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The Year in Review - Hameeda Hossain

With elections to the National Parliament targeted for January 2007, the year became a test of whether the electoral process would allow citizens a democratic choice. In three elections, since 1991, power had been transferred between two major parties, but this had not led to a democratic political culture.

Human Rights in Bangladesh 2006 draws attention to key developments during the year that impacted on human rights and security of citizens. It examines the scope of legislative and judicial interventions, institutional deficits and policies that detracted from the enjoyment of human rights, and analyses citizens’ activism to prevent violations of human rights.

Citizens’ Concerns
During the year, citizens spoke out against the downward trend in human rights, noting in particular that high levels of corruption, criminality, impunity for arbitrary actions by law enforcement agencies, extremist militancy and lack of transparency in public decision making were a threat to their security. There were growing demands for an independent election commission, for reform within political parties, for effective checks and balances on the executive, and for a more effective local government. 1 Growing political and social intolerance were threats to democracy.

The Electoral Impasse
Two governments held office during the year. The Four Party Alliance led by the BNP and including the Jamat i Islami, the Islami Oikkyo Jote and Jatiyo Party (Naziur Rahman) completed its five year term on 28 October. A day later, a Caretaker Government was formed to prepare and assist in the holding of elections.

Electoral arrangements for the Ninth Parliament were headed towards an impasse as the two major combatants closed all options for negotiations. The Four Party Alliance tried to ensure a majority by making unilateral nominations for constitutional posts of the Chief Advisor to the Caretaker Government and the Chief Election Commissioner; recruiting party loyalists to the police force and electoral personnel and disbursing, as patronage, appointments in important institutions such as the Public Service Commission or public universities.

The Election Commission, structurally dependent for its staff and budget upon the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, lost all credibility when it prepared a flawed voters’ register, 2 announced the election date before completion of the list and refused to abide by the Appellate Division’s direction to update the 2001 voter list by amending the old one. It had also to take steps in relation to the Court’s order for disclosure on the candidates’ background and assets.

The formation of the Caretaker Government was also regarded as unconstitutional. When Justice KM Hasan, the last retiring Chief Justice declined the offer of the Chief Advisor’s post, the President, without observing the selection sequence given in Article 58C(1 to 5) assumed the office of Chief Advisor himself. Contrary to Article 58B(3), he did not consult with the other advisors of the Caretaker Government, and proceeded to act on the advice of his secretariat. At times he disowned the decisions of the advisors, and took several decisions, including at one point to call the military to assist the civil administration, claiming that he did so in his capacity as President. As their differences sharpened, four of the advisors resigned on 11 December. They were replaced hurriedly by another set of advisors, but they too were unable to make headway.

Between October to early January as the demand for appointment of a neutral, non-partisan Chief Adviser stepped up, public demonstrations were confronted by brutal police action. The opposition announced a boycott of the elections scheduled for 22 January. On 11 January, the President was called upon to proclaim an emergency under Article 141 of the Constitution and to resign as Chief Advisor. As a new Caretaker Government was inducted with Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed as Chief Advisor, elections were postponed, with a declaration that they would be held in 2008.

The Political Storm
In August the Fourteen Party Alliance announced its 23 points programme for reforms in state structures and political parties. Earlier in July 2005, the Awami League had made proposals for electoral reforms, but these had been rejected by the ruling coalition and were not raised in Parliament. The opposition campaign for fair and free elections gained considerable support as the public joined rallies, the ‘Long March’, ‘Human Chain’ and public meetings. Strike calls frequently disrupted public life, and brutal action by the law enforcement agencies, even after the formation of the Caretaker Government, did little to create a congenial environment for elections.

However, expediency became the better part of idealism for the two alliances: both major parties tried to forge alliances with General Ershad’s Jatiyo Party, even though he had been charged with corruption and his trials on such charges remained pending. Both parties decided to woo Islamic parties by conceding to their obscurantist demands. In October, the Prime Minister, as a concession to the Islamic Oikkyo Jote, recognized the Kawmi madrassah degree as equivalent to the standard curriculum in a public school, even though the madrassahs refused to be supervised by the Bangladesh Madrassah Board. The Awami League signed an MoU with the Khelafat Majlish on 23 December, committing itself to enact laws and adopt policies that were contradictory to the Constitution and jeopardized in particular freedom of religion and gender equality . 3 Both moves were viewed as opportunistic, and the Awami League faced criticism for apparently retreating from its position on separation of religion from the state.

Extremist Militancy
Since 1999, bomb and grenade explosions at public events were a serious challenge to the State, but enquiries were either not completed or not made available to the public. No discussions were allowed in Parliament. This further emboldened the militants and it was only after the synchronized explosions in 63 different locations, on 17 August 2005, that four Islamist militant organizations were banned, about 300 militants were arrested and death sentences on seven militant leaders confirmed by the Appellate Division. Ignorance of the causes, funding sources, patronage, networks or flow of arms did not create public confidence.

Institutional Defaults
Weak oversight mechanisms provided few checks on the use of executive power for political and personal gain. Chapter 1 draws attention to the reasons for the ineffectiveness of the Parliament. The Speaker repeatedly disallowed discussions on vital national issues such as extra judicial deaths, bomb explosions and workers’ unrest. An enforced silence provoked the opposition into frequent boycotts. Recommendations by the Standing Committees were not implemented. Frequent absences in the treasury benches indicated their apparently low interest in law making. As a result there was little or no debate on legislation, and although six laws were enacted for protection of human rights and access to justice, three bills of public concern, that had been drafted by the Law Commission - the Right to Information Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act - were never tabled in Parliament. Two restrictive laws, relating to the freedom of expression, the Cable Television Network Act 2006 and the Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act, 2000 were passed without debate.

Attempts were also made to tame the judiciary. For the seventh year the executive continued to resist the Supreme Court’s directives on separation of the judiciary by requesting endless extensions. Chapter 2 suggests that attempts to curb the independence of the Supreme Court went further i n 2006, including arbitrary actions, without consultation, to confirm and appoint several judges , and decisions taken by the then Chief Justice to change the constitution of benches or to interfere with pending proceedings. Nevertheless, the chapter goes on to illustrate the advances made in judgments to protect the right to life, freedom from torture and freedom of expression, and matters relating to electoral disclosures and voter registration.

For several years now Bangladesh’s rating on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index remained at the lowest. Rather than address its institutional causes, the Government took shelter in denial. The Anti-Corruption Commission formed in 2004 was conspicuous for its non-performance. In many cases political considerations were important factors that even affected court decisions. Frequent media reports on corruption in different sectors, particularly investment in the energy sector, communications, urban land distribution raised public awareness but were ignored by the executive.

The Rights Record

Civil and Political Rights
People’s security of life and liberty was threatened by the impunity enjoyed by law enforcement agencies in suppressing people’s protests or dissent, and terrorism of militants, as well as rising political violence. Evidence from survivors of violence showed that there was little expectation of justice by way of compensation or trial of the perpetrators.

The State’s responsibility for the right to life has been enlarged in Chapter 3 to include the unjust outcome of economic policies that led to food deprivation or laws relating to gender violence. From Chapters 3, 4 and 5 we learn how law ‘enforcement’ itself became a source of insecurity not only for political dissidents but also contributed to the stifling the voices of peasants and workers as in Kansat, Phulbari, Sonir Akhra and Savar.

Chapter 6 identifies new legal restrictions on the right to the freedom of expression imposed during the year and how these were challenged in court. During the year the media continued to face legal harassment and more insidious forms of intimidation. The murder of four journalists and the delays into judicial actions regarding earlier violence were discouraging for freedom of expression.

Social and Economic Rights
Economic justice remains a major challenge. Bangladesh has adopted the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate poverty and enhance capabilities. But concerns have been expressed that present policies may be inadequate to meet the targets by 2015 even though Bangladesh has surpassed other South Asian countries in some social indicators.4

Three chapters in this volume discuss the status of the right to food ( Chapter 8 ), shelter (Chapter 9) and workers’ rights (Chapter 10). They argue that food availability during the year did not square with access to food, urban development for profit took precedence over the need for shelter for the low income groups; the profit motive rather than workers’ health and safety seemed to determine the mode of industrial management.

Growing inequalities were a challenge to stability. An example was the skewed distribution of power and corruption in the energy sector which directly affected people’s survival. While shopping malls in Dhaka were aglitter with lights, water supplies to agricultural fields in Kansat in the north or Sonir Akhra in Narayanganj were cut off. Local resistance, combined with timely public interest litigation in their support by lawyers, forced the Government to concede to their demands, but only after several demonstrators lost their lives in police firing.

Hardly any public discussion takes place on the nature of investment projects resulting in little information being available on their potential impact on the environment or human rights. Thus public interests are sacrificed exclusively for private profit. An example was the open coal pit mining project which was being carried through in total neglect of concerns regarding the right to life, shelter and livelihood until demonstrations by local villagers, mainly Santals, grew into a national campaign with the support of a National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Port and Power formed by concerned citizens, as well as human rights defenders and environmentalists. The project was finally suspended but not without the loss of several lives in police firing, in the course of the struggle.

Discrimination
Constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination have been more difficult to implement in the case of religious, caste or ethnic minority communities, or to protect the rights of women and vulnerable groups such as, the elderly and persons with disabilities. The last section in this volume addresses the causes of discrimination resulting from traditional or customary practice, legal constraints, obscurantist political forces, imposition of majoritarian interests and manipulations of popular sentiments. Chapter 11 discusses the ongoing women’s movements for equal access to opportunities, and their participation in public decision making as ways to overcome discrimination and gender violence. This year women’s groups campaigned for enactment of laws on domestic violence and citizenship rights. The religious and ethnic minority groups identified the Vested Property Act as a principal instrument for violation of their rights to security, shelter and freedom of belief as discussed in Chapter 12.

Chapter 13 argues that denial of the identity of ethnic minorities has made them vulnerable to the expanding power base of the majority community. Even more discriminated were several small caste based communities in the south west and scattered across the country who were socially excluded. Chapter 14 cites examples of their collective resistance to caste based social discrimination and to strategies for change. Chapter 15 views gaps in policies and budgetary allocations that affect the rights of people with disabilities and Chapter 16 records the progress in children’s development and initiatives taken for their protection.

Citizens’ Agenda for Human Rights
This year in particular, citizens’ groups have strongly articulated the demand for democratization of political processes, for clean, honest and responsible representation in Parliament, for a judiciary that is sensitive to human rights as essential steps towards a transparent and non-corrupt governance.

In the last few years citizens and professional groups have pro-actively campaigned for the realization of fundamental rights and the elimination of discrimination as a means towards a tolerant, pluralist society. How do we proceed towards these goals? Each chapter in this volume has made recommendations for legal and policy changes, which need to be taken seriously by governments, political actors and concerned citizens. Instead of moving towards a culture of human rights each year we appear to regress further. Bangladesh must act now to establish systems and practices that will begin to deliver on constitutional promises of equality, life, liberty and security.

Note

Hameeda Hossain is a founder member of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK)

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  1. These discussions took place across the country, and were taken up in national debates which were facilitated by two citizens’ coalitions Sushoner Junno Nagorik (SUJON) and the Nagorik Committee formed by the Daily Star, Prothom alo , Channel I and Centre for Policy Dialogue).
  2. While many voters complained of being excluded by enumerators the National Democratic Institute found a million voters unaccounted for.
  3. The MoU stated that 1) no law contradicting the Qu’ran and Sunnah would be enacted; 2) Quami Madrassahs would be recognized; 3) new laws would be enacted to provide that a) the Holy Prophet (SM) is the final prophet; 4) Hakkani alems would be authorized to issue fatwas, and 5) any speech against the Holy Prophet (SM) and his Sahabas would be a punishable offence. See also Chapter 11, p.149 and Chapter 12, p 161-162.
  4. National Consultation on Achieving Millennium Development Goals in Bangladesh organized by CAMPE, Manusher Junno, Social Watch and Unnayan Shamannay on 9 August, 2005.