The Human rights movement does not merely revolve around activities to protect victims of human rights violations from the abuses of the State, but by its very gesture interrogates the nature of political power and the moral and cultural foundations of a society. In countries like Bangladesh, where democratic transformation is still a task to be accomplished, the human rights movement is directly constitutive of democracy. Human rights instruments are not merely tools with the power to evoke international obligations or positive laws in order to force weak states to oblige to the powerful players of international community; but are also a pressing political necessity of constituting the state on the principles of human rights, particularly respecting the values of life and their spiritual and material embodiments.
We, in the past, repeatedly argued that Bangladesh is not a democratic state. This is not a negative stand, but an affirmation of our task to be accomplished. Human rights are not liberal utopian ideas, but integral to the very movement of the democratic struggle of the people to provide the foundation and the form of the state. It is unfortunate that we are still unable to make the distinction between achieving freedom from external domination and the political task of constituting the people into a democratic polity. Human rights are neither a conflicting, nor a negotiable stance to gain protection and privileges from the rulers and the state, without challenging the existing foundation and structure of the state. The very nature of the human right movements anticipates the state yet to come.
This is the reason we always articulate human rights as the foundational moment of democracy; and democracy cannot be reduced to mere elections. The completion of the 9th Parliamentary election on December 29, 2008 brought to power an elected government. Given the fact that Bangladesh was under the State of Emergency imposed by a military backed unelected government from January 11, 2007 to December 16, 2008, it was, admittedly, a positive achievement. During this period, people opposed and rejected the unelected caretaker government backed by the army and made a significant step in demonstrating their collective trust in a political process.
The experience of the last four years is full of evidence that the trust of the people has been blatantly betrayed and that democracy does not just mean ‘the right to vote’. In our last annual report we stated that after the election of 2008, the undemocratic and dictatorial nature of power had commenced in various manifestations; and continued abusing the state institution for partisan interests and narrow economic gains. The least the people expected was a strengthening of the regained sphere of politics from a near military take over and the nurturing of and widening the practice of a democratic culture, if not any immediate qualitative transformation of the state. This should have been the way forward for Bangladesh. Instead, partisan violence between and within major political parties continued and the government has been brutally repressing the rights of the people to assemble and articulate their grievances.
To rule by terror, the government resorted to some techniques. First of all, the repression of the Opposition political parties, workers and social organisations. The Government has systematically abused section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and repressed most of the meetings, mobilisation and protests of its political opponents. Such repression provoked violence and unleashed anarchy. The wide visibility of misusing section 144 existed throughout 2012 as experienced in previous years. Between January to December 2012, section 144 was imposed by local administrations in six divisions to stop political activists to assemble and organise rallies, a total of 105 times.
The second tactic used by the government is the use and abuse of the Judiciary to punish opponents and the dissenters who criticize the government. The appointment of judges on political consideration, without framing a Rule on the appointment of Judges, as directed by the High Court Division; sending detainees to remand; misusing the provisions of the Contempt of Court Act 1926 are all parts of this tactic.
The third tactic used is abducting and killing people, particularly political leaders, mainly through ‘enforced disappearance’. The present regime promised to observe zero tolerance to extrajudicial killings. However, extrajudicial killings continue and with it, continued torturing and killing people in police custody.
Repression of the media and silencing the dissenters is another method. The year 2012 was a bad year for journalists. Five journalists were killed this year. Journalists have been attacked, physically assaulted and threatened with death. The death of 5 journalists in 2012 says a lot about the precarious situation of the media.
The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 2009 is another tool of repression. The vague definition of ‘terrorists activities’ under the ATA opens the legislation to potential abuse and are incompatible with the principle of legality requiring that criminal liability and punishment be limited to clear and precise provisions. This principle is enshrined in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bangladesh has ratified. The Act was amended in 2011 but by retaining the vague and broadly applicable definition of ‘terrorist activities’ and reducing ‘terrorism’ to merely a question of crime punishable by death, the Amendment makes the Anti-Terrorism Act even more vulnerable to the worst kind of abuses.
The killing spree of the Border Security Forces of India (BSF) continued in 2012. Between January and December 2012, 38 people were killed and 100 were injured either by torture or firing by Indian BSF. During this time 74 persons were abducted. The injuries and abductions perpetrated by BSF against Bangladeshis has taken the top position in 2012 compared to the last three years.
Workers rights are violated frequently in Bangladesh. Like previous years a bleak scenario prevailed in 2012. It seems the conditions of workers deteriorated in 2012, especially in the garment sector. The workers constantly suffer sporadic payment of wages, overdue overtime pay and poor working conditions. The most devastating fire accident in Bangladesh history happened on November 24, 2012 in Tazreen factory. At least 113 workers were killed and over 60 workers were injured. It is to be noted that fire incidents at garment factories killed not less than 500 in 33 major incidents since 1990. Of them, 331 workers have been killed in eight fire incidents since November 2000 .
Violence against women has increased, according to information gathered by Odhikar. Bangladesh has ratified the UNCEDAW, along with most major international Conventions. It has special criminal laws to punish perpetrators of acts of violence against women. Unfortunately, lack of implementation of laws, corruption in the law enforcement agencies and police disinterest in domestic violence issues – along with local political patronage – all play a part in ensuring that violence against women continues.
Despite an elected government, 2012 has been full of regressive evidence of what we have been observing for a long time. The situation has started to drastically deteriorate since 2011; and 2012 statistics and violations ridicule the assumption that the mere installation of an elected government can address the fundamental malaise of the State.
The year 2012 proved again our basic contention that if the State is not a democracy, if human rights are not its constitutive principles, the mere election of a government cannot ensure the freedom, dignity and security of the people. In short, human rights are not merely privileges to be enjoyed by the individual, but that the state should be the embodiment of freedom and dignity of the people by its very constitution.1
report-Annual Human Rights Report-2012-eng (full text in English, PDF)
- The Daily Star, 27/11/2012 ↩