UN rights chief hits the nail on the head
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, before concluding her four-day visit to Bangladesh, made some pithy observations about the country's rights situation although, earlier, she had hinted that she wasn't here to criticise but to discuss. We're glad that she chose to do both, in her own way of course. In so doing, she added moral weight to the fight against the widespread human rights abuse in Bangladesh that has become something of a norm over the past decade. What we find particularly relatable is her position on the "continued and alarming" allegations of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing and torture against state security agencies.
In her press conference on Wednesday, Bachelet spoke of her "deep concerns" over these allegations as well as the lack of due process and judicial safeguards, which she said she conveyed to the government. She also mentioned how successive UN human rights reports have documented "a narrowing civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals often leading to self-censorship". She spoke of the Digital Security Act, and how laws and policies are restricting the freedom of expression and effective operation of NGOs. She also stressed the importance of managing protests without resorting to excessive force and also protecting minority groups and indigenous peoples from violence.
Importantly, besides highlighting the need for drastic improvements in these areas, she called for an "impartial, independent and transparent investigation" into the allegations of abuse by security agencies, expressing her office's readiness to help design a "specialised mechanism" in line with international standards to investigate them.
So far, in public comments at least, government ministers have steadfastly ignored the elephant in the room: the very existence of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing. Nothing from their reaction betrayed any willingness to acknowledge them, let alone undertake impartial investigations.
The question is, will the government listen? So far, in public comments at least, government ministers have steadfastly ignored the elephant in the room: the very existence of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing. Nothing from their reaction betrayed any willingness to acknowledge them, let alone undertake impartial investigations, although sometimes they did vaguely mention taking action if such allegations were raised. Why coy about this if they have nothing to hide? What do they fear will come out if such investigations are carried out? Even Bachelet has urged the government to acknowledge these allegations, which is the least it can do given the mounting evidence of abuse.
The government's continued refusal to undertake meaningful action is an affront to the victims and the justice system. By doing so, it is essentially giving the green light for such abuses to recur. Its failure to undertake human rights screening of the security personnel and agencies, and make them accountable, is also an affront to democracy and everything it stands for. Economic progress means nothing if citizens' rights and safety are not ensured. For too long, we have had to deal with a near-total lack of accountability in public institutions leaving them exposed to political machinations. This cannot go on indefinitely.
We urge the government to turn away from this destructive practice and institute a robust system to address any and all allegations of rights abuse. It must prove, not just express, its commitment to human rights.