-year term effectively unopposed.

Therefore, for the last eight years since 2014, the Awami League government has had no electoral democratic legitimacy.

High Commissioner, I would therefore hope that you do not recognise Bangladesh as a “democratic” country. You must make it clear to the prime minister and other members of the government that in 2023 they must hold free and fair elections allowing the people to decide who should be the government in power, and for this to happen some form of non-partisan government will need to be established to hold the elections.

Repression and human rights violations
Ms Bachelet, you will have read the UN’s own reports, written by its working groups, monitoring committees and rapporteurs which set out the dire state of human rights in Bangladesh. I do also hope as part of your preparation for this meeting you listened to the interview given by Brad Adams the recently retired Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. There is so much that could be said, but let me just focus on three here.

Enforced disappearances: In a letter sent at the end of 2021 to the Bangladesh government, your Working Group on Enforced Disappearances noted that the “frequent and ongoing use of enforced disappearance” is allegedly used “as a tool by law enforcement agencies, security and intelligence forces, especially to target political opponents or other dissidents.” Human Rights Watch has also identified 86 men by name who in the last ten years have been picked up by law enforcement authorities and their whereabouts remain unknown.

There is no doubt that the authorities will deny the allegations when you raise these cases with them. Their deceit on this issue has been longstanding. I hope that you will challenge their lies and specifically call on them to release those who remain in secret detention.

It may seem extraordinary that the Bangladesh state continues to secretly detain men for years and years after they were picked up, but Netra News has reported recently that at least two of the men picked up six years ago in August 2016 – Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem and Brigadier Abdullahil Amaan Azmi – continue to be kept in secret state custody. One can only imagine what state they must be in. Do call for the release of these two men and information on the 84 others whose whereabouts remain unknown.

And please take up the request made by international human rights organisations that you press the government to form an independent commission of inquiry to investigate not only all allegations of enforced disappearances but extra-judicial killings too and that this is established with the support of your office.

Extrajudicial killings: As you know, it was the hundreds of extrajudicial killings carried out by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) which was the trigger for the United States’ sanctions on the agency and six of its former and current officers, including the current chief of police. The sanctions seem to have had a salutary effect on the government, resulting in a major reduction in the number of such killings — showing that serious actions by international actors can result in significant changes in government practice.

However, the authorities continue to deny that law enforcement agencies commit extrajudicial killings, despite overwhelming evidence, and have taken no action against any of the men sanctioned by the US government, including the current head of the country’s police force, Benazir Ahmed.

I hope, therefore, that you raise with the Bangladesh government the need to hold to account those responsible for these hundreds of extrajjudicial killings, and at the very least remove Benazir Ahmed from his post.

Silencing the media/civil society: Perhaps the aspect of the government repression that affects the most number of people in Bangladesh is the restriction and intimidation of civil society and the media.

First, there are the actions by the government over the years to weaken the political opposition and prevent them from carrying out legitimate activities of political parties. The police have filed criminal cases against tens of thousands of opposition activists from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the overwhelming majority of which were done in a highly arbitrary manner on bogus charges. Many of these cases also refer to “unidentified persons”, allowing any opposition activist to be arrested at any time. Hundreds, if not thousands, of opposition activists were forced into hiding for fear of arrest or disappearance. The authorities also often continue to prevent opposition meetings from taking place — breaking them up and seeking to arrest those present.

Secondly, there is the action preventing opposition, journalists, members of the public or critics of the government from writing or speaking critically about the authorities or otherwise expressing their dissent. Many hundreds have been arrested under the Digital Security Act from posting on social media and are detained in jail for months. News websites in Bangladesh and outside are blocked, and the country’s media is under serious constraints about what they can publish. Police recently arrested the sister of a well known US-based YouTuber on bogus charges, detaining her in prison for nearly six months, apparently to try to silence her brother from posting critical videos of the government.

High Commissioner, the government will tell you that there are thousands of registered newspapers — but most of these either no longer exist, are published in very small numbers, or are under effective government control. The number of actual independent newspapers is very small — and as I said, are highly constrained. As to television stations — the provision of licences was highly politicised, and what they can broadcast is even more limited than what is possible for papers or online media to publish.

Thirdly, the government acts against those non-governmental organisations whom they consider a threat to it in one way or the other. The targeting of the human rights organisation Odhikar, whose registration has been removed and directors are being prosecuted ​​(and on which your office has commented on), as well as the continuous targeting of the country’s Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus through contrived financial  investigations illustrate the arbitrary action by the government, and how NGOs and other civil society organisations feel highly constrained as to what they can do, and fear harassment and intimidation if they overstep a line.

All of this can happen in Bangladesh due to the lack of independent institutions in the country. The police, the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, and the courts are all under effective control of the Awami League government.

The success of your visit depends on you not mincing your words, on not accommodating authoritarian governments, but speaking truth to power and making clear to the Bangladesh government authorities that they must stop their repressive activities and bring back democracy to the country.

Hope your visit goes well – and is successful!

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News. He also runs the bangladeshpolitico blog