The Human Rights Forum Bangladesh (HRFB), convened a Stakeholders’ Dialogue with the Government of Bangladesh on the Third Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), on 02 August 2018 at the CIRDAP Auditorium in Dhaka. HRFB is an alliance of 20 human rights and development organizations, which monitors the process of implementation of the human rights commitments of the Bangladesh Government, at both national and international levels, and is also involved in reporting for different human rights monitoring mechanisms under the United Nations (UN). Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) is currently acting as the Secretariat of HRFB.
Md. Shahriar Alam, Honorable State Minister for Foreign Affairs, was present at the Dialogue as Chief Guest, and Kazi Reazul Hoque, Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh (NHRC), presided over it as the Chair and Moderator.
Bangladesh’s human rights records were reviewed under the UN Human Rights Council’s UPR mechanism for the third time on 14 May 2018. Bangladesh received 251 recommendations from 105 UN Member States, of which, 167 recommendations were accepted by the Government of Bangladesh, 24 taken under consideration, and 60 noted, i.e. not accepted. The Government is required to share with the Council its final decision regarding these recommendations by September, and the Council will adopt the final “UPR Outcome Document” on 20 September 2018. The Government will then work on implementing the commitments enclosed in this final document for the next four and a half years.
This Dialogue was arranged by the Forum to facilitate an exchange between the Government and stakeholders, involved in the UPR reporting process, ahead of submitting the final outcome document, to share the stakeholders’ views and the Government’s position on the recommendations. Sheepa Hafiza, Executive Director, ASK and Convener, HRFB, Zakir Hossain, Chief Executive, Nagorik Uddyog and Member of the HRFB Steering Committee, and Ranjan Karmaker, Executive Director, Steps Towards Development and Member of the HRFB Steering Committee, were also present at the Dialogue. On behalf of the Forum, Tamanna Hoq Riti, Coordinator, HRFB, presented the Forum’s observations on the Government’s position in the UPR and its expectations toward implementation of recommendations. Tahmina Rahman, Regional Director for Bangladesh and South Asia, ARTICLE 19, also shed some light on the civil society’s perspective of UPR and particularly, the state of freedom of expression in this country. Many other representatives from national and international organizations and diplomatic community also participated in the Dialogue and shared their views and recommendations.
The Forum, in its assessment of the third Cycle of Bangladesh’s UPR, has observed that the number of recommendations made, and the number of Member States making recommendations, have increased. However, the Government of Bangladesh has been seen to adopt a regressive stance; there have been several recommendations this year which were accepted by the Government in previous UPR cycles, however, in the current cycle, it has been either noted or taken under consideration. Furthermore, many of the recommendations which have been noted or taken under consideration, are relevant to Bangladesh’s obligations under various UN human rights instruments. The Government’s position regarding certain recommendations is also contradictory. On the one hand, it has accepted several recommendations on ensuring freedom of expression, by making repeated assurances regarding the repeal of Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006, and by ensuring that the Draft Digital Security Act will be free of any provisions that are contrary to freedom of expression. On the other, it has both noted and taken under consideration several recommendations that relate directly to protecting people’s right to freedom of expression. While the Government has accepted the recommendation to provide full support to the NHRC to fulfill its mandate in accordance with the Paris Principles, it has not accepted the recommendation to grant the NHRC the power to investigate human rights violations, when such power is vital to the fulfillment of the NHRC’s mandate under the Principles. The recommendations received by Bangladesh in the current UPR cycle are far more specific and measurable in comparison to previous cycles, and also reflect human rights concerns at a national level. Many recommendations have also been received on strengthening the capacity of the NHRC, ensuring freedom of expression and assembly (including reviewing the Draft Digital Security Act and repealing Section 57 of the ICT Act), ensuring security of human rights defenders, and protecting the rights of sexual minorities.
The Forum has, however, observed that most of the recommendations accepted by the Government in this cycle are rather general in nature, while the more specific recommendations have been quite ingeniously evaded. Recommendations on human rights violations by law enforcement agencies, proper implementation of the CHT Accord, and on greater cooperation with international human rights processes have been made to Bangladesh across all three of its UPR cycles, meaning that not much progress has been made in implementing any of these recommendations. The Forum would also like to note with deep regret that Bangladesh has, for the first time in its UPR process, refused to accept such a large number of recommendations, previously having only noted two in the first cycle and five in the second.
The Forum has taken this opportunity to put forward ten points to the Government at the Dialogue, as expectations that the Forum would like the Government to fulfill. These are as follows –
- Review ‘noted’ recommendations based on GoB’s obligations to respect and protect human rights under the Constitution, international human rights standards and voluntary pledges;
- Revisit pending recommendations;
- Accept all recommendations;
- Provide specific and time-bound commitments under each recommendation;
- Provide justifications under each recommendation which are noted;
- Outline a plan of how the GoB will create a favorable environment to accept those recommendations in future;
- Develop an action plan engaging other ministries, and through consultation with CSOs, implement the recommendations;
- Establish a mechanism to monitor the implementation process;
- Submit a mid-term report to HRC; and
- Enhance engagement with CSOs regarding the UPR.
In response to the Forum’s observations, the Honorable Minister stated that the Government’s position in the latest session of the UPR was dictated by its experiences in the previous UPR cycles, which is why the Government has not unanimously accepted all recommendations made by the reviewing Member States. The Government is no longer accepting recommendations that it is not in a position to implement. He also said that the Government does not have the capacity, at present, to accept certain recommendations, owing to the current socio-economic and political landscape, such as those on abolishing the death penalty and on recognizing same-sex relationships. He also remarked that the civil society’s concerns in relation to restrictions on the freedom of expression in Bangladesh are unfounded; a large number of electronic and print media, online and offline, is currently operating across the country. Citizens are being able to freely express their opinion and the Government is not restricting free speech unless it causes harm to the social fabric. He admitted that there have been instances of misuse of Section 57, but such was not done by the Government, who appreciates the inherent weaknesses in this provision and is looking forward to repeal it. He said further, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that exercising one’s right to freedom of expression does not destroy social and communal harmony.
The Honorable State Minister pledged that the Government will, in consultation with different ministries, formulate a National Action Plan to implement the recommendations received by Bangladesh at its third UPR, allocate the resources necessary for such implementation, and also establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure appropriate execution of the Action Plan. He further promised that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would collaborate with NHRC and the civil society to work on implementing the UPR recommendations throughout the current Cycle, rather than simply engaging with these stakeholders to produce the UPR report ahead of the Fourth Cycle.
Kazi Reazul Hoque remarked that it is important to understand why the Government has been unable to implement the recommendations which are yet to be implemented, despite being accepted in the previous UPR cycles. He said that necessary measures should be taken to overcome the challenges to the implementation of these recommendations; it is not productive to simply refuse to accept them in this cycle.He further stressed the importance of Bangladesh’s strides in the socio-economic sphere to also be reflected in the field of human rights, as this would portray a better global image for the country and its citizens would also be able to enjoy and exercise their human rights.