Interview: Harry van Bommel

"New global awareness makes recognition of 1971 genocide easier"

Human rights activist and Netherlands' former member of parliament Harry van Bommel
Harry van Bommel, human rights activist and former member of parliament in the Netherlands from May 1998 to March 2017, visited Bangladesh recently leading a five-member European delegation to gather first-hand information about the genocide committed by the Pakistani army during the Liberation War in 1971. The fact-finding mission, organised by the European Bangladesh Forum (EBF), visited several killing fields in Dhaka and Chattogram, Liberation War Museum, met researchers and academicians. Harry van Bommel talked with Prothom Alo's Galib Ashraf on Friday about the delegation’s experience, findings and possibility of the global recognition of genocide committed in Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971
Prothom Alo:

What is your take on the genocide committed in Bangladesh in 1971?

First of all, the facts that I have gleaned at the War Crimes Tribunal, Liberation War Museum, through meetings with victims, witnesses, family members of victims, and freedom fighters makes it clear to me that this was a genocide that would qualify as one of the worst of the last century. The stories that I've been told and the pictures I've seen show such atrocities that they are beyond imagination. The difference between genocide and mass killings is that in genocide, there is a process of dehumanization. The victims are not seen as humans. The identity of the victim is taken away. And that is what has been done in the 1971 genocide.

I am happy that four important scientific institutions have scientifically proven that it is genocide. One of the most important ones is the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS). There is unanimity that this was genocide. Now we have to take the next step and bring it to the political level. We need political organisations, parliaments, governments, to fully acknowledge that this was genocide.

Therefore, it's very important that we see the developments in the United States where there was a bipartisan law proposal to have the 1971 genocide recognized. Also, there was a debate in the United Kingdom. And we see it as our mission to bring this debate to other European countries so that we can have a European recognition of the genocide and finally a recongnition from the United Nations. The facts speak for themselves. The numbers are known. Three million people died, 200,000 to 400,000 women raped, 10 million people fled to India and another 30 million people internally displaced.

We have in our team one of the top scientists from the Netherlands, Dr Anthonie Holslag. He is specialised in the phases of genocide. And he mentioned in his speeches that the final phase is the phase of denial, denial of genocide. And that's exactly what is still happening by the Pakistan government. So it is important to recognise also the different phases of genocide. The European Bangladesh Forum recently held a conference in London. A scientist from Pakistan who took part in the conference mentioned it is important for Pakistan to reach this recognition. The burden is also on the shoulders of the average Pakistan citizens. And there are citizens in Pakistan who want their government to formally come to terms with reality and admit that there was genocide, that there was a plan to partially or fully wipe out the Bengali people.

Prothom Alo:

You did visit some places of genocide in Dhaka and Chattogram during your six day visit in Bangladesh. Would you share the experience? What are your findings?

We visited places. It was the most impressive part of our visit that we talked to people who were there as a witness. Yesterday, I talked to a 90-year old woman from Jagatmallapara in Chattogram. She was a witness while 34 people in her village were killed. The main reason we have been talking to grassroots level organisations, villagers, NGOs, local people, as you cannot find those stories online. The official stories I can find online, but I need to hear them from the people firsthand. And that is more important than reading a scientific report, because you can still see the emotion. The pain of genocide is still there in the eyes of that nonagenarian lady.

Basically our findings were the official confirmation by genocide scholars from Bangladesh that this was a genocide. Also, we came to understand that the genocide of 1971 does not leave a single family unaffected.

It is late to get the recognition after more than 50 years, but it is not too late, because people that were directly involved are still alive.

And therefore we must not wait ten years. It will take maybe a couple of years, but let's not wait another ten years. The people who it concerns are still alive. It is of utmost importance that recognition comes within a couple of years.  

Prothom Alo:

Is it actually possible to get the recognition so quickly?

It is. Let me tell you that the Dutch parliament recently recognised the genocide on the Uyghurs and on the Yazidis. And these are recognitions of genocide that took place recently. And in the Uyghur, it is still taking place. So there is a new awareness worldwide. I've seen it not only in the Netherlands, but also in the UK and other countries.

There is a new awareness that whenever there is a genocide happening we should not let that be undefined. Let's not wait until the genocide is over. We must address genocide when it happens. So there is also a new political opportunity and therefore I think that it is feasible. It is absolutely feasible. And that new consciousness leads on our behalf, on the behalf of European Bangladesh, to new optimism about recognition. 

It might be just around the corner. We don't know it. There is a new awareness after 52 years and also the time is running out, as the people who saw the war of 1971 are now getting old. So if we want recognition during their lifetime, we had better hurry.

And there is also a new awareness, for instance, in the United States because the fact that there was genocide was reported to Washington, to the government. Pakistan was an ally of the west at that time. So it's very important that now, while the bipolar world has changed into a multipolar world, that we come to the conclusion that what happened at the time was a genocide and that it was irresponsible of the United States of America to keep on supporting Pakistan army. It should have contained the atrocities and it could have done so.

Pakistan army's atrocity during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.
Prothom Alo:

Will the fact-finding mission communicate its findings to the governments of Europe?

We are going to take back the stories, the facts, the photos, the documents to the Netherlands, and we will bring everything together in a report. And that report will be brought to the Dutch Parliament, to the UK parliament, and to the parliaments of other European countries as well.

Next to that, we will petition the national parliament to take that important step to come to recognition.

And if they want to have a debate, we are available to provide all the information based on our fact-finding mission, based on the work of the European Bangladesh Forum, and based on what is available also in Bangladesh. We have come to Bangladesh to get information that we could not get in the Netherlands or in the UK. We will bring the message to our respective countries and see if we can put that to use to make sure that we will get the recognition.

Prothom Alo:

What does the recognition of genocide mean and how it works? Why has the Bangladeshi Genocide not been acknowledged internationally even after 52 years? Were there any weaknesses from Bangladesh’s part?

Recognition, first of all, means that the victims are recognised in the grief that they have, because if you ignore or deny the genocide, then factually you say to victims that this was a regular war and there were casualties on both sides. That's basically what you're saying.

That does not do justice to the victims and their families. So that's one, it does justice to the victim and the families. Secondly, recognition means that there is also a legal procedure possible against perpetrators. Just as we have some witnesses and victims that are still alive in Bangladesh, we also have people responsible in Pakistan that are still alive, so they can be processed in a legal process and legal steps can also be taken. Thirdly, the recognition is important because perpetrators of genocide must not get the idea that they can get away with it. Then comes prevention. If genocide is recognized and if the perpetrators are known and brought to justice, then there is a message to the world in terms of prevention that perpetuators cannot get away with it. And finally, a process of recognition and a legal process could lead to reparations. I know the Bangladeshi government has this in their program.

And yes, I think there were weaknesses from Bangladesh’s part too. One is that it should be part and it could be part of the message that the Bangladeshi government sends to foreign diplomats in Bangladesh but it does not do so.

Also, the Bangladeshi diplomats abroad could raise the issue to foreign governments and foreign parliaments. So here is something that could work better for Bangladesh. And because there's a worldwide discussion now, it is high time the Bangladesh government acted in this respect.

Prothom Alo:

Do you think we had any sort of weaknesses from the academic aspect? Like failure to document the genocide?

I know that an important American scientist named Gregory Stanton (founder and president of Genocide Watch) was working with the Liberation War Museum. On the scientific part, I think Bangladesh, Dhaka University and individual scientists have done what they should have done. They have been in close contact with the international scientific community and provided information that has led to four renowned institutes worldwide to recognize this genocide. So I think on that part, it's not so much that the work left to be done.

Prothom Alo:

What can be the pathway to get the recognition?

This is an important question. This is an obligation that we, as European Bangladesh Forum and the fact finding mission have taken as an assignment to us. We must work on recognition by individual member states of the UN and the EU. So we will work on it in Europe. The European Bangladesh Forum also is considering traveling to Canada and maybe to the United States. So that is the pathway through international relations, through working in Europe and in America, and also by getting the Bangladeshi diaspora aboard.

Prothom Alo:

What role can the Bangladeshi diaspora play in this endeavor?

In the Armenian case, their diaspora played a very active role in getting international recognition. Now 29 countries worldwide have recognised the Armenian genocide. So we will get the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom, in the Netherlands and other countries involved in our labour to get recognition.

Prothom Alo:

You already mentioned the IAGS last month recognized that Pakistan committed genocide during the 1971 Liberation War. Last year the US-based organization Genocide Watch recognized the genocide. Two members of the US Congress last year submitted a resolution urging the President to recognise the crimes against humanity in 1971. The issue was discussed in the UK parliament. How can these steps help Bangladesh in getting the recognition?

It's extremely important that these renowned institutes have come to confirm scientifically that this is genocide. These recognitions will make it easier for politicians to bring forth the debate. I'm sure that in the Netherlands we will not have politicians questioning whether this was genocide. They will accept the outcome of international investigations and research. There will be a debate, of course, because Dutch politicians will ask why should the Netherlands take steps? There will be every sort of question. But now we have the answers.

Prothom Alo:

What steps can the Netherlands take?

The Netherlands was one of the first countries to recognise the independence of Bangladesh. We had a meeting with the Dutch ambassador and he confirmed the early involvement of the Netherlands with Bangladesh. Also, there are similarities between our two countries. We are both Delta countries. We both face the threat of water. One fact that is not very well known worldwide is that we took up 500 'war babies' from Bangladesh. They were born because rape was a war tool for the Pakistan Army and the militias.

So the question of recognition is also extremely important for them. So that's another reason why the Netherlands should work on recognition.

Prothom Alo:

What can our politicians do in getting the genocide recongnised? Do you have any message for our politicians?

Yes. We will work but EBF is not a political organization. EBF is a grassroots level organisation. And politicians should reach out to politicians in other countries with a message to work on international recognition. It is important, not just for Bangladesh, but for the whole world. The message that it is important to recognize this genocide is a global message because prevention is a global issue

The global community will only move if member states move, if politicians speak out, if people like myself, if more organizations like EBF, if other organizations in Europe reach out to EBF and support us. Let's work together.

Prothom Alo:

Is getting international recognition symbolic or such recognition may pave the way for ensuring trial of Pakistani war criminals and getting reparation?

The recognition is not symbolic at all in terms of prevention and doing justice to the victims. Also in the legal sense, the recognition may pave the way for trial of Pakistani war criminals. So it is serving all these purposes. But I will contest anyone who says this is symbolic. If it were symbolic, I would not have come here traveling half the world, taking my time off from my regular job to do this voluntarily. I was in Parliament for nearly two decades and this was on my political agenda.

Prothom Alo:

Do you work with other genocides that took part around the world?

I have worked in parliament on the issue of genocide, on the Armenian genocide, other genocides, yes. But that was during my time as parliamentarian. In 2017, I retired from parliament. Now I have a regular job as a civil servant. I do this next to my work, and I am fully concentrated on the Bangladesh genocide.

Prothom Alo:

Thank you so much

Thank you so much