Column by Mahfuz Anam: Do we take our international partners for fools?
Since the US sanction on Rab and few of its present and former officials, there have been several comments from our ministers on the topic. On February 5, our venerable foreign minister said, "Some UN body gave us a list of disappeared people. Later, it was found that many of them actually drowned in the Mediterranean. They have prepared the list with the help of a Bangladeshi organisation. They don't have any research on the matter." He also said, "We spoke with the police and asked them to hold talks with the families of the disappeared people in the presence of journalists. In that discussion, the families of the disappeared people will say when, how and where their family members were taken to and whether they returned." On US sanctions, he went on to say, "The real purpose is not human rights. The real purpose is not even disappearances or murders. The real purpose is to try and reap some benefits from these pressures… Bangladesh has become an eyesore for some due to its good position strategically, and many countries are highlighting the issue of enforced disappearances in their own interests."
He said the above following a conference on "Branding Bangladesh." What is the brand value he is trying to inculcate—one of glib and unthinking comments on serious issues?
In our view, he has made a mockery of the UN's multilateral accountability process on human rights, to which Bangladesh is a signatory, trivialised our relationship with the US at a time when it needs delicate handling, and demonstrated a most insensitive attitude towards the recent tragedy that our citizens suffered while searching for a better life abroad.
About those who met their tragic demise in the watery grave of the Mediterranean Ocean, he said "it has been found" that many of them were in the UN-supplied list of the "disappeared." Does he have a list of those names? When was it made, and by whom? Has he verified its authenticity? And why doesn't he make it public? (On February 9, our respected foreign secretary made similar comments to the press about finding the whereabouts of eight or nine people in the UN list, but giving no clue as to the sources of his information. He was vague and sounded like he was conveying what he had heard, rather than the facts he had in hand.)
Our foreign minister said, "We have talked to the police and asked them to speak with the families who will say when and how their family members were taken." It seems that he never saw newspaper reports of these families who, year after year, come to the Press Club and, with tearful eyes and with young children crying their hearts out, recount how they lost their loved ones.
In reference to the UN, our FM said, "Some UN body gave us a list." Well, the UN body happens to be the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID). It was set up in 1980 and works under the UN Human Rights Council, consisting of five independent experts coming from all over the world. The current experts are from Italy, Lithuania, South Korea, Guinea-Bissau and Argentina—the last being the current chair as well.
According to its latest report (2021), there are 76 "outstanding cases" of enforced disappearances. The report, in Paragraph 64, states, "The Working Group reiterates its concern regarding the situation of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, which it has been raising in similar reports for several years with scarce engagement by the government. In this regard, the Working Group notes that it has not received replies to any outstanding cases during the reporting period, and that only one case has been clarified by the government since the Working Group transmitted the first case in 1996. The Working Group hopes to receive information on the outstanding cases as soon as possible. Allegations of enforced disappearances, notably those carried out by the members of the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab), should be promptly investigated and those responsible prosecuted." In Paragraph 65, it states, "The Working Group reiterates its interest in undertaking a visit to Bangladesh, as expressed in several communications transmitted since 2013."
As is obvious from the WGEID report, they have been in touch with our government since 1996—in other words, for the last 26 years. Since 2013, the group wanted to visit Bangladesh, but no permission was granted. When the foreign minister accuses WGEID of "no research," the answer lies in the fact that we didn't allow them a fact-finding visit since their first request nine years ago. Why? What have we to hide?
We could verify that at least on three occasions—September 2013, November 2013, and October 2015—the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh in Geneva acknowledged the receipt of communication from the Working Group and replied saying, "The Permanent Mission has the honour to assure that the contents of the communication have been duly noted and forwarded to the concerned authorities in Bangladesh for necessary inquiry and actions."
So, what "necessary inquiry and actions" have we taken since 2013? The report damningly says "not received replies to any outstanding case" and "only one case has been clarified since 1996." Only one case in 26 years? Rab's activities have been singled out in the WGEID reports for years, especially since 2013. But when the US put the sanctions on them, we were surprised and woke up. If we had taken WGEID reports seriously then, we feel certain that this sanction and the attending bad image could have been avoided. I think our foreign ministry owes an explanation to the people and especially to the prime minister as to their inexplicable inaction over more than two decades, and especially since 2013.
The "real reason" for the sanction by the US, the foreign minister said, is neither human rights nor disappearances but "to put pressure on us." In doing so, he is directly pointing fingers at the US and accusing them of duplicity. How diplomatic is that, especially when you are negotiating for its reversal? Putting pressure is the name of the game in relations between superpowers and the rest—who does not know it? But shouldn't our minister handle it diplomatically, through secret negotiations, subtle messaging, third parties, meetings under different guise, visits, etc? How does it help if he says publicly that we have become an "eyesore"? Earlier, when the US did not invite Bangladesh to the Democracy Summit, he said it was possibly because the US only invited "weak" democracies. Diplomacy, indeed.
Glib media responses and accusatory comments about countries who have temporary problems with us do not diplomacy make. Matured engagements do. Our pathological aversion to accountability will not take us very far. Our tendency towards overconfidence due to recent economic success may prove to be counterproductive—in some cases, extremely so.
Please do not take our international partners for fools. They deserve our most serious engagement—especially as we now aspire to be a developed country.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.