NHRC should rethink its strategy as a rights defender
When human rights are violated, the job of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is to provide the victims with legal aid. It can even stand by the victims in courts. The rights body also has the authority to recommend compensations to the victims, or their families, and action against state agencies and individuals responsible for rights violations.
A close observation of how the commission has been functioning in the last one decade, however, suggests it has failed in two basic ways—to stand firm against the violators, and stand up for the victims. And this writer is of the view that it is its wrong actions that have led to the failures, not its lack of sufficient power, which it claims to be the case.
While laying out actions to be taken in favour of victims and against rights violators, the National Human Rights Protection Act 2009 defines what human rights are: someone's right to life, liberty, equality and dignity as enshrined in the constitution and the rights protected by international conventions that the state is a signatory of and are upheld by the country's courts.
The commission will decide if any of the above rights have been violated through investigation or inquiry. The act, however, has a clause that limits its authority to investigate allegations against disciplined forces—armed forces and other bodies including police. In such cases, the commission will call for reports from the government on the allegations. If it is not satisfied with the reports, it will recommend action. The government shall then inform the commission in writing about the action taken in this regard within six months from the date of receipt of the recommendation, according to the act.
In April 2017, a helpless father in Rangamati, Binoy Kanti Chakma, made an allegation that his son had been killed in the custody of security personnel. The NHRC promptly launched an investigation to find out what had happened to him. A three-member inquiry team was set up, which gathered vital but inconsistent pieces of information from the scene and by talking to local people, police, doctors and the bereaved father. In the end, it left the matter unresolved and asked the defence ministry to investigate and solve it.
The move failed apparently because the commission didn't get enough cooperation from the relevant authorities during its investigation. And there was nothing it could do about it because it was not legally empowered to do the investigation in the first place.
Ironically, it did not take the steps that it was legally bound to do in ensuring the rights of Binoy Kanti's son Romel Chakma—the right to justice, as protected by the law even after his death.
The commission, a quasi-judicial body having the authority of a civil court, could have asked for reports from the government on the alleged murder of the indigenous boy. By examining the reports, it could have decided if there had been any human rights violation and accordingly taken the next course of actions like issuing show-cause notices and summon letters, hearing both parties and making recommendations for legal action and compensation for the family. It's important to point out that reports by the investigation bodies have to have explanatory notes on the particular allegations, corroborated by supporting documents and evidence, says barrister Abdul Halim, a supreme court lawyer.
Instead of doing all that is required by the law, however, the commission chose to do the investigation itself. As it failed to investigate properly, it simply left the matter unfinished and turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the victim's family. According to the investigation report available on the NHRC's website, doctors said Romel had died of either injury from a road accident or from physical torture. No case was lodged. The commission didn't find out why.
In another similar attempt, the commission investigated the alleged rape of an 18-year-old Marma girl and sexual assault of her sister by members of security forces in January last year. It concluded that the incident was nothing but an attempt of sexual harassment of one of the sisters. But it did not recommend any action against those who made the attempt.
Chakma Rani Yan Yan and her volunteers were with the sisters at Rangamati Sadar Hospital for medical check-up in the second week of February 2018. The NHRC in its report said it had not found any evidence of physical assault on Yan Yan and her volunteers at the hospital when the sisters were forcibly taken away in the presence of police and handed over to their parents. Since then, no one knows about their whereabouts.
From nurses and other witnesses, the commission learnt that a chaotic situation had arisen on the night the sisters were taken away. There were screams at the hospital but no one approached them out of fear. The commission, this time too, got its job done by recreating a blurry image of what could have happened. It did not search for the sisters to talk to them.
The legal backdrop for rights violations by non-disciplined forces is different. Regrettably, in this case too, the NHRC's performance is not satisfactory. Take the case of the sensational murder of a madrasa girl, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was set ablaze inside the institution.
The NHRC conducted an investigation but the outcome was quite confusing. Because, in the end, it suggested a fresh investigation by "the relevant authority" and called for a report on the findings. One may be prompted to ask, why did the commission do the investigation then?
The murder of Nusrat after she had brought charges of sexual assault against her madrasa principal led to a nationwide outcry. The commission rightly picked the case. What her family needed was support in its legal pursuit against the criminals as well as monetary assistance. The significant task in this case was to ensure transparency in every step of the legal procedure, and ensure that police, doctors and all others involved in the process play their due roles. Unfortunately, the commission hasn't done any of these, not only in Nusrat's case but also in other cases that it has so far dealt with. Its inaction or ineffective action resulted in public distrust in its ability to protect the country's citizens from human rights violations.
The commission was formed in 2010 following decades of advocacy from the civil society and international bodies as a last resort for upholding the human rights of citizens. From a telephonic conversation with the current chairman Kazi Reazul Haque a couple of months ago, it seemed the commission's major success was the shifting of its office from a 4,000 square feet space to a 18,000 one, setting up of a childcare centre and another centre for interactions between elderly people and children.
While all these activities and the commission's advocacy of rights for transgender people are laudable, its failure to be vocal against human rights violations is disheartening. One may recall the case of Limon Hossain who was shot in the left leg by Rapid Action Battalion personnel in 2011. At the time, the nation appreciated it when the then NHRC chairman Mizanur Rahman publicly criticised Limon's human rights violation.
The legal battle of Limon, who lost the leg in amputation, against the accused Rab members is still on. In a recent interview, he said there had been hardly any effective follow-up on his case by the commission.
Kazi Reazul Haque's term ended on June 30 and the seven-member commission (one chairman, one full member and five honorary members) itself will be dissolved this August. The outgoing leadership may not have much time left to redesign the way of action but its failures until now as a human rights defender should point out to the new commission where to focus and how to navigate through the legal system to stay relevant and become effective.
After all, the commission's function is to shield all citizens (especially those who are most vulnerable) from rights violations, by exerting pressure on the government agencies to comply with its recommendations.
Bishakha Devnath is a senior staff reporter at The Daily Star.
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