When zero tolerance turns lethal

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s assertion, whenever I deal with something, I deal it with a firm hand (ami jokhon dhori bhalo korei dhori) is the most significant statement so far about the ongoing ‘War against drugs’.  And there’s no surprise that at Wednesday’s press conference no one had asked her how those innocent victims of mistaken identities would get justice and whether those could be called extrajudicial killings? After all, these ‘press conferences’ at Gonobhaban have become a customary well-choreographed event dominated by pro-government media and favour-seeking owners/ editors where the PM can enjoy a freehand opportunity to ridicule the opposition and her critics, in particular, the civil society.

One may recall here that in 2004 when her predecessor Khaleda Zia, now imprisoned on corruption charges in a much politicised trial, had been carrying out a similar anti-crime drive her party, the Awami League promised to bring an end to extrajudicial killings. But, extrajudicial killings have become favoured tactics to the security forces in combating most of the law and order challenges, including drives against illegal arms and terrorism. In last few years, the government led by Sheikh Hasina seemed found its answer too in extrajudicial killings to tackle threats of political and extremist violence. Whenever, the government spoke of ‘zero tolerance’ to any of these socio-political challenges, security forces sprung into action which human rights activists and opposition parties term extrajudicial or unlawful.

But, the latest crackdown by the law enforcers against alleged drug dealers has already set a new record – killing rate of one in every three hours or eight per day – given the casualties have passed 120 in sixteen days since it began. Figures compiled by Ain o Salish Kendra, a leading civil society organisation dedicated to human rights issues, since 2013 a total of 811 people have died from extrajudicial acts of the law enforcers showing an average of 13.5 persons per month. In those five years, the highest numbers of deaths from extrajudicial killings were reported in 2013. It was the year when the International War Crimes Tribunal for the first time convicted Jamaat leaders for crimes against humanity and their activists resorted to unprecedented violence which followed the national election boycotted by the main opposition BNP.

The most astonishing thing to observe is, perhaps, the government’s total disregard to the international community who met in Geneva on 14 May under the auspices of the United Nations’ Human Rights assessment mechanism known as Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Representatives from more than a hundred nations have expressed their views and some of the common concerns came out of the review process includes extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.  There’s no surprise that most prevalent view at the meeting was these illegal acts have been carried out by the security forces with impunity.

The UPR’s recommendations strongly urged Bangladesh to end this culture and have an independent probe into the alleged killings and disappearances. It also called for empowering the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate allegations of rights’ abuses by law enforcing agencies. No wonder Bangladesh has not agreed to extend NHRC’s mandate in probing abuses by security forces and sought time to consider whether it can accept the call for investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings.

There is no one who opposes cracking down on illegal drug trade. But, any such anti-drug campaign has to be within the parameter of country’s existing law. Without transparent investigation and independent judicial process, state-sanctioned random killing would not bring a sustainable solution. Instead, it will replace old supply chain with new one. A former president of the world’s most drug-prone country Columbia, Cesar Gaviria, last year admitted that his policy of elimination of drug peddlers did not work. His article on New York Times was a note of caution to the Filipino President Rodriguez Duterte who has adopted policy of using force to curb the drug trade which resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings and he is now facing an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The most crucial element of any anti-drug campaign is to cut off the supply route, but how this current drive will achieve that is not clear. Only last week, the UN agency on drug trafficking, UNODC warned that the methamphetamine trafficking in the Mekong region (Cambodia, China, Lao, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam)  has reached an alarming level. On 21 May in Nay Pyi Taw, Regional Representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Jeremy Douglas, told a regional conference that opium and heroin production have recently declined, while criminal gangs have intensified production and trafficking of both low grade yaba methamphetamine – commonly known as meth or yaba - and high purity crystal methamphetamine, to “alarming levels”. The conference heard that the total number of seizures of meth and crystal meth in first few months of 2018 have surpassed the total seizures of last year. UNODC also reported high volumes across Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It can safely be assumed that Bangladesh would not be too different.

More alarmingly, the UN agency has pointed out that for affected countries, the shift to synthetics like methamphetamine is particularly difficult to address; partly because the remote and clandestine makeshift laboratories where it’s manufactured, can easily be moved. And, finally, due to increased production prices have also come down making it more affordable to even wider population. The Straits Times have reported that between 2014 and 2016, meth prices across the region fell, reaching a low of US$2 (BD Tk 166) per tablet in Thailand and US$ 2.20 (BD Tk 200)  in Myanmar. The UN says responding to the situation requires acknowledging some difficult realities, and agreeing to new approaches at a strategic regional level.

It is well understood that cooperation from across the border on the backdrop of the continuing disagreements with Myanmar over the future of over a million Rohingya refugees will be hard to come by. When supply side is thriving and prices are within the reach of a large number of populace, it seems that the government has opted for a quick-blitz approach. It hopes that mass-killing of street-sellers will have some momentary success and the resulting fear created in the wider society will also scare the political opposition which had vowed a nationwide street agitation for the release of former PM Khaleda Zia. It obviously works as a reminder of the government’s zero tolerance policy towards political violence pursued during 2014 -15. What other policy can achieve such a political objective through an anti-crime drive?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

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