Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bangladesh seminar, Monday April 21

Bangladesh: the new government’s programme

Committee Room 3, House of Lords, 11.00 April 21, 2009

Introductory remarks by Eric Avebury

This is our first seminar since the elections at the end of last year brought the Awami League Grand Alliance to power with an overwhelming majority. Its also the first we have held jointly with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bangladesh, and I am delighted to share the platform with the chair of the Group, Baroness Uddin, and a galaxy of. eminent speakers who will be looking at the new government’s programme and the current situation from a number of different viewpoints.

My first and most agreeable duty is to congratulate the people of Bangladesh and the former caretaker government on holding free, fair and peaceful elections with a massive turnout, far above the levels attained in the UK. The crucial promise in the AL manifesto was the establishment of good governance, but both parties were committed to the independence of the judiciary, strong measures against corruption, and the suppression of terrorism. Whether there can be the degree of collaboration between government and opposition that’s necessary to make Parliamentary democracy work, an ingredient lacking in the winner take all past, is still doubtful and I look forward to hearing what is said on that.

Is it sensible to evict the leader of the opposition from the house she has occupied since the assassination of her husband 28 years ago, whatever the legal position may be? A magnanimous attitude might help to secure the approval by the opposition of the reforms that are likely to be needed in the paramilitary forces, when the committee of inquiry reports in a couple of weeks time on the rising in the BDR. There have been mutinies before in the Ansar as well as the BDR, but the merciless slaughter of senior army officers was unprecedented, and the Pilkhana massacre raises questions about the whole system of supplementary armed forces; not only whether the BDF should be restructured or disbanded, but what should be the functions and relationships to the army of the RAB, the Ansar and the border guards as well

The government had declared that killings in custody were no longer tolerated, and it did seem that RAB had turned over a new leaf . But this month has seen a ‘cross-fire’ death, like the hundreds that have occurred in the five years of RAB’s existence, and six of the key witnesses to the Pilkhana massacre have also died mysteriously. The forces of law and order need to be utterly reliable and above suspicion when they are grappling with severe threats arising from organised crime and terrorism.

In a few days’ time a delegation of Home Office and FCO officials will be in Dhaka, to sign a long-delayed anti-terror deal with the government of Bangladesh. They need to be assured that the rights of suspects are upheld, and that confessions or witness statements aren’t being extorted by the use of torture. Our own government’s complicity in acts of torture committed abroad is already being investigated by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner following allegations in the case of Binyam Mohamed, and we need to be scrupulously careful, particularly where British terrorists are arrested in Bangladesh, that evidence of their activities is not tainted.

At our previous seminar last October 7 Sheikh Hasina reiterated her commitment to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord of 1997, and emphasised the importance of the Land Commission. These policies were in the AL Manifesto; as co-chair of the CHT Commission I discussed them with the Prime Minister when I was in Dhaka two months ago, and we look forward to concrete progress before the CHTC next visits Bangladesh in the summer.

The AL Manifesto promises that terrorism, discriminatory treatment and human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous people would come to an end permanently. There is to be equal opportunity in access to public services, though it remains to be seen how this is to be enforced, and what remedies are to be provided for individuals who still encounter discrimination on grounds of their ethnic origin, religion, language or nationality. Any discriminatory laws and other arrangements are to be repealed, and in education and employment, there is a promise of facilities to remedy the disadvantage experienced by religious minorities and indigenous people.

At the UN’s Review of Bangladesh in February, there were criticisms of the treatment of other indigenous peoples, of religious and ethnic minorities, and of women. There are six requests outstanding from the Human Rights Council for invitations, including one from the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, submitted five years ago, but still with no date set. In 2002 the Special Rapporteur drew the government’s attention to repeated attacks on religious minorities, including dozens of killings and rapes, and destruction of places of worship. The situation has improved since then, and it would be useful for the government to have that confirmed, and to get the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on what more needs to be done to protect the minorities against the extremists

The AL government has avoided some of the worst effects of the global economic downturn, according to the World Bank, and in a Daily Star opinion poll last Thursday, more than four fifths of the respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the first 100 days of Sheikh Hasina’s premiership. The main area of concern was the law and order situation, and particularly the disorders in the colleges from internal strife in the BCL, the Awami League’s student wing. Its good that two of the ringleaders have now been arrested, and that the leaders of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad have been charged with complicity in the Ramna Park bomb outrage of 2001. Ten people were killed and dozens injured as they celebrated Bengali New Year, a festival considered anti-Islamic by the extremists. One member of this group is alleged to have supplied the grenades for the attack on Sheikh Hasina on August 2004 when 21 people were killed.

In fact, the biggest challenge to the AL government, and to the stability and prosperity of Bangladesh in the future, is the continued menace of underground extremist organisations such as the HuJi and the JMB, said to number 100,000 supporters. These people are dedicated to the violent overthrow of democracy, and its replacement by a theocratic dictatorship based on what they imagine to be the rule of the Prophet and the two generations after him. In the process they are prepared to slaughter anybody who disagrees with them, and to ruin the lives of ordinary people including good Muslims, by discouraging investment. Bangladesh does have other major problems – a population growth rate of over 2%, requiring huge resources just to keep up the same standards of education, health and other public services, and the displacement of 30 million people caused by a global warming rise of less than a metre in the sea level. To cope with these challenges will require leadership, social cohesion and professional skills, not just over the lifetime of the AL government, but over the generation to come. We can’t look that far ahead this morning, but we may try to see whether, in the first 120 days, they are setting out in the right direction.

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