Bangladesh – Five months of Emergency, and our responsibility to speak out.

[This has been cross-posted in The Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ section here.]

Monday 11th June marks the fifth month since the military took over and imposed a State of Emergency in Bangladesh. Through the civilian caretaker administration, which the military ‘support’, some level of social stability has been achieved, much-needed reforms set in motion, and with the newly empowered Anti-Corruption Commissioner labelling ‘at least 99%’ of Bangladeshi politicians corrupt, hundreds of senior Bangladeshi political figures have been jailed.

Yet this security has come at the cost of many essential freedoms, including the suspension of all political activities, and the intimidation of the domestic media against meaningful scrutiny. The military is essentially operating with total impunity. The most recent report by the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar stated that during the first 130 days of the State of Emergency, 96 people were killed by law-enforcement personnel, including 14 deaths through torture, seven of which were committed by the Army or ‘Joint Forces’.

Tragically, extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh have been common long before the coup in January; the figures themselves do not show a great increase. But given that they are now taking place under the jurisdiction of an extra-constitutional administration, and in a country which receives large amounts of aid and investment as well as being strategically important to the West’s ‘battle for global values’ as Blair now deems it, it should hardly be surprising, indeed it should be expected that the world’s policy-makers and media begin to take a critical look.

However, Bangladesh is intensely proud of its noble fight for sovereignty in 1971, and critical foreign comment is frequently taken as interference. In the last month, a letter signed by 15 senior US Senators, including the aspiring Democrat Presidential candidates Biden, Clinton and Dodd urged the military to lift the State of Emergency, restore civil freedoms and publish a road map by July 2007, detailing plans for a free and fair election which currently has been promised before the end of 2008. The letter was not generally appreciated by the executive, muzzled politicians or civil society alike.

There are also now grumblings that the coup in January, popular as it averted an otherwise certain political meltdown, was too heavily motivated by the denouncement of the scheduled elections as unfair by international monitors, and a statement on January 11th by a senior UN official in Bangladesh that were the election to take place with the military’s support, there may be implications for the Bangladesh Army’s participation in UN peacekeeping. By that evening, the military had taken over.

The UN contracts are a great source of pride and income to the Bangladeshi military, so their tacit use as a carrot in diplomacy has made people weary that the coup was more than supported, but prompted and backed by a cable of foreign ambassador’s and high commissioners representing the major donor-nations, known to some as the ‘Tuesday Club’, due to the day of their weekly meetings. Perhaps in an assertion of authority, the military have reportedly placed under house arrest in Dhaka a UN special rapporteur on human trafficking, Sigma Huda, who was scheduled to attend a meeting at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 11th. This has drawn strong criticism from UN Watch, who have called for her immediate release or Bangladesh’s suspension from the Human Rights Council.

And lastly, a report on Friday by the Australian ABC network, specifically highlighting the cases of torture and human rights violations in the wake on a 33% Australian aid increase to Bangladesh has met a hostile reaction from many quarters, who have the perception that yet again international journalists are using human rights abuses and Islamic extremism as a means to ‘trash’ Bangladesh, which is particularly abhorrent to them when aid allocations are consequently questioned.

It is axiomatic that to withdraw or withhold aid budgets which provide crucial assistance to tens of millions of people due to the corruption of a few thousand would be wrong. The 60 million Bangladeshis living below the poverty line should not be punished twice for their government’s misrule, and as a rural development volunteer here I know first hand how much good development agencies are doing, and how much the people need it.

It is also axiomatic that Western governments have long funded or co-operated with regimes which have poor human rights records, and now Britain has less credibility than ever to take the moral high-ground on this.

But it is not journalists using human rights abuses and Islamic extremism which trashes Bangladesh; it is Bangladeshis committing human rights abuses, engaging in militancy under the pretence of jihad which trashes Bangladesh. And given that Britain is a major donor to this country, (£128 million in 2005-06), which is currently being supported/governed by a military responsible for torturing seven people to death in the last five months, I would argue that Britain and all donors have a moral duty as strong as the one to provide money for health and education programmes for the poor, to also monitor, question, prompt, urge, recommend – whatever diplomatic language one cares to use – that the Bangladeshi military not only delivers a truly free and fair election as soon as possible, but also ceases to abuse fundamental human rights.

It is not a right for states to involve themselves in other state’s affairs, but it sometimes is a responsibility. There is no point in Britain and other donors funding aid programmes whilst the institutions that create the problems continue to operate freely, and given that there is a window of opportunity now where Bangladesh’s military and civilian rulers are trying to reform their country and eradicate the institutional corruption which was destroying its potential, it would be a dereliction of moral duty for other international actors not to try and use this window to both help where they can and question where they ought.

It is not about foreign interference. In today’s globalised world all States are dependent and reliant on the actions of others, and trans-national corporations. It is no longer simply a case of Thucydides’ famous maxim: “The strong do as they will, the weak do as they must”, which still seems to be a fear for some in Bangladesh. Less and less are a country’s internal affairs purely internal. Rather than be hostile to international concern over their human rights record, Bangladeshis would do better to recognise that this is a human concern, for the best interests of all.


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