By Shailaja Neelakantan and Imran Vittachi on Feb 08, 2021
Human rights groups are urging the United Nations to review its links with Bangladesh’s armed forces in light of a TV news documentary alleging corruption by senior government officials, including the Bangladeshi army chief who is set to visit U.N. Headquarters this week.
The joint call from Human Rights Watch and six other rights advocacy groups came as more media outlets in the South Asian nation pressed the government to explain allegations in an Al Jazeera documentary that linked Bangladesh Army chief Gen. Aziz Ahmed to corrupt deals.
“Discussions about increasing Bangladeshi troop deployments in U.N. missions should be put on hold pending the results of the U.N.’s comprehensive review of its ties with the military,” the rights groups said in a statement issued Friday.
Bangladesh is the U.N. member-state that contributes the most uniformed troops to the world body’s peacekeeping operations, but the United Nations should assess those ties and thoroughly vet Bangladeshi peacekeepers to ensure they have no records of rights abuses, said Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“The U.N. said Bangladesh should investigate the Al Jazeera allegations, but we said, ‘No, the U.N. should investigate them.’ It is up to the U.N. to ensure that peacekeepers have not violated human rights,” he told BenarNews on Monday.
Gen. Aziz, who held talks with his U.S. counterpart in Washington last week, was scheduled to meet with U.N. officials in New York this week to discuss increasing Bangladesh’s role in U.N. peacekeeping, the rights groups said in their statement.
Al Jazeera’s investigative report, released last week, had secretly filmed a brother of the general saying that he “can deploy Bangladesh security forces for his own personal and political purposes, including the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB),” an elite paramilitary unit, the rights groups’ said.
RAB has long battled allegations of complicity in “extrajudicial killings,” enforced disappearances and torture. Last October, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators urged the then-Trump administration to impose sanctions on the battalion’s senior commanders.
“We don’t want the U.N. to be short of peacekeepers and the answer to that is proper vetting. In Bangladesh, not all armed forces have committed human rights abuses, but RAB, on the other hand, anybody from that is suspect and the U.N. has to come up with a system where they can state with confidence that people from RAB weren’t involved in abuses,” Adams said.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank, agreed, saying the U.N. should not ban Bangladeshi peacekeeping forces outright.
“[B]ut if it finds there are current Bangladeshi peacekeeping troops that were involved in the crimes, they should be banned. Better that than removing them now, which could end up penalizing innocents and depriving the U.N. of much needed troop strength,” Kugelman told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for U.N. Peacekeeping Operations confirmed that Gen. Aziz was to visit U.N. Headquarters on Tuesday.
“Peacekeeping officials routinely meet with defense personnel from countries that contribute personnel to our operations. The Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations will be meeting with General Aziz Ahmed tomorrow at Bangladesh’s request,” the spokesperson said in response to an emailed query from BenarNews.
The report by Qatar-based Al Jazeera claimed that the Bangladeshi military had secretly purchased surveillance equipment manufactured by an Israeli company, although Bangladesh does not recognize Israel and forbids nationals or engaging in commerce with Israelis.
The Bangladesh Army rejected these claims, saying the equipment was procured from Hungary for one of the army contingents due to be deployed in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
On Thursday, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said the United Nations was aware of the Al Jazeera report “concerning allegations of corruption against senior officials in Bangladesh,” when a reporter asked him about it during a daily press briefing.
“The allegations of corruption is a serious matter that should be investigated by the relevant authorities,” Dujarric said.
The U.N. had not identified a requirement for such surveillance equipment in peacekeeping agreements, he said, noting that no such equipment had been deployed with Bangladeshi contingents in peacekeeping operations.
General visits the Pentagon
According to Adams and Kugelman, U.S. Army officials should not have met with Gen. Aziz last week.
“Given the emphasis that the Biden administration has placed on strengthening democracy and on calling out cases when they are abused, the meeting wasn’t a good look. That said, the administration may have brought up the allegations in the meeting,” Kugelman said.
HRW has long urged the U.S. government to not have public meetings with other nations’ security forces that have a long record of rights abuses, unless foreign governments can show they are taking steps to address them, said Adams, who was interviewed for the Al Jazeera documentary.
“Even before the Al Jazeera report, we have given the previous administration and the Biden administration recommendations that include not having such meetings, which can serve as propaganda meetings for those countries’ and their security forces,” Adams said.
“It makes it look like they are all best friends. If they do have a meeting, they should push them on human rights.”
It was a case of “unfortunate timing” that Al Jazeera’s report coincided with a trip to the U.S. by Gen. Aziz, Adams said.
“We urged the U.S. to cancel the meetings with Aziz but they did not, they said they were routine, regularly scheduled meetings. They need to explain why they went ahead,” he said.
BenarNews contacted the U.S. Army spokesman for a further response to the one it was provided last week.
“Thanks for your follow-up query. I don’t have anything to add to our earlier statement,” Lt. Col. Curtis J. Kellogg said in an email on Monday.
Last week, he had said that the army was aware of the allegations against Gen. Aziz in the Al Jazeera report.
“As part of our ongoing defense and security cooperation, we host visitors from partner-nation armies,” U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Curtis Kellogg told BenarNews.
Voices from Bangladeshi media
Meanwhile, more Bangladeshi media outlets – which were mostly silent about the Al Jazeera report initially – said it was in the national interest to reveal those who abuse their positions of power.
“After the recent Al Jazeera sensational exposé, the question making the circuits now is, ‘whose ‘men’ are they?’ said an OpEd in the daily newspaper Prothom-Alo, referring to the documentary, which also alleged that the fortunes of Gen. Aziz and his brothers “have been long intertwined with” those of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“Whose men they are or whose man anyone wants to be, is an absolutely personal matter. But there are many men lurking around whose identities need to be revealed in the interests of the nation,” the OpEd said, playing on the documentary’s title, “All the Prime Minister’s Men.”
The Bangladeshi foreign ministry and the army last week dismissed Al Jazeera’s allegations, with the former calling the report “false and defamatory” and “propaganda” against the country.
The government is said to be considering legal action against Al Jazeera, said New Age, an English-language daily, in an editorial.
“[B]ut what the government now should come up with is a refutation, substantiated with credible explanations, if there is any, of the allegations that the reportage has brought forth,” the New Age editorial said.
“The government appears to owe the nation a few explanations.”