Monday, February 08, 2010

Meeting on Bangladesh this morning

Bangladesh meeting Monday

Welcome to Mr Mirza Fakrul Islam, senior secretary general of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and an ex Minister, and we’re also honoured by the presence of H E Professor Dr Syedur Rahaman Khan, the High Commissioner.

We are pleased to learn that the BNP is rejoining the parliament tomorrow after a long absence, and we look forward to hearing about the policies they will be advocating on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and I certainly hope they won’t be deterred by the Prime Minister’s gratuitous statement in Parliament about the grave of the late president Ziaur Rahman. The people of Bangladesh would like to hear their views on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and Parliament is the place where those matters can be discussed and reported in the media.

In the first year of the present government, some progress has been made, but there are grounds for serious concern in certain areas. The trials of the BDR mutineers are moving slowly and the proceedings are not transparent. With the killers of Bangabandhu, on the other hand, the legislation was passed hastily, the trial rushed through, and the five have already been executed.

On the war criminals of the 1971 liberation war, in which three million people are estimated to have been killed, there is concern about the conformity of the 1973 Act with international standards, and the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs has said in reference to Bangladesh that respect for due process in high-profile trials is particularly significant for a country's international reputation.

Second, there seems to be a deterioration in the law and order situation. In spite of the strong commitment to human rights by the AL, Human Rights Watch reports that in 2009 extrajudicial executions, custodial torture, and impunity for members of the security forces continued. Killings by RAB actually increased in the second half of 2009. RAB had to apologise for the torture of the New Age journalist F M Masum, an act that was condemned by the Leader of the Opposition. Khaleda Zia said that incidents such as this had increased since the AL government came to power.

One immediate problem is the violence and intimidation being used by the student League BCL, affiliated to the AL, to interfere with the admission process of Dhaka University Bangladesh and other institutions of higher education. Ministers say they will act against these criminal activities, but surely the answer is a strong police presence on the campus, to arrest and bring the culprits to trial.

On corruption, the government has asked for the withdrawal of charges initiated under the interim government against AL supporters, but nearly all the cases against members of the present opposition are continuing. Its difficult to understand how the legal process can be manipulated in this way by a government supposedly committed to the rule of law, and why the independent Anti-Corruption Commission isn’t allowed to do its job.

The Human Rights Commission, reinstated last July under a former Chief Justice with extra powers to investigate violations by the country's armed forces and police - another high profile undertaking in the AL’s manifesto – is also virtually invisible.

In the CHT – where I have to declare an interest as co-chair of the CHT Commission, in which capacity I have visited Bangladesh three times - the withdrawal of some military forces last year was a welcome development. But other crucial recommendations we have made are not yet implemented. In particular we said there should be a time-bound action plan for implementation of all the provisions of the 1997 Peace Accord, and that the Land Commission should give priority to settling the vexatious disputes between indigenous people and settlers on title, which cause a great deal of friction.

Perhaps our distinguished guest will explore some of these issues in his remarks, but we very much look forward to this opportunity of hearing the insights of such a key figure in the politics of Bangladesh, whatever his priorities are.

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