On 24 April 2013, one of the worst industrial disasters of modern times unfolded at the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The eight-storey building collapsed with thousands of garment workers inside. More than a thousand were killed. Only the day before, the building had been deemed unsafe by local industrial police1 after cracks appeared in pillars. Staff were evacuated. The next day, the building opened again and the garment workers returned. Many would never see the families they had worked so hard to support again.
This was not a one off. Just five months previously, in November 2012, 117 garment workers were killed in the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka.
Within Bangladesh, and internationally, the blame for these disasters was placed on lax regulation, disregard for civil and workers’ rights, and corruption.2
The 2013 UN’s Universal Periodic Review on Bangladesh, published not long after the Rana Plaza collapse, stressed the need for Bangladesh to “safeguard the rights of workers, such as the freedom of association”, “investigate and . . . prosecute all allegations of human rights violations, in particular enforced disappearances, custodial torture and extrajudicial killings”; “bring to justice perpetrators of attacks on journalists”; “step up its efforts to ensure that human rights defenders are protected and allowed to conduct their work without hindrance, intimidation or harassment”; and “increase the awareness on human rights . . . for those involved in law enforcement and the judiciary”.
The government’s inability to tackle these issues has blighted Bangladesh’s progress in recent years. It has been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and despite its democratic status, is considered only “partly free” by the USbased watchdog Freedom House.
Power has swung between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party for much of the country’s existence since independence in 1972.
From 1996, governments had stepped aside to allow caretaker governments to run general elections and the transfer of power, under a system previously agreed by all parties.
But in 2011, the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina decided to scrap the caretaker system. The decision was widely criticised, but in January 2014, amid protest and boycott from the main opposition parties, a general election was held. Over half all parliamentary seats were not contested, and widespread intimidation and violence marred polls.3
Commenting on the election on behalf of the UK government, Baroness Warsi noted “[T]he UK believes that the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy is peaceful, credible elections that express the genuine will of the voters. It is therefore disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box . . .”
The US State Department described the election result as “not credible”, while the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement calling on government and opposition to “urgently address the expectations of the people of Bangladesh for an inclusive political process.”4
A May 2014 report for Transparency International, written by Professor Salahuddin M Aminuzzaman and Professor Sumaiya Khair of the University of Dhaka, noted that “confrontational politics, a poor parliamentary culture and the dominant attitude of the party in power and the culture of boycott by the opposition tend to mar the spirit and modality of the operational business of the Parliament”.
The report went on: “Citizens are devoid of any means to hold elected representatives to account. MPs are reportedly engaged often in patronage distribution and corruption, undermining the lawmaking responsibility.”
This political dysfunctionality inevitably affects everyday life.
Transparency International Bangladesh reported this year that 35.7 per cent of Bangladeshis had been forced to pay bribes for documentation such as registration of births and deaths.
Amnesty International has described a “climate of impunity” in Bangladesh, where victims of crime and human rights violations rarely have recourse to the law.
This is particularly the case for minority groups. The Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-east of the country, who number approximately 800,000 people, have suffered from the resettlement of Bengalis in the region. The Bangladeshi minority rights group the Kapaeeng Foundation reported that, in 2011, at least 111 Jumma houses were burned down, and 7,000 acres of land seized.
According to Survival International, which advocates for the rights of minority tribal groups, Jummu women suffer rape and sexual assault at the hands of settlers, with six incidents related to land grabs reported in the first half of 2014.
Commenting after the rape and murder of an indigenous woman, Sabita Chakma in February, Survival International noted: “The true number of atrocities is likely to be much higher, as many cases go unreported – Jummas have no confidence perpetrators will be prosecuted, and victims of rape face social stigma. The security forces in the region are more likely to protect rapists than the tribal population.”
Members of the Ahmadiyya sect, numbering roughly 100,00, also suffer from attacks on places of worship and calls for them to be declared unIslamic (echoing their legal position in Pakistan). In February 2013, a venue in Gazipur set to host an Ahmadiyya convention was attacked by a mob, with tents set on fire and equipment vandalised. A spokesman for the group told the Bangladesh Daily Star: “We feared violence and sought help from law enforcers, but got no help from them.”
Increasingly, it falls increasingly to nongovernmental organisations to uphold some sort of democratic norm in society.
But NGOs promoting human rights and civil liberties in Bangladesh could soon find themselves grappling with the government, whose proposed Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill places severe restrictions on their activities. The new law has come in for much criticism.
Responding to the proposed law on its website in June of this year, Front Line Defenders, which supports human rights workers, claimed that “the bill falls short of international standards relating to the right to freedom of association and will further restrict the space for human rights NGOs in Bangladesh”. The Londonbased Article 19 has criticised the bill’s extensive grounds for denying or cancelling registration of NGOs, the requirement to seek advance government approval of NGO projects, and the possibility of large fines for non-compliant organisations.
The bill would give the government power to approve NGO activities and even fine charities and campaign groups. It could even restrict NGO workers’ ability to travel abroad for their work.
It was against this backdrop that in May this year M Sahabuddin Chuppu, a commissioner on the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), threatened to “unmask” Transparency International after the NGO criticised him.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s press faces severe pressure. In April 2013, Mahmudur Rahman, editor of the opposition newspaper Amardesh was arrested and charged with sedition and offending religious sentiment after he criticised protesters calling for the death penalty in trials last year relating to the country’s civil war.
In late 2012, Rahman had worked with The Economist to publish transcripts of Skype conversations between the presiding judge of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, Mohammed Nizamul Huq, and a war crimes activist, which called the Tribunal’s independence into question. The Economist justified publication of private conversations by pointing out the gravity of the implication of partiality in trials that involved the death penalty. The judge resigned in December 2012, citing “personal reasons”.
The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act allows for prosecution of journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. The act criminalises any online publication of material that could “deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or cause to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organisation”, with jail sentences of up to seven years. A 2013 amendment to the act granted the authorities power to carry out warrantless arrests and prevent release on bail for people held on these charges. The act came under international scrutiny when four “atheist bloggers” were charged under its provisions in September 2013.
In its April 2014 report Democracy in the Crossfire, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that human rights issues raised by the UN in its review of Bangladesh remained “largely unaddressed”, and Freedom House has identified a “downward trend” for rights, liberties and the rule of law in the country. It is crucial for the people of Bangladesh that this trend is reversed.
Padraig Reidy is a freelance writer
1/ http://bdnews24.com/ bangladesh/2013/04/24/cracks-wereseen- in-rana-plaza-tuesday
2/ http://www.theguardian.com/ world/2014/apr/24/bangladesh-garmentworkers- rights-rana-plaza-disaster
3/http://www.theguardian.com/ world/2014/jan/06/bangladesh-electionviolence- awami-league 4/http://www.un.org/apps/news/story .asp?NewsID=46876#.VAcHePBX-uY Are the Bangladeshi people well served? 04-05 Bangladesh.indd 5 15/09/2014 10:48:08