Dilemma over democracy and human rights narrative

Law minister Anisul Huq said that around 90 per cent of the country at the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review had praised the state of human rights in Bangladesh and made constructive recommendations. The other members of the cabinet must be green with envy over the law minister's feat of conquering almost the entire world! I am rather surprised, however, that he said 90 per cent, not a full and rounded 100 per cent.

Anisul Huq had made a statement from Geneva at the virtual press briefing organised by the foreign ministry, and I attentively read the reports on that yet again. I saw that he had said, Canada and Slovakia had strongly criticised the state of human rights in Bangladesh. The US, UK and Belgium all praised our progress.

I was present throughout the review session at the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room of the Palace of Nations. Just to check whether I had heard wrong or not, I listened to the session once again on the UN web TV video. I did not hear the Canadian representative Ms Walesca Rivera made any criticism. You all can listen too, and check for yourselves. Slovakia's Dusan Matule  spoke of their concern at the start of their statement and their recommendations may hardly have been palatable to the government, but if that was considered to be criticism, then what about the recommendations of the representatives of the other countries?

The language of praise and criticism in diplomatic language is quite different from that in the political arena. The representatives of each and every country thanked Bangladesh for agreeing to give ear to the views of the other countries in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and for participating. If the thanks received for agreeing to take part in the exchange of views with the international community is taken into consideration, then for sure Bangladesh has received a hundred per cent praise.

Maintaining diplomatic decorum, the recommendations given by the others that were ‘constructive on the basis of friendly relations’, were, in the true sense, pointing out our shortcomings and suggesting how these can be overcome. So if the recommendations are taken to be criticism, then when the Saudi representative Ms Shahada Amdi asks to address the disparity in wages between men and women, or when India’s Indra Mani asks to pay more attention to the quality of health and education services, if that not criticism?

What did Slovakia’s Dusan Matulay say? Matulay said that Slovakia is aware that Bangladesh had signed many human rights conventions and treaties (the law minister at the outset had said that Bangladesh was signatory to 8 of 9 human rights conventions). However, the legal and practical implementation of these is not satisfactory. Slovakia expressed concern about the incidents of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killing, calling for a halt to these and meaningful investigations. They also praised Bangladesh for providing temporary shelter to the Rohingyas despite not be a signatory to the 1951 convention regarding refugees.

Slovakia recommended that: 1. Measures be taken to ensure that the media can function freely without censorship, threat of physical assault and the risk of death. 2. Effective measures must be taken against indiscriminate arrests, torture and mistreatment of journalists, lawyers, and members of the civil society for criticism of the authorities, and the existing cases must be investigated. 3. Abolition of the death sentence and commuting death sentence to imprisonment. And, 4. Ensuring that the elections scheduled for January 2024 are free and transparent.

It was the law minister who spent over an hour, in four phases, presenting a written statement which carried a narrative of internal politics that perhaps could be confused for an election campaign. According to him, the opposition had been ensured of all rights in the country’s political arena and the opposition had the highest degree of independence in parliament

It is nothing new that the government is unwilling to hear such displeasing recommendations. But such recommendations, which the law minister termed as criticism, were made by the representatives of a few dozen other countries. Romania’s Ms Maria Mihailescu made the first statement about the report submitted by the law minister concerning the implementation of the 3rd UPR recommendation over the last four years, from 2018 till 2023. Ms Mihailescu spoke about the rule of law, freedom of expression and ensuring the rights of journalists and the civil society. However, unlike Slovakia, she did not mention the election and enforced disappearances.

Similarly, while not mentioning the election or enforced disappearances, the Belgian delegate spoke of revoking or amending laws that impeded freedom of expression, the Cyber Security Act, and the law concerning foreign grants. The US and UK did raise the issue of the election, but the law minister did not term all this as criticism in the press briefing.  

Chris Kucharski of the United States welcomed the delegation from Bangladesh and said, “The United States stands with the people of Bangladesh, including members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities, in their desire for democracy, human rights, and rule of law. We urge the government to restore inclusive, transparent, and democratic processes and provide space for dissenting voices.

In the spirit of cooperation, We recommend that Bangladesh:

1. Protect the ability of citizens of Bangladesh to vote and choose their government by ensuring free and fair elections held in a peaceful manner.

2. Ensure that journalists, human and labor rights defenders, and others are not prosecuted or detained for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, or association, and ensure all individuals receive fair trial guarantees.

3. Investigate, hold accountable, and prosecute, as appropriate, members of security forces and others who commit, or have committed, human rights violations or abuses.”

Like the US, the delegations of the democratic states of the West placed emphasis on freedom of expression, freedom o association and thought, ensuring democratic rights and accountability for the violation of the rule of law and human rights. France called for a resolution to the ongoing movement for labour rights and recommended ratification of the convention against enforced  disappearances, independence of the judiciary protection of human rights activists and an end to child marriage.

Just as European countries such as Finland, Slovakia and Armenia called for ratification of the convention against enforced disappearances and inquiry into the allegations of enforced disappearances, similar calls were made by several other non-European countries like Sierra Leone, Argentina. Brazil, Niger and Paraguay.

Denmark expressed disappointment that the recommendations of the previous UPR had not been implemented. Around a dozen or so countries tabled recommendations regarding independence of the judiciary, rule of law, and end to the harassment of human rights activists freedom of expression, safety of journalists, amending the Cyber Security Act, abolishing the death sentence, amending the law to prevent violence against women, etc. The UK and Norway spoke free and fair elections. Luxembourg spoke of protecting the rights of various political parties and demonstrators.

The representatives of 111 countries were allocated just 1 minute and 5 seconds each to place their recommendations, so how much praise or criticism could there have been? UPR is not a hearing but a review meeting, so the law minister didn’t have to face the music. It is hard to understand what this statement means.

It was the law minister who spent over an hour, in four phases, presenting a written statement which carried a narrative of internal politics that perhaps could be confused for an election campaign. According to him, the opposition had been ensured of all rights in the country’s political arena and the opposition had the highest degree of independence in parliament. If the true picture of the situation within the country was reflected, would he have to listen to so many countries at the UPR calling for a guarantee about freedom of expression and the rule of law?