The UK has expressed concern over the increased number of extrajudicial killings and further reduction in freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
The number of reports of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during the ‘war on drugs’, which took place from May to July last year, supported allegations that the security forces continue to be able to act with impunity, read the UK’s report on “Human Rights and Democracy: the 2018 Foreign and Commonwealth Office” released on Thursday.
Many incidents from previous years remained unresolved, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) continued to raise the issues of complying with human rights standards with Bangladesh government, according to the report.
The FCO annual report 2018 examined what the government has done to promote and defend human rights globally, echoing the principles and values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Right and UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
The UK human rights priorities in Bangladesh are enforced disappearances, freedom of religion or belief, and modern slavery, it said.
“Today’s report makes for sobering reading. Respect for human rights globally seems to be at an all-time low. As Foreign Secretary I will ensure that British diplomats continue to defend and protect human rights wherever they are,” UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement.
The situation of freedom of expression in Bangladesh attracted significant attention of the UK and civil society following the introduction of the controversial Digital Security Act in October last year.
Bangladesh government sought to reassure the public that the law was designed to protect privacy and maintain religious harmony, but civil society saw it as a restriction on freedom of expression ahead of the general election.
UK raised the issue with Bangladesh government and called for the law to be brought in line with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the same position as in 2017.
According to rights body Ain O Salish Kendra, 54 journalists were charged in 2018 under the Information and Communication Telecommunications (ICT) Act, which criminalises the posting of inflammatory or derogatory information online against the state or individuals.
Dr Shahidul Alam, a photo-journalist and human rights activist, was arrested under the act in August last year. The foreign secretary, other ministers, and the UK High Commission raised Dr Alam’s case with the Government of Bangladesh, the report read.
Dr Alam was subsequently released in November.
According to the report, the protection of human rights and democracy in Bangladesh diminished in 2018, and a general election in December was affected by numerous credible allegations of irregularities and by significant violence.
The UK was consistent and clear that they wanted to see free, fair, inclusive, and peaceful elections which would support Bangladesh’s development as a democratic and prosperous country. The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt delivered this message to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in September last year during the UN General Assembly.
UK ministers repeatedly raised concerns about the election with the Government of Bangladesh and with opposition parties throughout 2018.
“While it was encouraging that all opposition parties eventually contested the elections, there were credible accounts of obstacles, including arrests, which constrained or prevented campaigning by opposition parties, and of irregularities in the conduct of elections on polling day which prevented some people from voting,” the report said.
The UK urged a full, credible and transparent resolution of all complaints related to the conduct of the elections.
The report also mentioned Bangladesh’s National Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking for 2018 to 2020, but said its progress remained slow.
The UK said it saw no progress towards the abolition of the death penalty: 191 death sentences were reportedly issued (including 19 for the 2004 attack on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina), although none were carried out.
The UK calls on the authorities to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step towards the abolition of capital punishment.
Britain lauded Bangladesh’s great generosity in welcoming the Rohingya refugees and the improved conditions in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in comparison with the start of the crisis in August 2017.
However, risks remained, including of sexual violence, trafficking, violent crime, abduction, exploitation, and limited access to basic services for men, women and children in the camps, the report read.
Challenging conditions and issues relating to the legal status of the Rohingyas under Bangladeshi law meant that their access to justice and security remained limited, the report added.