Bangladesh’s human rights record was put under the spotlight recently when it came before the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review in Geneva on 29 April 2013.
The UPR is an international peer-review process allowing UN member nations to scrutinise one another’s compliance with international human rights law and make recommendations for improvement. Last month saw Bangladesh face the music for the second time.
In the lead up to the review, the Government submitted a report to the Human Rights Council documenting its implementation of the recommendations flowing from the last review in 2009.
Sadly, the 29-page report is dense with empty rhetoric, and is particularly at odds with the endemic human rights abuses taking place across Bangladesh on the part of the police, including extrajudicial killings, custodial death and torture.
As in many exercises of self-assessment and international relations, there is a good deal of sugar coating the truth. So much is to be expected. But there are some glaring misrepresentations that need to be pointed out. Take the following paragraph:
“The GOB continues to maintain its “zero tolerance” policy towards violation of human rights by LEAs [law enforcement agencies]. A Police Reform Act with stringent code of conduct is in place, while pro-people policing has been introduced through establishment of model police stations and victim support centres in key police stations. According to existing laws, there is no scope for impunity for human rights violations by armed forces and LEAs”.
Aside from the point about pro-people policing, the Government’s claims of a zero tolerance policy, Police Reform Act and lack of impunity under existing laws go beyond sugar coating and come close to patent untruth.
If the Government has a zero tolerance policy towards human rights abuses by the police, then it has done very little to put this policy into practice. According to Human Rights Forum – a coalition of 19 civil society organisations – between January 2009 and April 2012, there were 511 reported instances of extrajudicial killings by law enforcing agencies, including the police and the Rapid Action Battalion. Few investigations have been conducted into these killings and in almost all cases, no action been taken by the State against any of the officers involved.
Besides the few cases that reach the courts, violations have either not been addressed, or they are done so internally. The internal oversight unit is known to be weak, under-resourced and insufficiently independent from the powers that be. Often, the punishment meted out involves transferring police officers to other units. This process lacks any form of transparency or public accountability.
Were the Government serious about a zero-tolerance policy, it would have put in place an effective system to independently review police misconduct. Although it has established a National Human Rights Commission, the Commission’s mandate precludes it from actually investigating violations by law enforcement agencies. With respect to the police, it is limited to requesting reports from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which has not been cooperative in the majority of cases. Both internal and external police accountability are therefore painfully absent.
Police Reform Act?
The claim that a “Police Reform Act with stringent code of conduct is in place” comes as a surprise. Policing in Bangladesh even today continues to be governed by the Police Act of 1861, an archaic law whose main objective was to consolidate colonial rule. An attempt at legislative reform did take the form of a Draft Police Ordinance almost six years ago by a group of senior serving and retired police officers and legal experts. However, successive governments took no interest in implementing the Draft Ordinance. If a “Police Reform Act” is in place, its contents are unknown and it is nowhere to be found in the public domain. Otherwise, there is no such thing and the Government’s claim is simply untrue.
No scope for impunity?
The Government’s claim that there is no scope for impunity under existing laws appears to be another political statement. On the contrary, a culture of impunity is deeply embedded within Bangladesh’s outdated legal framework.
This begins with the Constitution. Article 46 empowers Parliament to enact legislation indemnifying any state officer for any act done to maintain or restore order, and to lift any penalty, sentence or punishment imposed.
Impunity is also specifically provided for under the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898. Section 197 prohibits prosecutions against public officials – including police officers – without the Government’s approval if the offence is committed in an official capacity. Reportedly, the necessary approval is seldom granted. Furthermore, section 132 provides that a police officer acting under good faith or acting in accordance with an order given by a superior is not to be deemed to have committed an offence while involved in dispersing an assembly that is unlawful or likely to disturb the public peace. This provision is particularly concerning in light of ongoing mass demonstrations and hartals and the numerous reports of law enforcement agencies allegedly using excessive force while controlling crowds.
Ultimately, the truth appears an unnecessary detail for the Government. In light of the human rights concerns in Bangladesh, this is profoundly disappointing. 97 States participated in last month’s review and made 196 recommendations, including for the Government to take all steps to tackle impunity by ensuring impartial investigations into extrajudicial killings, cases of torture and forced disappearances. The Government has accepted 164 recommendations, rejected 5 and sought to examine 26 for further consideration. Let us hope it takes these recommendations seriously, without treating the international human rights system as an exercise in public relations and empty self-congratulation.
The writer is a Programme Officer, Police Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.