What will Bangladesh's defence be at the upcoming UPR?
With the national election of Bangladesh just around the corner, many international stakeholders are hoping for an independent and fair election, with a level playing field for all political participants. There is, however, less focus on another pivotal deadline which each United Nations member state has to comply with every quadrennial: the date of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council. The UPR is a mechanism aimed at taking stock of the advancement of civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. This international review by other UN member states is scheduled in Geneva for early November, prior to Bangladesh's election.
How is this UN review of utmost importance as far as the state of human rights in Bangladesh is concerned? What could we reasonably expect from this political exercise?
Bangladesh has indeed made remarkable progress in terms of socioeconomic development, increase in life expectancy, and literacy. But the UPR process is not only about taking stock of social or economic rights (where there is still room for improvement, as many Bangladeshis still struggle to make ends meet). It also scrutinises human rights records in terms of civil and political rights. On those grounds, the UN Human Rights Council will most likely sound the alarm, as the records in Bangladesh are clearly very poor.
On the 2023 Freedom of the Press Index, Bangladesh has ranked 163rd out of 180 countries, while two journalists have lost their lives and several others put behind bars since the beginning of the year. The number of people on death row is gradually increasing, from at least 1,500 people detained and sentenced to death till 2018 to at least 2,000 people condemned to capital punishment by 2022. Prison conditions are known to be very poor, as is the state of police stations – overcrowding, life-threatening health hazards, and torture being the norm.
Although Bangladeshi authorities are publicly denying it, even at the UN level, there are reports of enforced disappearances as well as extrajudicial killings in the country. Self-censorship among artists, journalists, human rights defenders, and freethinkers is skyrocketing as law enforcement agencies are more interested in persecuting rather than protecting them. Violence against women and minorities is widespread, and victims find it very hard to seek justice and redress, in absence of a witness protection law.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2016 restricts the space of human rights organisations by criminalising foreign-funded NGOs that engage in "anti-state activities" or make "derogatory comments about the constitution and constitutional institutions." The NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) indeed has full discretion to inspect, monitor, and evaluate the activities of NGOs receiving external funds and, if not satisfied, has the power to lodge a complaint against an NGO without the latter having the possibility of a right to appeal.
Given these circumstances, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva may raise questions during the UPR examination of Bangladesh about real avenues to seek justice for human rights violations.
The legal system in Bangladesh struggles with very concerning shortcomings, including the lack of accountability, severe backlogs of pending cases (several millions), inadequate number of judges, and discriminatory and patriarchal attitudes. In addition, the judiciary is overwhelmed by fake cases triggered by either political or personal rivalries.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Bangladesh can lodge a complaint against state authorities, but only with the consent of those same authorities – a catch-22 that sheds light on the lack of political independence and functional autonomy of the NHRC. As a consequence, victims of human rights violations have no choice but to resort to legal NGOs such as Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), and Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA). But these NGOs also seem to be operating under tremendous constraints in this political climate.
During the upcoming UPR examination, the official delegation of Bangladesh will have to justify the country's poor record of ensuring civil and political rights. And we can already guess the main headlines of the delegation's narrative: Bangladesh has hosted more than a million "forcibly displaced nationals from Myanmar" on its soil; it is seeing promising results in terms of economic development and natural disaster management; and Bangladeshi policies in terms of law and order are bearing fruits with the reduction of terrorist threats and attacks. Will the UN council buy this expected narrative from Bangladeshi officials? Certainly not. As a state party to eight out of nine core human rights treaties, Bangladesh needs to deliver more than lip service to the UN.
Nordine Drici is independent researcher on human rights, rule of law, and access to justice.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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