57. Human rights in Bangladesh

While I have discussed human rights issues in various posts throughout this blog, I thought it might be a good idea to bring them all together in one overview post. Bangladesh signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in September 2000, and was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2009. It is now a signatory to all seven core human rights instruments. In 2007, the setting up of the long-awaited National Human Rights Commission was approved. This functions as a human rights watchdog. Bangladesh has been criticised by human rights bodies for its record in a number of areas. The website ASK is a good place to start for those interested in human rights in Bangladesh.

Abuses of human rights are often characteristic of countries where there is a poorly evolved political culture. As discussed elsewhere (see e.g. post 51) this is the case in Bangladesh: the country continues to experience higher than average levels of corruption. Therefore, while there may be laws in place to protect the rights of citizens, lack of law enforcement and corruption at the political level militate against a fair and just society. Poverty further disadvantages citizens (see post 30).

Abuse of powers by army and police

Both the police and the army are frequently accused of excessive use of force and abuse of power. Since 2006, an estimated 1000 people have been killed by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the police, the armed forces or other paramilitary security forces. During the examination of Bangladesh’s human rights record, under the Universal Periodic Review process of February 2009, the government promised to show ‘zero tolerance’ to extra-judicial killings, and other human rights abuses. However, the killings have continued and prosecutions have not followed. Many extra-judicial killings are justified as arising from so-called ‘cross-fire incidents’, where government forces claim to have acted in self-defence. 

Peaceful demonstrations are frequently met with unnecessary force by police. There are also allegations of torture from citizens while in police custody. A disturbing YouTube video clip clearly shows RAB officers using excessive force during a raid on the house of an opposition politician. What is extraordinary is that they do not appear to be in any way intimidated by the presence of cameras. This makes me wonder what might have happened had there not been cameras present? I am not sure what the politician and his family are accused of, but it is quite clear that there was excessive use of force.

Death Penalty

Despite lobbying, Bangladesh retains the death penalty. At least 185 people were sentenced to death in 2008, bringing the estimated number of prisoners on death row to at least 1085. In December 2008, Bangladesh voted against a UN General Assembly resolution that called for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

I will never forget the spine-chilling headline (in red ink) on the front page of the Daily Star newspaper on 28th January 2010:

5 Bangabandhu killers hanged

The article began: ‘Five condemned killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Father of the Nation, went to the gallows at 12.05 a.m. this morning amid tight security’. There were jubilant scenes reported across the country at the news of the hangings and while I felt shocked, most Bangladeshis saw this as a ‘coming of age’, as the rule of law finally being upheld, albeit 34 years too late. (For more on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, see post 14.)

Women’s and children’s rights

At least half of the total population of 160 million people in Bangladesh are women and children. The lives of many women and adolescent girls in Bangladesh is characterised by inequality, discrimination and subordination within the family and society. (See post 44 for more in this regard.) In March 2008, the government announced amendments to the National Women Development Policy to enhance equality for women. However, the amendments met fierce resistance from Islamist groups. They organised rallies through the streets in protest, particularly on the issue of Islamic inheritance law. You can see some of the riots that accompanied the announcement on YouTube. All amendments have yet to be implemented.

Apart from adolescent girls, the rights of all children in Bangladesh are frequently compromised. A sizeable number are homeless and live on the streets. In addition to coping with poverty and the attendant disadvantage, many have to deal with such serious issues as child marriage, child labour and sexual exploitation (harassment and abuse). Post 35 focuses on children.

Bangladesh has been criticised internationally for not doing enough to comply with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.

The rights of persons with disabilities

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 10% of the population, or 16.4 million people, are disabled in Bangladesh. However, there is widespread lack of awareness and understanding in relation to disability and this is matched by a lack of facilities. People with disabilities are highly visible, particularly in Dhaka, where they constitute a large proportion of street beggars. To read more, see post 30.

The rights of workers in Bangladesh

There are documented violations in relation to workers’ rights in Bangladesh. Laws are there to protect the rights of workers but they are not always enforced. I have already made reference to vulnerable employment groups in other posts. For example, to read about the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh, see post 52. The situation for tea plantation labourers is another example: see this Daily Star article and post 18. There are reported cases of child exploitation in some industries (see post 35). Yet another example is that of the workers in the ship-breaking yards in Chittagong (see post 43).

Every day I witness dangerous conditions in workplaces in Dhaka, particularly in relation to construction work. In fact, I had a personal window (literally) on such conditions when the apartment block opposite mine underwent demolition. It then turned into a construction site where work never ceased, day or night. Because my room is at the front of the building, I lay awake many nights listening to the repetitive sound of mumbling men shovelling and scraping stone outside my window. There is currently a building boom in Dhaka and, because of the abundance of cheap labour, every construction task is done manually. I have seen as many women as men involved in digging ditches and carrying heavy baskets of bricks and rubble.  Much as I bemoan the noise and the dust, I am in awe of the resilience and dedication of the workers in such difficult circumstances. Safety procedures or equipment of any kind (e.g. scaffolding, helmets or harnesses) are absent. The block of flats opposite mine was demolished brick by brick, by sheer physical labour using the most basic tools. Often, two labourers will work together rhythmically. The first man swings a makeshift, long-handled sledge-hammer up over his head and brings it down with full force, to crack or chip away at the hard concrete surface beneath. As he once again raises his mallet, the second man’s mallet comes down to strike the same spot. And so they continue in even tempo. One day I stood watching a young man. He was precariously perched on top of the upper-storey lintel of a lone-standing door frame in a bed of rubble. As his sledge-hammer hit the edge of the lintel furthest from him the whole structure would shake. I couldn’t bear to watch for too long, because with each blow I thought he would surely crack the entire lintel and lose his balance. Add to the mix the intense heat of the sun and the suffocating dust and this comes as close to serious occupational hazard as I have seen. I have been unable to find statistics for deaths and injuries on construction sites each year, but I suspect numbers are sizeable.

Ethnic minorities’ rights

There are 2.5 million people belonging to ethnic minority groups in Bangladesh, and there are numerous instances of rights violations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and elsewhere. Post 43 deals with these issues in some detail and there are references too in posts 18, 32, 34 and 49. You can read a Daily Star editorial on the subject here.

Unlawful evictions

Thousands of slum dwellers have been forcibly evicted in Dhaka and other major cities. Their homes have been demolished without any provision for compensation or alternative accommodation. Court orders are often issued to evict people from land allocated to property development projects.

The ‘Bihari’ people’s rights

I regularly pass (and have visited) Geneva Camp in Mohammadpur, which is not far from where I live. This is one of the 116 refugee camps set up across Bangladesh for ‘Bihari’ peoples. The term ‘Bihari’ is misleading: not all are from Bihar (in India). They are Urdu-speaking, non-Bengali, Muslim refugees from India (including Bihar) and Pakistan who came to Bangladesh after the partition of India. Many were once part of the upper echelons of East Pakistani society and, as such, stood to lose from Bangladesh’s independence. Consequently, many sided with Pakistan during the 1971 war (see posts 8, 14). After the war, they found themselves stateless and marginalised and referred to, inaccurately, as ‘Biharis’. While many ‘Biharis’ were repatriated to Pakistan in exchange for Bengali prisoners after the war, Pakistan stopped accepting ‘Biharis’, citing problems of coping with large influxes of refugees. Today, many of the younger ‘Biharis’ have been born in Bangladesh and consider themselves Bangladeshi. While officially ‘citizens’, they do not enjoy all the rights of citizens in practice.

In Geneva Camp there are more than 25,000 people living in cramped and squalid conditions. You can read an interesting blog post about a visit to Geneva Camp here. Many of the younger people that I met there spoke Bangla. The following video from Plan International will give you an idea of their plight:

The rights of the Dalit community

Every day on my way to work I pass by a Dalit ‘colony’ (the ‘Sweeper Colony’) in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. It is situated on a small piece of land between the Asian Development Bank and an orthopaedic hospital. For a long time I passed by daily, not understanding what the sign (see picture) meant, or who the Dalits were. It was only when I met a man on the street one day, who spoke English, that I finally learnt their story. He invited me to walk through the colony with him. They live in extremely overcrowded conditions in makeshift houses constructed from bamboo, pieces of wood and corrugated tin. The word ‘colony’ refers to ‘community’ and the term ‘Dalit’ refers to members of the so-called ‘Untouchable’ caste, the lowest ranking class in traditional Hindu society. (Mridu Rais gives a good introduction to the evolution of the caste system in India, from British colonial times to the post-colonial era, and its relationship to territory, region, and nation.) The word ‘dalit’ literally means ‘oppressed’. It was popularised in the 1970s by ‘Untouchable’ writers, as preferable to the term ‘harijan’. There are 300 million Dalits in South Asia and possibly up to 5 million in Bangladesh. For centuries, they have been discriminated against, believing that they cannot escape their fate. They are expected to perform only society’s most unpleasant tasks e.g. cleaning drains and sweeping roads. Hence the name of the community I pass daily, the ‘sweeper colony’. While Dalits have made considerable progress in India, they have a much lower public profile and no political power in Bangladesh, where only 10% of the population is Hindu. In fact, the Bangladeshi establishment do not officially recognise the Dalits, claiming that all people are equal in Bangladeshi society. Today, there are organisations working at the grass roots level to try to improve conditions for Dalits. One such group is the UK-based international development organisation, One World Action, and you can watch one of their photo-stories below: Defiant Voices: Dalits of Dhaka.

Rohingya refugees’ rights in Bangladesh

Before I came to Bangladesh, I read an article in the Irish Times about a group of 16 families, from Burma’s Rohingya minority, who were due to arrive in Ireland after being selected for resettlement under a United Nations scheme. According to the article, they had left Burma (Myanmar) in 1992 and had been living in camps on the Bangladesh/Burmese border since then. This sparked my interest in the Rohingyas and I followed through with a visit to the UNHCR refugee camp in Kutapolong, as well as to the nearby unofficial camp. I have written more extensively on the subject in the related post: post 50.

Sexual orientation and rights

While ‘homosexual acts’ remain illegal in practice, the law is rarely invoked. In fact, Bangladesh is considered one of the few Islamic countries where there is relative tolerance of homosexuality. There are informal support networks for homosexual men and organisations too that work on their behalf. (A fellow VSO volunteer is placed with such an NGO here in Dhaka.) It is difficult though to find any mention of lesbians or lesbian support organisations. Transgender Hijras have a long history in South Asia and I have crossed paths with a few in Dhaka in public places (markets, for example). They generally face discrimination and prejudice and are ostracised from ‘normal’ society. However, they inhabit a close-knit, sub-cultural society of their own. Should militant Islamic fundamentalism ever get a stronghold in Bangladesh, sexual minority groups would face even greater intolerance (as indeed would many others).

Final words

I have been thinking a lot about ‘human rights’ since I came to Bangladesh. This has often been in the context of cultural sensitivity and cultural relativity (see post 33), because while ‘rights’ are among the most fundamental issues for humans, they are also amongst the most controversial and contested, particularly the concepts of ‘universality’ and ‘equality’. Indeed, there are those who see the UN declaration as something that is frequently used as justification for one state’s interference in the affairs of another state, on the pretext of humanitarian intervention to defend ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’. Others see the imposition of ‘human rights’ from outside as nothing less than the erosion of internal cultural integrity.

These conceptual and political arguments are for another day. The child who is being raped or the woman who is being beaten doesn’t have the luxury of such debates. Neither do members of those other vulnerable and marginalised groups highlighted in this post. What is very clear to me – living in this hierarchical society – is that all people are most definitely not considered ‘equal’. In other words, inequality is more overtly obvious here than it is elsewhere. In many respects, there are parallels between this discussion on ‘human rights’ and the one in relation to democracy and political culture in Bangladesh (see post 51). Just as the gap between rhetoric and reality in relation to democracy was highlighted in that post, that same gap could be said to exist in relation to human rights. Often, the introduction of laws and measures in defence of human rights is more about meeting the requirements of donor countries, and the international community, than it is about genuine human rights-based practice. To borrow from Ahmed’s judgment in relation to democracy (see post 51), the situation will not change until a rights-based approach becomes part of the culture of everyday life, starting at the personal level. In the absence of such commitment, no number of laws, institutions or policies will improve the reality on the ground. This is especially the case in a country like Bangladesh, where the political culture militates against universal law enforcement. Certain perpetrators continue to flout laws in the knowledge that they will be exempt from penalties. True democracy and human rights go hand-in-hand. And unfortunately, until the political culture changes in Bangladesh, millions of vulnerable people will continue to live in fear.

Of course we all have some responsibility in this regard, be that as global consumers, tourists, business people, development professionals, environmentalists, educationalists, writers, etc. We have an obligation to ensure that all our interactions are balanced by global values, including respect for human rights.

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