Government pledges to protect human rights

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

The government has reiterated its commitment to protect and uphold human rights, in order to be elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Bangladesh has submitted an undertaking in this regard to the members of the UN General Assembly.

Bangladesh's permanent representative to the United Nations on 14 September sent the commitment along with a diplomatic letter to the president of the UN General Assembly.

In August this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet came to Bangladesh on a four-day visit at the invitation of the government.

She made several observations and recommendations at the time, on the protection of human rights. The undertaking that Bangladesh had prepared a month since then has no reflection of those observations and recommendations. In fact, the commitment mentions that the human rights high commissioner will soon be visiting Bangladesh. But her term is office has already ended.

Voting will be held at the General Assembly on 11 October for 14 vacant posts in UN Human Rights Council for a three-year term from 2023 to 2025.

According to region, there are four vacant posts for the Asia and Pacific region. Other than Bangladesh, those contesting for membership to the council from this region include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, South Korea and Vietnam.

The nine-page pledge presented in detail the steps Bangladesh will take to protect and uphold human rights within the country and on an international scale.

Highlighting that the constitution is at the centre of protecting the human rights of the country's 160 million people, the document detailed the steps that have been taken by the government for freedom of speech, and economic, political, social, cultural and other rights. It also highlighted what steps will be taken in the future in this regard.

It was claimed that the government had been cooperating with the UN Human Rights office and various institutional frameworks, adding that this cooperation would be stepped up and expanded. But as for cooperation at an international level, it said that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights would be visiting the country shortly. It is obvious that this undertaking sent on 14 September hadn't been updated. Bachelet had visited Bangladesh in August.

Detailing what Bangladesh had done to protect human rights, it was said on behalf of the government that Bangladesh had ratified eight of the nine major human rights conventions. It had been sending in regular reports on the progress being made in implementing those declarations.

The convention among these nine that Bangladesh has not ratified, is the convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance. At the end her visit, Michelle Bachelet called upon Bangladesh to ratify this convention. The same call was later made at the meeting of the human rights council. They have also been recommending independent and neutral investigation into the allegations of enforced disappearance and for these incidents to be brought under trial. The government, though, has been rejecting such allegations and has not mentioned the issue in the undertaking submitted to the General Assembly members.

The pledge said that Bangladesh's judiciary is ensuring the right of people to justice. It cited the example of the tribunal formed for the trial of the genocide and crimes against humanity committed in 1971 during the liberation war. It said that the Supreme Court actively issued orders and directives in the cases of public interest litigation.

Concerning the right to the freedom of expression, it was said that the country had a robust and vibrant media. A total of 544 dailies, 359 weeklies, 62 fortnightlies, and 93 monthlies were being published. There were 33 functioning private sector television channels where the government's policies and performance were openly discussed.

Recognising the media persons as frontline workers during the Covid pandemic, the prime minister had made an allocation of USD 1.18 million (USD 11 lakh 80 thousand). No mention was made here either of the concern and recommendations about press freedom made in Michelle Bachelet's statement. Other than Bachelet, global institutions working on the issue of press freedom have been expressing concern about the steadily shrinking space for freedom of expression in Bangladesh and the repression of journalists.

The narrative presented by the government about the civil society or NGOs is that there are 3,075 non-government organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh registered at the NGO Bureau. They are working uninterruptedly for the protection and expansion of human rights.

During her visit, though, Michelle Bachelet had called upon the authorities not to harass any NGOs for their cooperation with the UN and its affiliated bodies. Also, the ongoing meeting of the human rights council's expert committee on enforced disappearances has expressed its concern for not renewing the registration for human rights. The commitment made no reference to this concern.

The commitment said that the government had been cooperating with the human rights expert special rapporteurs. Mention was made of the two or three of them have visited Bangladesh over the last few years. But it was not mentioned that the requests submitted for another dozen or so special rapporteurs and members of the committee for enforced disappearances remained pending.

About the various legal measures being taken, it was said that the evidence act was being amended. But there was no commitment made about amending the controversial Digital Security Act.

At various times the Bangladesh government has said it was working with the UN Human Rights Commission regarding the amendment of Digital Security Act. Michelle Bachelet also had said she has placed recommendations in this regard with the government. But there has been no commitment to implement these recommendations.

The commitment mentioned about providing shelter and humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas, and Bangladesh's cooperation with the International Criminal Court to help gain justice for them. It said they would continue providing this cooperation in the trial process in the future.

In the General Assembly, however, the role of diplomacy has greater importance than such undertakings. But the undertakings are basically significant for the human rights organisations who can use these to hold the governments accountable. Such non-government organisations have an important role in the human rights council and other convention-based institutional frameworks.

* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir