The Culture of Fear versus Culture of Human Rights

In trying to explain human rights plainly it is often said- ‘to be free from any form of fear is human rights’. So what is the source of fear for people? During our childhood many of us crumble with the fear of ghosts. If in adulthood we are able to strongly believe in the nonexistence of ghosts we are able to overcome our fear of ghosts. However, we have to live in other forms of fear as well. The fear of persecution, fear of oppression and hunger- the overall fear of death. Since there is no place for ghosts in modern scientific society, there is no headache regarding ghosts in present society. But to look for ways to be free from the other forms of fear is one of the major issues of present society. And that is why this is one of the major issues of human rights.

To liberate oneself from the fear of ghosts one must take shelter in science. But what should we rely on in order to free ourselves from the fear from the other things? The idea of the ‘state’ comes about as a result of seeking an answer to this question. The more the fear of the people increases, the power of the state continues to increase in tandem by giving people the assurance of safety. Sometimes excessive power of the state also causes problems. Instead of reassuring people in the face of fear sometimes the state itself elevates itself to the role of fear monger.

unnamedThat is how our Bangladesh is operating at the moment. It is an unbridled realm of fear.  On the one hand there is the fear of petrol bombs and cocktails turning us into charcoals, on the other hand there is the fear of death from being shot by state forces. From January 6, 2015 there have been non-stop blockades. According to estimates by newspapers, during the 55 days of blockades (until March 1, 2015) 60 persons have been killed in petrol bombs and fire (Prothom Alo, 1 March 2015).

No one including women, children and the elderly have been spared from bomb and cocktail attacks and there have been attacks on schools and cars carrying school textbooks. Children’s schools are closed; the SSC examinations are dragging along very slowly. On the other hand, on the other side of this violence the so-called ‘gun-fights’ with the state forces have gone up. In 55 days 36 people have died in the so-called ‘gun-fights’ and ‘mob-beatings’ (Prothom Alo, 1 March 2015). In many of the cases we have seen that vehicle fleets under police protection have come under attack, people have been burnt near the police station, cars have been burnt in front of the police (Prothom Alo, 15 January 2015). But only in a very few cases have the police been able to catch these miscreants red-handed. Those who were later held were those whose political identities were the most important.

Relatives of those who were held alleged that there were financial deals involved in releasing them (Prothom Alo, 9 February 2015). In newspaper reports it was published that no evidence was found in the places of occurrence of these so-called ‘gun-fights’, some persons held by police succumbed to their injuries in ‘suspicious’ road accidents. The bodies of persons who died in so-called ‘mob-beatings’ bore marks of countless bullets (Prothom Alo, 24 February 2015). The question is- as human rights organization what is our say under such circumstances?

We now have two issues in front of us. One- the violation of people’s right to free movement and life through violence- the fear and lack of security in the minds of people. And Two- manner and degree of force used by state forces. The opposition parties called for rally on 5 January 2015 demanding the cancellation of the election and declaration of a fresh election to commemorate one year of the 5 January 2014 elections which took place under a boycott of the main opposition parties. The government refused to give permission to hold this rally and the main leader of the opposition party was confined in her own office. From the government side it was stated that they refused to give the opposition permission to hold a rally and let the leader of the opposition to join the rally in order to prevent violence. However, from the very next day violence spread all over the country. Just as this violence deserves condemnation in the strongest words possible, not allowing the opposition party to practice its democratic rights at the pretext of preventing violence is also condemnable. A democratic society must offer the rights and opportunities for such movements.

This violence has been going on incessantly for the last two months. Clandestine attacks are being carried out on the ordinary people- truck drivers, bus helpers, vegetable sellers, those who have no options but to leave their houses are primarily being subjected to these attacks. They need to leave the house in order to earn their living. On the other hand they are easy targets for those inciting the violence, because they do not have to take undue risks for them. They want to create a reign of fear by targeting the ordinary people; they want to trap people in their homes with fear. Creating an environment of fear by inhibiting people’s freedom of movement, by taking away people’s right to life cannot be a manner of a democratic movement. Through this the basic human rights of people are undoubtedly being denied. But these activities are a violation of the laws of the land. And it is the responsibility of the law-enforcers to arrest those who break the law and they have to carry out these responsibilities within the framework of the law. Their responsibility is to identify the offenders, to arrest them and to take legal action against them. But are the law-enforcing authorities doing this? Unfortunately, we have not yet received any information to feel confident about this.

It is clear that the government and law enforcement agencies are trying to follow a ‘quick-fix’ process to resolve the problems of the current situation. The Heads of the law enforcement agencies have told and even the Prime Minister herself said to the police officers on 27 January 2015- ‘You must take the strongest possible action against those who burn people or attack them. There is no argument over this. Come what may, I will take responsibility of this’ (Prothom Alo, 29 January 2015).’ Such remarks from the Prime Minister herself are bound to give a wrong message to the members of the law-enforcement authorities. The Prime Minister could have strongly said that the police should have dealt with the law and order situation by staying within the legal framework.

In the name of protecting human rights, the state forces are now violating human rights. We cannot support that. Rights cannot be established through the violation of rights. Even if it is long-standing and difficult we want a sustainable solution and this can only be made possible by respecting human rights principles.

In this situation we have now fallen into another dilemma. To remain free from allegations of partisanship many people are condemning each other proportionately or are keeping quiet. It is akin to the setting depicted in the political thriller ‘Gods of Ruin’ written by prominent writer Joseph Morse, where it has been said- ‘When people get involved with the argument over left and right, they forget to take account of right and wrong.’ However, if we cannot decide on right and wrong at this crucial stage, our suffering will intensify. This evaluation needs to be clear in order for us to be alert. As a human rights organization this is what we have to say- the current violence is certainly violating the rights of people. But these activities are a violation of the existing laws of the land and to prevent these is the responsibility of the state. For which the state has been given the power to implement those laws through the state forces and institutions. But in carrying out these responsibilities legal procedures should not be abandoned even by a hair’s breadth. If that happens, that will also be a violation of human rights. We are also aware that there are endless obstructions in apprehending the perpetrators and bringing them to justice through legal means, and there is also the question of time. Nevertheless, there is no option to do otherwise.

The icon of democracy from Myanmar, the Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi said in her speech ‘Freedom from Fear’- ‘Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends  to be the order of the day… It is not easy for people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under  the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.’

Finally- how can this situation be overcome? This question inevitably remains in front of us. We admit that the answer to this question is difficult. It’s reprehensible to continue this movement through violence and construction of fear and it is not possible to condone this. We want that all groups immediately end the violence and the government confronts the present situation through legal means.

* Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) is a human rights and legal-aid giving organization.

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