The long and short about human rights | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 17, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 17, 2011

Sunday Pouch

The long and short about human rights

Yet again last week, the US State Department released its annual country Report on Human Right Practices around the world.
The 2010 report is the 35th of the kind and covers 194 countries. The 7,000-page document contains 2 million words and has a section on practices in Bangladesh.
The Report is not very complimentary about the situation here. It is a mini compendium of violations taking place under several categories. The US State Department has a set of categories under which it sifts information from several sources in a country to produce the Report.
The first category is: Respect for the integrity of the person, including freedom from (i) arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, (ii) disappearances, and (iii) torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The second category deals with prison and detention centre conditions, arbitrary arrest or detention, role of police and security apparatus, arrest procedures and treatment while in detention, denial of fair public trial, trial procedures, political prisoners and detainees. Civil judicial procedures and remedies and arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home also come within this category
The third category focuses on respect for civil liberties, including (i) freedom of speech and press, internet freedom, academic freedom and cultural events, (ii) freedom of peaceful assembly and association, (iii) freedom of religion, and (iv) freedom of movement, internally displaced persons, protection of refugees and stateless persons, elections and political participation.
The fourth category refers to official corruption and government transparency. The fifth category deals with government attitude regarding international and non-governmental investigation of alleged violation of human rights.
The sixth category is concerned with discrimination, societal abuses and trafficking in persons, which includes women and children. There are special dockets for abuse of persons with disabilities, indigenous people, etc.
A separate category deals with workers' rights and includes their (i) right of association, (ii) the right to organise and bargain collectively, (iii) prohibition of forced and compulsory labour, (iv) prohibition of child labour and minimum age of employment, and (v) acceptable condition of work, etc.
We have listed all the categories just to show that the Report is quite detailed and tries to cover major areas of concern on human rights practices in a country.
The Bangladesh section of the Report is usually compiled by US diplomats posted in Dhaka. They pick up source material from the local media and press. They also rely on narratives of NGO's. Regrettably the Bangladesh government or its agencies are not quoted to know the other side of the story, if any. Hence, many consider the Report to be partial or faulted.
The origin of collating such information on human rights of each country began in the 1970s when US Congressman Fraser and Congressman Harkin introduced legislation with the purpose of linking human rights to aid. They asked the secretary of state (foreign minister) to use the US embassies to collect information on human rights conditions on each of these countries.
The annual Report usually comes under harsh criticism from governments whose human rights practices are criticised. But the US government claims that by publishing this Report it engages these countries to improve their human rights, which is an important objective of the US foreign policy. The US says that the Report is not a policy document.
It only provides critical information and is "a basis for a range of decisions by the government."
The major criticism of the Report is about what it does not contain. There is no report on human right abuses by the US Government in and outside its territory. Thus, the world is not privy to the US human rights violations in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre or at the Bagram Air base in Afghanistan where US troops incarcerate Afghan militants. Also, there is no reference to the killing of civilians by unmanned US Drone aircraft or missiles in Afghanistan or now even in Pakistan.
Governments with poor human rights record complain that the US always speaks about violations from a high moral pedestal. But the US does not subject its own record to international scrutiny.
In all fairness it must be said that of late, under the United Nations Human Rights Council, the US has started to submit to a process called the Universal Periodic Review. This is a comprehensive evaluation of the US progress to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now back to Bangladesh. In the 2010 US Report there are allegations about the conduct of the security forces in the country. It refers to "extra judicial killings," "custodial deaths," torture and arbitrary arrests. The security forces, it is alleged, often "act with impunity." The failure to investigate fully these alleged "killings" has also been raised in the Report.
Prison conditions in Bangladesh remains "life threatening," as reported. It speaks also of discrimination against women and violence against them. Trafficking in persons has been mentioned as a serious problem.
In an immediate reaction, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was critical of the Report. In a press conference she termed the sources of the Report "weak and analysis is not properly done."
The question that needs to be asked is whether our government is able to take credible steps if human rights violations take place. Mavericks, if any, in security agencies need to act within law which they are mandated to protect. No exceptions, as that is our state policy.
We must remember that Bangladesh is the sixth largest democracy in the world, with the third largest Muslim majority population. From the point of political ideology as well as our ethical and moral moorings, we can never be a people who will condone human rights violations.
It is not this "cut and paste" American report on human rights practices that should be alerting us each year to any vulnerability. Our national ethos demands scintillating standards on human rights. It has been encoded in the Bangladesh Constitution. Strict adherence to these standards is what is now expected.
Let us not forget that history is the sum total of things that could have been avoided. History is also a vast early warning system.
It is our own standard on human rights that must silence the critics and caution the detractors to improve their own standards before they bring their sights to bear on us.

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