Every four years, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council reviews Bangladesh’s human rights situation as part of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
During the UPR process, member states of the Council take stock of how Bangladesh is performing, and accordingly give recommendations to the country, which can either be implemented or rejected.
Last year, Bangladesh was reviewed and it agreed to implement 178 of the suggestions to improve the human rights situation in the country. These included ending underage marriage, strengthening the National Human Rights Commission, drafting an anti-discrimination law, investigating all cases of murder of journalists and of enforced disappearances.
Bangladesh agreed to five recommendations on child marriage, ranging from ending it completely to amending the Child Marriage Restraint Act to make sure the legal minimum age of marriage was 18 years.
There has, however, not been any perceivable implementation of many of these.
For instance, no amendment has been made to the child marriage act.
“There has been no progress in that regard,” pointed out eminent human rights activist Sultana Kamal, referring to the fact that the law still has a provision that approves of marriage under the age of 18 years under “special circumstances.”
The Council had earlier also recommended that the government take steps to identify what constituted as “special circumstance”, but that is yet to be done.
“Steps taken nationally to end child marriage will not work unless the law is changed,” Kamal said.
According to UNICEF data from 2017, 59 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before the age of 18.
A summary of their 2019 data says 51.4% get married before 18. While this can be considered an improvement, rights activists maintain that revision of the law is crucial for any visible change to take place.
Regarding women’s rights, the government had also accepted seven recommendations to protect migrant workers. This includes a recommendation that states, “continue efforts to enhance the transparency and efficiency of the recruitment system of migrant workers from Bangladesh.”
The Council asked to “adopt legislation and comprehensive public policies to guarantee the human rights of persons in a situation of human mobility.”
Throngs of female migrants coming back home after surviving sexual abuse and torture in recent months, however, shows that these recommendations too have remained unimplemented.
“The situation of migrant workers might have deteriorated,” said Sheepa Hafiza, head of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK).
She pointed out another group of female workers, regarding whom the government has accepted recommendations but done nothing yet -- the informal female workers. “Our domestic workers are still not protected because there is no law protecting them,” Hafiza said.
“The government has also made a commitment to reduce the [number of] children in hazardous work, but we neither have any baseline nor any real data [in this regard],” she said.
Advocate Sara Hossain said, “We want to see fewer conferences and more concrete action to enforce rights and hold accountable those responsible for gross violations of rights, in particular disappearances and extra judicial killings, as well as the ongoing and pervasive violence against women.”
Another critical recommendation of the Council was that Bangladesh investigate and prevent enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the country. Bangladesh had accepted it, but rights activists say there has been no effort in this regard.
According to the Human Rights in Bangladesh: Annual Bulletin 2018, by the Human Rights Support Society, at least 92 people became victims of enforced disappearance and 23 of them are still missing.
Besides, 429 people were killed in so-called crossfires or gunfights involving, in most cases, law enforcers, it says.
Moreover, police reportedly tortured seven people to death, shot five dead, and 33 others died in their custody, it adds.
“Instead of investigations, we only get justifications. We are also supposed to create an independent commission to investigate these, but we have not done so yet,” said Kamal.
She said extra-judicial killings aren’t even investigated and all they get are “denials”.
The issue at hand here, rights activists feel, is that there is no nationally coordinated effort to implement the recommendations.
“This is the reflection of the government’s attitude towards human rights. Only implementation of the UPR can improve the human rights situation of the country,” said Dr Mizanur Rahman, former chief of the National Human Rights Commission.
“It is the job of the ministry representing the government at UPR [in this case it was the ministry of law] to relay the recommendations to the relevant ministries. But they do not monitor how much these are being implemented,” he added.
“If we had a central authority to supervise these, we could implement [the recommendations] better,” he said, adding, “the state needs to be fully committed.”
Law Minister Anisul Huq, however, contradicted rights activists and said progress was being made in implementing the recommendations.
“We are very committed to the suggestions and the ones we have accepted. We are making very steady progress in fulfilling these recommendations,” said Huq.