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September 26, 2004 

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Towards an independent human rights commission

International Conference on Institutional Protection of Human Rights: Role of National Human Rights Institutions.

Shaila Shahid

The International Conference titled "Institutional Protection of Human Rights: Role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)" co-organised by the law, justice and parliamentary affairs ministry, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Australian High Commission was held from 19th to 21st September at hotel Sheraton, Dhaka. This conference on institutional protection of human rights through national human rights institutions is the first of its kind in Bangladesh.

The inaugural session was chaired by the Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed. Hon'ble Chief Justice Syed JR Mudassir Hussain also addressed the conference as chief guest. Among the special guests Barrister Md. Shahjahan Omar, state minister of ministry of law, justice and parliamentary affairs, Mr. Jorgen Lissner, resident representatives, UNDP, United Nations resident co-ordinator, Bangladesh, Ms. Lorraine Barker, high commissioner, Australian High Commission, Bangladesh and Professor Brian Burdekin, former special adviser to United Nations High Commission for human rights on NHRIs were presented at the inaugural session.

The Law Minister in his speech said that the proposal for formation of an independent human rights commission is under the cabinet's consideration. He also added that all preconditions are there for establishment of the commission and the sooner it is set up the better it is for the wellbeing of the country and the citizens. He said a strong opposition, a free media and an independent judiciary were preconditions for human rights and these were present in Bangladesh. UNDP country resident representative Jorgen Lissner expressed frustration over the delay while addressing the function. "Political competition is vigorous these days and violence has become a pervasive feature in politics and political campaigns," said Chief Justice Syed JR Mudassir Hussain while giving his speech. Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Lorraine Barker said separation of the judiciary from the executive remains a key issue in Bangladesh. Professor Brian Burdekin, former special advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said time has come to set up the rights commission as people of Bangladesh deserve a human rights commission because Bangladesh has many challenges in human rights.

In the three day long workshop participants from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Australia took part. Different topics and issues regarding human rights was discussed and every buzz group has came up with strong recommendations for effective functioning of human rights commission in a country. The topics were discussed protecting human rights through NHRIs, obstacles and challenges for NHRIs, cultural diversity and rights, access to justice and human rights initiatives in the region effective monitoring and protection of human rights, civil society, NGOs and media partnership with NHRIs for protection of human rights, the UN Paris principles and the independence and effectiveness of NHRIs, national security and impunity a case for human rights intervention, towards a more effective protection of human rights at the national level implication for the region?, experiences and best practices in institutional protection of human rights etc.

Speaking at the session titled 'National Security and Impunity: A Case for Human Rights Intervention', Inspector General of Police (IGP) Shahudul Huq said custodial death should be looked at somewhat differently. Sometimes police have to pick up people already in very critical condition and later when they die in custody, police have to shoulder the blame, said the IGP. The participants called for a serious approach in dealing with death in police custody as such practices deny the victims justice. They also observed that law-enforcing agencies should be more careful in use of section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

The open discussion titled "Cultural diversity and rights " was moderated by Mr. Mahfuz Anam, the editor and publisher of The Daily Star. Addressing the session he said that cultural diversity is fundamental for democracy and should be incorporated in every democratic constitution. He emphasised that if there is no diversity there is no freedom.

While addressing the closing session the Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed said the government would set up a national human rights commission during its tenure. The minister said there is a wrong notion that the human rights body would be adversarial to the government which is not true. "The human rights commission will be supplementary to the government, which will play its role in protecting rights of marginalised people, " he added.

Speaking at the press conference, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Dhaka Jorgen Lissner said people of Bangladesh are convinced that a national human rights commission is needed here to protect human rights.

Presenting the key findings of the three-day conference, Prof Brian Burdekin, said it is clear from repeated statements of the government and the opposition that both will support for establishment of a national human rights commission.

Despite the efforts made in past years, Bangladesh, like many other developing nations, still face severe challenges for implementation of human rights in both existing institutions and within the larger civil society. It is therefore vital for the involvement of the government bodies with the support of other key stakeholders to bridge the gaps in the process of implementation of the practice of a more rights base approach to development. The organisers and the participants from different countries envisaged that why should the people of Bangladesh be denied the facilities which are being enjoyed by the peoples in other neighbouring countries as they have their own human rights commission. The ultimate expectation of the conference was to create momentum for establishing an independent human rights commission in Bangladesh where justice should be prevailed.

The writer is working as law desk assistant of The Daily Star.



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