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Bangladesh | Towards a Conducive Environment for Human Rights Defenders

A Side event was held by Forum Asia and Civicus in the Palais des Nations on Thursday 25th of April 2013.  The purpose of the event was to discuss the restrictive environment in Bangladesh , including with respect  to the rights to  peaceful assembly and association which has heightened the vulnerability of human rights defenders.

Ms Renate Bloem from Civicus
, the World Alliance of Citizen Participation, was the moderator of the session. She introduced the platform for dialogue as space to discuss the ground realities faced by human rights defenders, and explained that the purpose of the event was for the UPR Working group to engage with the Government of Bangladesh to recognise these issues. Renate emphasised how important it was for the government to open the doors for civil society organisations,and that it is a particularly important for the UPR Working Group to recognise this.

There was a one minute silence held for the victims of the Rana Plaza Collapse.

Watch Short Video Documenting Current Issues  | Why Human Rights Defenders need to be protected in Bangladesh

Mr Adilur Rahman Khan from Odhikar, Ms Sultana Kamal from Ain o Salish Kendra and Dr Iftekharuzzaman from Transparency International  highlighted the restrictions and difficulties NGOs faced due to the government laws which applied to funding received through foreign donations and the NGO Affairs Bureau legislation which significantly curtail the independence of these organisations.

Mr Adilur  Rahman Khan spoke about harassment and issues he faced with  Odhikar on funding issues, he brought up how the new law would mean the NGOs would mean all kinds of new controls, that NGOs would need clearance on expenses like staff travel. He mentioned the struggle since independence in  1971 to establish a democracy in Bangladesh, where impunity has become part of the system and there is talk of having a single party.  He also mentioned the recent arrest of Mahmadur Rahman, an editor for the controversial daily newspaper ‘’Amar Desh'’,  when speaking about the freedom of media and difficulties of human rights defenders on the grass roots level.

Ms Sultana Kamal
emphasised the importance of enabling NGOs to function in a safe and non-restrictive environment. Her presentation highlighted the draconian NGO Affairs Bureau, where approvals are stalled, checks are required by the intelligence services, restrictions applied to NGOs working on particular issues, such as workers rights, Indigenous Peoples’ rights, especially issues regarding the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Sultana Kamal mentioned had the workers in the recent Bangladesh Garment Factory building collapse had a trade union, they would not have been made to work where the building had been listed as unsafe. She also brought up the use of colonial era, sedition law which was being used if NGO’s took on positions adversarial to the government.  When NGOs have taken on issues such as workers rights and workers safety, then the government has tried to close them down or cancel registrations as they are ‘’working against the national interest'’.

Presentation on Stuctural Constraints on NGO Laws | Written By Sara Hossain can be seen on this link

Dr Iftekharuzzaman from Transparency International Bangladesh
highlighted the
important role payed by NGOs and civil society in Bangladesh which has been recognized by successive governments. However, NGOs, especially those working to promote human rights, governance and democratic accountability have also been perceived to be a source of threat by sections of the government that tend to be intolerant to critical views. As a result all governments have tried to impose restrictions on the NGO sector.

The present Government also took an initiative to introduce a new NGO Act, the original draft of which could have severely restricted the space needed for successful and effective functioning of the NGOs to complement government efforts. However, thanks to an active process of constructive engagement of leading NGOs and umbrella bodies with an initially reluctant government, the restrictive provisions were amended to an extent that if the final revised version truly reflects the understanding reached between the two sides, the new Act could be much less restrictive than originally designed. He added that the NGO community should continue to remain engaged with the Government until the final revised version of the Act is shared with them as promised. Any failure to ensure adherence to the understanding of April 7 between the two sides would be regarded as a missed opportunity on the part of the government’s political will to engage with stakeholders set an example of the government’s political will to engage with stakeholders in the course of legal reform.    

The floor was opened to discussions and questions.

Issues which were raised :

Any organisations working on Human Rights Issues needed to have special clearance from the Home Ministry to function

Sara Hossain from Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, commented, ‘’Given that the Government has announced that it plans to change the laws governing NGOs receiving foreign donations, it is understandable that as a matter of strategy NGOs have engaged with the review of the proposed legislation.
     However, we should consider why we are not simply calling for repeal of these laws, which were adopted under military rule in 1978 and 1982 - why is a democratically elected government clinging onto military period laws to control NGOs, rather than doing away with such controls. As NGOs are set up as different kinds of entities under different laws, and regulated under the respective law, a serious question may be raised as to why they need to have a second regulatory body - effectively a controlling body - imposed upon them. The process of consultation has been less transparent than it might have been with the latest draft still not publicly available, and no clarity on the timelines for submissions.'’

Shaheen Anam from Manusher Jonno Foundation brought up how there is a historical mindset of controlling NGOs instead of facilitating them, no matter which government, they feel as though the activities of non-state actors need to be monitored. Somehow in Bangladesh it is difficult to get out of this culture of impunity therefore it is essential to protect the role of human rights defenders.  For example, who would be held responsible for the recent garment factory building collapse, would the victims receive compensation? She said the compensation which was offered to garment victims was embarassingly low.

Zakir Hossain from Nagorik Uddyog brought up how it takes 21-45 days for funds to clear , this has brought difficulties for projects he has worked on. He spoke of his struggle of four months to fund two his projects, through government delays, various letters to the home ministry which in turn restricts project activity and becomes extremely frustrating.

April 26, 2013