On June 26, the world comme-morated the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture—an opportunity to uphold the dignity of life, access to justice, and freedom from torture, which is a right of all people, to be enjoyed without discrimination, regardless of their civil, cultural, economic, political or social position or status.
This International Day has deep and global roots, going back to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), a global standard of customary international law, which recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. It also states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. These vital points are echoed in Bangladesh’s constitution, which refers to the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice for all citizens. It guarantees the rights to life and personal liberty and provides safeguards in case of arrest and detention. Like the UDHR, the constitution stipulates that nobody shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Bangladesh and other countries have also committed themselves to guaranteeing the rule of law, good governance and effective institutions in their efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda and achieve its Sustainable Development Goals. Yet violations of human rights, abuse of power and impunity continue around the world and threaten the achievement of sustainable development.
Torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, can occur in many places. These violations are not limited to criminal custodial settings such as detention centres or prisons but can take place in schools, hospitals, institutions that care for children, or for persons with mental disabilities. Torture or ill-treatment may also take place in the public domain, for example during demonstrations where there is excessive use of force by the authorities.
Torture and ill-treatment can take many forms. Violence against women and girls, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions have been classified as torture, especially where impunity and lack of due diligence reign, and no systemic action is taken to prevent or redress such acts.
Bangladesh has been a state party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) since 1998. The CAT’s monitoring body, the Committee against Torture, will be reviewing Bangladesh for the first time, in Geneva from July 30-31. It is a welcome step that the government has just submitted its first state report, 19 years overdue.
Every state has a responsibility to take effective measures against human rights abuses. It is commendable that the government of Bangladesh supported a recommendation from the Universal Periodic Review 2018 to investigate serious human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The United Nations looks forward to action in this regard. More preventative measures should be taken to make sure that no further cases arise.
The United Nations also appreciates that Bangladesh enacted the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act in 2013. However, very few cases have been filed, investigated or tried under this law. The media continue to report about people who have been victims of alleged excessive use of force, ill-treatment or torture at the hands of public authorities, or the latter’s collusion or inaction when non-state actors are the perpetrators. There have been very few cases of compensation being awarded to victims. Intimidation and harassment have been alleged against individuals who have sought justice. There must be no reprisals, or else fear will prevent people from seeking redress.
National institutions have investigated and intervened in a few cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment. For example, violence against the Santal community on November 6, 2016 resulted in at least three deaths, more than 50 people injured and around 2000 families displaced. The attackers also ill-treated people, looted the community’s homes and livestock and set fire to about 600 residences. Civil society and human rights activists raised serious concerns over inaction and alleged involvement of police in the unprecedented eviction drive. The National Human Rights Commission, together with the Parliamentarian Caucus on indigenous people, conducted a fact-finding mission and found that the eviction was mishandled, resulting in serious human rights violations, and recommended preventative measures and reparation. The matter is still sub judice.
The upcoming review by the CAT will provide an opportunity for Bangladesh to showcase measures that it has taken or intends to take. This might include strictly enforcing existing policy and legal safeguards against torture, strengthening accountability of law enforcement agencies and other actors, capacity building and training, investigations of alleged perpetrators and bringing them to justice in fair trials, protection of witnesses and victims, making reliable data available to lawyers and policy makers, and information campaigns for the general public who may have limited awareness about their rights.
The United Nations Secretary General has urged all states “to end impunity for perpetrators and eradicate these reprehensible acts that defy our common humanity.” The UN stands ready to work with Bangladesh to make this a reality for torture survivors and everyone else.
Mia Seppo is United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh.