Why is Bangladesh’s human rights record on such a steep decline? The diplomatic silence

Netra News
28 February 2021

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Rensje Teerink, the head of the European Union delegation in Bangladesh speaking at the EU parliament sub-committee on Human Rights. (screenshot taken from the EU website)

If you want to understand one of the key reasons explaining why Bangladesh government’s human rights and governance record is in such a steep decline — look no further than the debate on Thursday at the European Union Parliament Sub-committee on Human Rights.

In it, Rensje Teerink, the head of the European Union delegation in Bangladesh was asked to speak.

Remember, she was being asked to speak on human rights in Bangladesh — at the sub-committee on human rights, in the context of a 2018 European Union resolution which was highly critical of the human rights situation in Bangladesh.

Yet, in her speech, she she failed to mention a single word — literally not one word — on:

– Enforced disappearances

– Extrajudicial killings

– Arbitrary arrests

– State torture

– Media censorship

– Freedom of speech

– Rigged elections

All of these, as was made clear by Human Rights Watch spokesperson who spoke before her (11:10:50–11:20:30), are very significant and increasing problems in Bangladesh.

Indeed, the ambassador did not refer once to any of these crucial issues mentioned by Human Rights Watch. It was as though Human Rights Watch and the EU were referring to different countries altogether — which in one sense they were.

It is in part because the EU and other liberal democracies have failed to speak out that we now have a declining human rights record in Bangladesh. Yes, they have to take responsibility for the declining standards as they repeatedly fail to use their power and influence to call out the Awami League government, which in turn has both allowed the regime to feel completely free of any pressure and made them think that they can get away with its continuing terrible rights violations. Their silence takes place when ordinary Bangladeshis face the real threat of detention if they speak out or protest.

Be in no doubt that the EU, UK, US, Canada, Australia and other liberal democracies shoulder a significant part of the blame for Bangladesh’s declining human rights standards. Their deafening silence has given the government a green light to continue disappearances, extra judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, among other grave human rights violations.

Yesterday, a host of countries did finally issue a statement over the death of the writer Musthaq Ahmed. When did you last read such a a statement raising questions about human rights in Bangladesh from the international community? It is because of the international community’s failure to strongly criticise the human rights record that you can have a situation in which Mushtaq Ahmed could remain in detention for 9 months, and be refused bail six times, without charge.

In its statement, the ambassadors state: “We will continue to engage with the Government of Bangladesh on our Governments’ wider concerns about the provisions and implementation of the DSA, as well as questions about its compatibility with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights laws and standards.” Who knows what they mean by “engagement” but unless they make their comments publicly, and threaten their continued cooperation unless changes are made, it will have no impact. There is no point in diplomats raising their concerns privately. Until they begin to speak publicly, repeatedly — nothing will change. And if they continue to fail to do so, the responsibility for that lack of change (and the likely further deteriorating situation) will rest significantly on their shoulders.

The full transcript of the EU ambassador speech about human rights in Bangladesh is set out at the bottom of this post. However — apart from failing to mention, let alone condemn, the human rights situation in Bangladesh — the following is notable:

  • Teerink mentioned a “human rights dialogue” that took place in October 2019. She does not mention any aspect of what was discussed, apart from a vague mention of “UPR recommendations”. Apparently, according to the ambassador, the great success that has come from this dialogue is that the government has organized “three workshops on implementing the UPR recommendations”. In other words, nothing has been achieved. Does the EU think that holding three workshops with the Bangladesh government is going to achieve anything? We can be sure that absolutely nothing has come out of these workshops — but it seems the EU ambassador is proud of these meeting.
  • The ambassador then says that the EU has “engaged on the Digital Security Act”. How? Apparently, “with a number of meetings with the honorable law minister on the need to change some of the more problematic sections of the act”. What has been achieved? Nothing. “We are expecting to have a follow up meeting with the minister soon to continue this discussion.” Good luck with that. Did the EU ambassador say anything about the arbitrary detentions or the silencing of dissent as a result of this law? No, she remains content with some future useless meeting to be held with the law minister, who must have held dozens of these useless meetings in the past, smiled and organized another one.
  • She says that “Inclusive democratic governance will remain an important priority in our future cooperation with Bangladesh.” Did she mention rigging of the national elections or the local elections since then? No. It is quite extraordinary how the international community has simply accepted the rigging of the last national elections. Did she mention the recent important civil society letters to the Election Commission and the President of Bangladesh about the rigging? No, she did not. What she is proud of is this: “We have done capacity building with dozens of community based and civil society organizations and trained them on participation in democratic governance.” If the EU ambassador thinks that this is going to achieve anything in Bangladesh, where the current regime has all the powers and has no interest in democratic governance, she is in cloud cuckoo land.

The International Community in Bangladesh at present is a disgrace and it needs to recognise its own role in allowing Bangladesh to move to authoritarianism with little respect for human rights.

//David Bergman

EU AMBASSADOR STATEMENT (11:20:30–11:27:30)

“EU-Bangladesh relations are complex. We have a rich history of cooperation. Indeed we cooperate and partner for Bangladesh’s inclusive development. We have intensive trade relations and we work together to face challenges in the field of migration and climate change. And, as already as has been pointed out, the EU is also a staunch ally of Bangladesh in addressing the humanitarian Rohingya crisis.

So to recall, indeed, as was mentioned before, the EU is the first trading partner of Bangladesh. 20 billion euros of imports annually from Bangladesh to the EU. Over 60% of everything but arms trade, EBA, is attributed to Bangladesh, and many EU brands have factories in the country.

Also Bangladesh is considered one of the most climate change prone countries, with possibily millions of climate change refugees in the nearest decades, and therefore an urgent priority in the need for promoting of the European model green deal. As I said, the World’s biggest refugee camp is located in Bangladesh hosting the Rohingya, and the EU has been engaged and is supporting the Rohingya crisis since the beginning and we need of course Bangladesh’s engagement for the development and the humanitarian peace and development nexus.

We also strive for continued and deeper cooperation with Bangladesh on migration, especially on standard operating procedures on the return of irregular migrants from the EU. And of course, finally, geo-politically, Bangladesh is at a cross roads of Chinese and Indian influence, and therefore potentially a very important partner in out Indo-pacific strategy.

The economic situation in Bangladesh has been greatly affected by the covid 19 pandemic. The plight of garment workers has already been mentioned. Many ready garment orders from western brands were cancelled there were diminished remissions, impact of lockdown here. Here again the EU has stepped in by providing support and social protection, front-loading to some of hardest hit garment workers who lost their jobs, and this is in framework of our social protection programme. So unfortunately the pandemic has thrown back parts of the population to poverty or extreme poverty as elsewhere in the region. However there is also a consensus, that Bangladesh proven to be quite resilience to this shock and RMG orders are bouncing back. And Bangladesh, important to see as well, remains on track to graduate from LDC status as planned in 2024.

In terms of engagement, we are of course in the process of re-launching the EBA enhanced engagement with the government of Bangladesh. Discussions were paused by the covid-19 lockdowns in mid-march and here in the summer holidays, but as we speak, the labour rights road map is advancing well and we have had four intensive technical meetings since the beginning of this year. So there is good progress to be noted here.

I can say a bit more about Rohingya but let me just concentrate here on human right dialogue that we also have with the government of Bangladesh. The latest human rights dialogue took place in October 2019, this was in the margins of the European Bangladesh joint commission meeting. Subsequently, coming from the priorities identified in this EU rights dialogue the government of Bangladesh has organised three UPR workshops on implementing the UPR recommendations, with active involvement locally here of the UN and EU. More specifically, the EU here in Dhaka has engaged on the Digital Security Act, notably with a number of meetings with the honourable law minister on the need to change some of the more problematic sections of the act and we are expecting to have a follow up meeting with the minister soon to continue this discussion.

A few words on our future programming, as we are now in the programming of development cooperation with Bangladesh. Inclusive democratic governance will remain an important priority in our future cooperation with Bangladesh together with human capital development , decent work , and green inclusive development. I think, as one of most vulnerable countries to climate change, the green inclusive development will be key for this country.

Let me close with one example how we address inclusive democratic governance in our latest multi-annual indicative programne that ended in December of last year. We have done capacity building with dozens of community based and civil society organisations and trained them on participation in democratic governance. We have a programme on public finance management an action plan that is running to 2023. And I think most importantly is our access to justice to poor and marginalised people which has been improved by the nationwide roll out village court programme. Village courts are semi formal dispute resolution mechanisms that contribute to provide the poorest and marginalised people access to justice including of course woman and I think it is very important part of democratisation, and that is why we will be continuing with third phase in our future programme.

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