Law Desk (LD): Last year Bangladesh went through the 3rd Cycle Universal Periodic Review. What is actually Universal Periodic Review (UPR)?
Kawser Ahmed (KA): UPR may be described as an interactive dialogue about human rights situation between the state under review and other UN Member States. It entails immense importance in the present context. For instance, although it is said that human rights are universal, in practice states have a tendency to view their respective human rights situations as domestic matters. Rightly or wrongly, sometimes states feel reluctant to comment on other states’ human rights situations. Now, UPR provides an opportunity to the states to discuss each other’s human rights situations in an institutional setting. From that angle, UPR constitutes an institutional mechanism for actualising the notion of universality of human rights.
LD: How does UPR differ from treaty body review in regard to assessing human rights situation in a country? Given the presence of reporting mechanism under all the treaty bodies, do you think UPR indeed is adding more value to it?
KA: While UPR looks like a peer review process, the treaty body review may be called an ‘expert assessment’. States are sovereign political entities, therefore, their way of looking at human rights situation has its own characteristics. On the other hand, review by experts has its own uniqueness in terms of technicality, method and approach. To me, UPR appears to have entailed a wider perspective. Its mandate is not confined to any particular issue or area of human rights. On the contrary, treaty body review mostly focuses on implementation of any given treaty to which the state under review is a party. The difference between these two types reviews could be somewhat inferred from their respective style of recommendations. One might notice that the UPR recommendations are generally broad and policy-oriented, whereas treaty body recommendations tend to be pinpoint and action-oriented. I would say that UPR and treaty body reviews are complimentary to each other.
LD: How could a state benefit from UPR or treaty body review? What steps will you suggest that our government should take in this regard?
KA: The outcome of UPR or treaty body review basically comprises recommendations to the state under review. In the case of UPR, the recommendations come from the fellow states, whereas in the case of treaty body review, the recommendations come from the human rights experts. In any case, the recommendations are useful and the state under review should include them in their policy objectives.
Now, the crux of the matter is how a state might actualise those recommendations. In my opinion, it will vary from country to country depending on their system of government. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, I think the first step in this regard should come from the parliament. To be precise, the outcome of any UPR or treaty body review should be placed before the parliament for deliberation and policy guidance. Such deliberation in the parliament about human rights will be immensely beneficial in many ways. Not only will it manifest the political commitment to promote and protect human rights but also will channelise this message to other machineries and agencies in the government. With the help of media, it will help create human rights consciousness at the mass level.
LD: What would be your comment regarding the recommendation of the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) to establish independent bodies to investigate the allegations of torture committed by law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh?
KA: No one should be a judge in his own cause. For the sake of fairness, investigation of allegation of torture against any member of the law enforcement agencies should be conducted by a separate independent body. However, I don’t think that we need to establish any such independent body afresh. I believe most will agree that the National Human Rights Commission could be suitably utilised for this purpose. The government should take immediate steps in this regard.
LD: Is there anything you have personally learnt from the UPRs and treaty body reviews?
KA: Yes, I have gained a few insights from my participation in the review processes. For example, I have come to the realisation that a state under review will be able to benefit most if it takes such review rather as sharing of experience, and not as a test. Another important lesson I have learnt from these reviews is that the fundamental rights in our constitution satisfies the country’s obligation to ‘respect’ the civil and political rights, however it is not enough. Bangladesh should now pay more attention to realise its obligations to ‘protect’ and ‘fulfil’ the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Perhaps this observation will apply to other branches of human rights as well. And lastly, a state party should review its reservations and declarations to human rights treatise at regular intervals.
LD: Who motivated you to work in the area of human rights?
KA: I am deeply grateful to two persons for inducting me into the practice of international human rights law. They are Professor Dr. Mizanur Rahman and Dr. Lyal S Sunga. Professor Rahman served as the Chairman of National Human Rights Commission for two consecutive terms. He was my course teacher in Public International Law at the University of Dhaka.
Dr. Lyal S Sunga is an Affiliated Professor at the famous Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI). Among others, he was responsible for supporting the UN Security Council’s genocide investigation in Rwanda. I worked with him as a national consultant in a project funded by IDLO in which he was serving as the international consultant. The most notable outcome of the project was a study on the reform of laws relating to sexual offences in Bangladesh. It was later published in book format under the title, ‘A Critical Appraisal of Laws Relating to Sexual Offences in Bangladesh’.
LD: Thank you so much.
KA: You are welcome.
(Opinions expressed in this interview are of Mr. Ahmed alone and do not reflect either the views of the Government or The Daily Star).