Form independent body for investigation: Bachelet tells govt

UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet addresses a press conference in the hotel InterContinental Dhaka on 17 August 2022 after warping up her official visit to Bangladesh.
Syed Zakir Hossain

UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has said she has urged the government to form an independent and specialised mechanism to investigate enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings as her office is ready to advise on the formation of such a body in line with international standards.

"Particularly given the long-standing frustrations at the lack of progress in investigations and other obstacles to justice, I encouraged the government to create an independent, specialised mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings,” she said.

Michelle Bachelet made this remarks while addressing a press conference in the hotel InterContinental Dhaka on Wednesday after warping up her official visit to Bangladesh.

Her visit coincided with the National Mourning Day, commemorating the assassination of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15 August 1975. “It was a day which naturally lent itself to reflections on the history of Bangladesh – its painful past, a people’s struggle for independence and for their human rights, millions of whom had been forced to flee in 1971,” she said.

During her visit, the UN rights chief met with prime minister Sheikh Hasina, several ministers including foreign and home ministers, government officials, National Human Rights Commission and representatives of civil society, members of the diplomatic community and academics.

She also interacted with students at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies on climate change and human rights and her delegation also held meetings with other stakeholders, including trade unions and political parties.

Michelle Bachelet said various UN human rights mechanisms – including the UN Committee Against Torture, have been raising concerns for several years about allegations of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, many of which have been attributed to the Rapid Action Battalion, and the lack of accountability for such violations.

“I raised my deep concern about these serious allegations with government ministers and highlighted the need for an impartial, independent and transparent investigation into these allegations accompanied by security sector reform. Bangladesh should ensure it has a robust system in place to ensure the careful human rights screening of security personnel as the biggest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions,” she added.

The UN rights chief also suggested that inviting the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit Bangladesh would also show the country’s commitment to decisively address this issue.

Michelle Bachelet said Bangladesh is also entering an election cycle, with general elections due next year, which tends to be a time of increased polarisation and tension.

“In such circumstances, what is key is that people from various sectors of society are heard and that they feel heard. Civil society members are important resources that governments need to tap into. Critical voices can help to identify the problems, to acknowledge them, to dive deep into the causes and discuss solutions. Acknowledging the challenges is always the first step to overcoming them,” she said.

Democratic and civic space, as well as effective checks and balances and accountability are essential as Bangladesh aims for the next levels of development. It also contributes to decrease the risk of corruption and other hurdles to sustainable economic development and sound fiscal management.

The election period will be an important time for Bangladesh to maximize civic and political space, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly of political activists, human rights defenders, opposition parties and journalists.

She said there needs to be space for more dialogue among political parties and with a wide range of civil society actors to prevent grievances from building and erupting in social unrest. The voices of women, religious minorities and indigenous peoples, and especially young people need to be heard.

"It is also important to ensure that law enforcement forces have the necessary training to manage protests without resorting to the excessive use of force,, the UN rights chief insisted.

Michelle Bachelet said her office and the government have engaged in dialogue on review of the Digital Security Act.

“We have submitted our recommendations for repeal and revision of certain provisions of the Act, with a view to ensuring their compliance with international human rights laws and standards and preventing arbitrary application or misuse. We look forward to the government’s feedback and timeline to expedite the review,” she added.

She said they also discussed the importance of working closely with civil society and the UN to ensure that the new draft Data Protection Law and the OTT (Over The Top Platforms) regulations meet international human rights standards.

Michelle Bachelet further said challenges to gender equality remain in Bangladesh despite the adoption of a number of important national policy frameworks. Violence against women, including sexual violence, remains high and access to justice and accountability for the victims remains difficult.

She welcomed the government’s legal recognition of hijras and hoped it will take further steps to fulfil the fundamental human rights of LGBTIQ+ persons.

She also stressed the importance of protecting minority groups, such as Hindus and indigenous peoples from violence or land encroachments and called for full implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord and unrestricted access for independent actors to visit the area.

During her visit, Michelle Bachelet visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar where spoke to the Rohingya people who fled “extreme violence and systematic discrimination” in Myanmar five years ago.

She said many Rohingyas were fearful of the security situation both in terms of the activity of armed groups and criminal gangs, but also the vulnerability of women and girls.

Expanding education and livelihood opportunities for girls and boys will be the best way to prevent social problems and criminal activities and to fully prepare refugees for sustainable reintegration in Myanmar society, she said urging the government to give space to community-led initiatives in the camps in Bhashan Char and Cox’s Bazar.

Michelle Bachelet said, “The international community must sustain its support to Bangladesh in its response, and press Myanmar to create conditions for return, address the root causes and pursue accountability.

“The current situation across the border means that the conditions are not right for returns. Repatriation must always be conducted in a voluntary and dignified manner, only when safe and sustainable conditions exist in Myanmar,” she added.

The UN rights chief suggested effective, accountable and inclusive institutions – in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 16 – are essential for achieving the next level of development as Bangladesh continues to grow economically.

“This means inclusivity, participation and accountability. Strengthening the independence of institutions, including the national human rights commission, the elections commission and the judiciary, will be key. The UN Country Team stands by to support implementation of all SDGs,” she assured.