The seminar on ‘Bangladesh and Human Rights’, jointly organised by the Bangladesh foreign ministry and the UN office in Dhaka on Sunday, was significant in many ways. It was held at a juncture when many foreign agencies and organisations have been vocal in their criticism of Bangladesh’s state of human rights. It was imperative for the government to clear its stand on the issue. No matter what varying perspectives we may have, we can in no way ignore the fundamental premises of human rights.
There were sharp differences in the seminar between the statements of several speakers including the UN resident representative Mia Seppo and that of the foreign minister AK Abdul Momen. While the other speakers stressed that freedom of expression and citizen’s rights were preconditions to human rights, the foreign minister said the economic development was the benchmark. However, when the matter of human rights arises, we cannot stray away from the UN international declaration of human rights or from the constitution of Bangladesh.
The foreign minister claimed that Bangladesh had made strides in improving the state of human rights. He pointed to economic development as evidence. Had economic development been the sole yardstick of human rights, then China and Malaysia would not be facing such a volley of criticism. Human rights certainly include citizen rights and the right to justice. Article 39 of our constitution states that “freedom of thought and conscience” and “freedom of press” is guaranteed. The article guarantees “the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression.” The state cannot enact laws that are contrary to these freedoms.
No one denies Bangladesh’s economic development. But it must also be seen whether every citizen is benefitting from this development. On one hand, the number of fastest growing wealthy people in Bangladesh is on the rise, but on the other hand, the country is also among the five countries with the poorest people in the world. If development is to be sustainable, this disparity must be eliminated and citizen’s rights must be ensured.
At the seminar, the obstacle to citizen’s rights were identified as extrajudicial killings, wrongful imprisonment like that of Jaha Alam, persons accused of rape being found mysteriously dead with a note from ‘Hercules’, and legal as well as institutional barriers to freedom of expression.
The chairman of the national human rights commission and others expressed their concern about these matters, but foreign minister AK Abdul Momen avoided these issues. He commented that many people had ‘weak’ perceptions about human rights. Such comments amount to ignoring human rights. Economic development can in no way be an alternative to citizens’ freedom.
The international human rights declaration does not only speak about people’s right to food and shelter. It speaks of democratic rights of the people, regardless of their religion, race or gender.
UN resident representative Mia Seppo put emphasis on the fundamental freedoms of the citizens which did not tally with the words of the foreign minister. By adhering to the UN declaration of human rights, Bangladesh can establish itself as a democratic state with values of true human dignity.
It must be kept in mind that lofty rhetoric in seminars and dialogues do not ensure citizens’ rights or human rights. The state institutions which are meant to protect human rights must function independently, honestly and neutrally. Just adding the term ‘independent’ in front of an institution’s name does not make the situation any better, unless the mindset of those involved undergoes a change.