Journalist Tim Sebastian this Wednesday interviewed Gowher Rizvi, international affairs adviser of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, on the German media outlet Deutsche Welle’s talk show ‘Conflict Zone’. They discussed human rights in Bangladesh, corruption, the recent Al-Jazeera documentary and more. The first part of the interview is presented here.
For years now the government of Bangladesh has been criticised around the world for its human rights records. But its reputation received another jolt this month with the release of a news documentary alleging high level bribery and corruption. My guest this week from Dhaka is Gowher Rizvi , the foreign affairs advisor to the country’s prime minister. When will the authorities stop denying the truth about the repression they have inflicted and clean up their act? Gowher Rizvi, welcome to ‘Conflict Zone’.
Your country has become a byword for egregious human rights abuses which your government routinely denies. As an academic who is used to dealing in truth, why do you serve a government that seems to have such little regard for that commodity?
Mr Sebastian, I think this question needs to be qualified a bit. When you say egregious human rights violations, might I explain that human rights is a very large word.
Let me be more specific then -- arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, all of which your country is accused of by the UN, UN rights groups around Asia, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee Against Torture, that’s what I had in mind.
I wish I could deny all this in entirety. I will not deny that there have been instances of some disappearances. When you talk about torture, there is no documented evidence of torture, to the best of my knowledge.
The UN Committee against Torture is certain that torture is carried out routinely. It has received report after report that torture is carried out routinely by your security forces. And you will have us believe they have all got it wrong?
I would not deny it or say they have got it wrong. But I do also want to say that as far as the government is concerned, torture is illegal and we try to make sure that torture doesn’t take place. I was objecting to the way you posed the question because so many good things have been happening in Bangladesh. Today Bangladesh is one of the spectacular successes of development.
Yes, and you are very good at promoting the successes, the economic successes in your country for example. But that is not what I am asking you about. I am asking you about the things that have gone wrong in your country. Your government claims zero tolerance of corruption. The boss of Transparency International in Bangladesh himself summed up the extent of corruption when he accused the government of going after only, what he called, the ‘small fish’. The activities of the corrupt leaders at the top are beyond our imagination, he said. We don’t see robust investigation or legal action against those big players. So, so much for the zero tolerance for corruption.
If you recall, about 6 to 9 months ago, there was a big action against various corrupt individuals and organisations. Many of them have been arrested. Police investigation is taking place. The Anti-Corruption Commission is inquiring into it. At the end of the day we have to follow a judicial process and this is a time consuming process. I am not saying that our process is perfect. I am not saying that there are no political considerations going into it. These things are true. But where I object, and Mr Sebastian you are such an experienced journalist, is that the way you paint the picture is all one-sided and the viewers will end up getting the wrong impression.
It’s not me painting the picture. I am relying on reports of internationally respected organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee Against Torture.
In that case, please allow me to balance that picture with reality and as it happens on the ground.
Which you are doing. But all this has paved the way for a high profile documentary which was released this month by the Al Jazeera network which reveals shocking levels of corruption among the officials of the state in your country and the government immediate reaction was to call the film false, inflammatory and a smear. You all did not even consider investigating the matter. This is hardly the reaction of an honest government, is it?
It’s being inquired. An inquiry is underway. I want to point out in all sincerity that the documentary’s title was ‘All the Prime Minister’s Men’. And we were told it would expose corruption around the prime minister. Do you really believe this documentary has succeeded in doing that? Was there a single evidence which incriminated the prime minister in the alleged corruption? This is where I think as sensible academics and journalists, we should stand back and ask ourselves, what was the evidence given to incriminate the prime minister's involvement. And yet this whole documentary was billed as to show how corrupt the regime is.