Bangladesh: UN Rights Review Amid Violent Crackdown

Human Rights

(Geneva) – The Bangladesh government should seriously respond to concerns regarding grave abuses and the crackdown on civil society raised by member states on November 13, 2023, during Bangladesh’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Human Rights Watch said today. The review took place amid a violent ongoing crackdown by Bangladesh security forces ahead of the 2024 general election.

The UN Human Rights Council’s UPR requires each UN member state to undergo a peer review of its human rights records every 4.5 years. Human rights organizations have documented serious abuses by Bangladesh authorities including mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial killings, and widespread repression. Instead of independently investigating allegations and holding those responsible to account the Bangladesh government rewards those who are complicit in these violations, including officers with command responsibility.

“Ongoing mass political arrests, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killings, and torture of political opponents and critics make the Bangladesh government’s commitments to ‘protecting human rights for all’ meaningless,” said Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The only way for the government to show genuine commitment to human rights is for it to act on its obligations under international law, including by addressing serious security force abuses and putting an immediate end to harassment and abuse of political opponents, critics, and human rights defenders.”

During the review the Bangladesh delegation dismissed evidence of excessive force during recent electoral violence, stating that “responses from law enforcement agencies were minimal, reasonable, and restrained.” The government additionally claimed that there had been no arbitrary detentions and that arrests had been made “without any political consideration,” despite mass arbitrary arrests of the political opposition including almost 10,000 opposition members and activists over the last few weeks.

On November 14, UN experts stated that “as Bangladesh heads towards national elections in early 2024, we are deeply disturbed by the sharp rise in political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders, mass arbitrary detention of thousands of political activists, use of excessive force by the authorities and internet shutdowns to disrupt protests, and allegations of harassment, intimidation, and unlawful detention of family members as a retaliatory measure.”

According to Bangladeshi human rights monitors, security forces have carried out over 600 enforced disappearances since 2009. While some people were later released, produced in court, or killed, nearly 100 people remain missing. Families of victims describe police and other security forces’ outright refusal to file complaints or conduct a legitimate investigation, at times even citing “orders from above.”

During the UPR, multiple member states said that the Bangladesh government should ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. In response, the Bangladesh delegation noted that before becoming party to the convention the government needs to invest in capacity building of “national institutions to carry out the obligations emanating from that.”

As a first step, the Bangladesh government should accept the offer of support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a “specialized mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings,” Human Rights Watch said.

In its last UPR review (2018), the Bangladesh Government claimed that it had “responded favorably to the requests of meetings from the … Working Group on Enforced Disappearance.” However, five years later, the government still refuses to invite the UN Working Group to visit Bangladesh even though the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged Bangladesh to do so to “show a commitment to decisively address this issue.”

The government should also invite other relevant UN experts—including the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment—to investigate and make appropriate recommendations to ensure justice and accountability.

Recent allegations of torture in police custody underscore its pervasiveness and the culture of impunity for security forces, Human Rights Watch said. Such acts have included: beatings; electric shocks; waterboarding; deliberately shooting to maim, including knee-capping; mock executions; and forced nudity. Hundreds of people have become victims of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings.

Bangladesh has only had a conviction in one case of torture under its Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act since it was passed a decade ago according to Bangladesh’s report to the council. Bangladesh has ignored repeated requests from the UN Committee Against Torture to follow up on its recommendations, as required.

In its national report ahead of the UPR, Bangladesh’s fourth, the government claimed that the majority of the terms of the 1997 Peace Accords over protections and autonomy for indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been implemented. However, the Bangladesh military and other branches of law enforcement commit widespread abuses against indigenous people there, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and land-grabbing, with little redress. Limits on access to the region and widespread surveillance make it difficult and dangerous to report on human rights abuses there.

The Bangladesh government should allow immediate unfettered access for human rights monitors to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and to invite the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples to the area.

Women and girls in Bangladesh face widespread gender-based violence with little recourse to seek protection, services, or access justice. Despite the creation of one-stop crisis units, there is limited availability of safe shelter, witness protection, or other support services. Survivors describe being met with disbelief and intransigence when they go to the police. Women’s rights lawyers say that the police often refuse to file a report or simply leave a case in open investigation for years.

As noted in Bangladesh’s national report, Bangladesh introduced capital punishment for rape. The government should follow recommendations of many member states during the review to abolish the death penalty. To address the widespread sexual violence against women and girls, the government should follow the guidance from Bangladeshi rights groups to train police and court officials on sexual and gender-based violence, change the definition of rape to include all victims regardless of gender identity or marital status, and enact a long-promised witness protection law.

The murder of a labor organizer, Shahidul Islam, underscores the government’s failure to institute reforms to protect workers’ rights. Workers risk their lives simply by exercising their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government should carry out urgent labor reforms in line with International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions and recommendations, including to curb anti-union tactics by managers and assaults on independent union organizers. The government should ratify the ILO International Labour Organization Convention Violence and Harassment (C190), which requires comprehensive protections to end violence and harassment, including gender-based violence, at work.

Though Bangladesh hosts nearly a million Rohingya refugees, the government’s increasing restrictions on the refugee population and the failure to ensure safety in the camps has pushed hundreds of refugees to embark on perilous boat journeys to seek protection elsewhere. Government policies severely restrict refugees’ access to education, livelihoods, and movement. Amid surging violence by armed groups and criminal gangs in the camps, Bangladesh authorities are failing to provide protection, maintain security, or prosecute those responsible. Refugees report facing layers of barriers to police, legal, and medical assistance.

“The Bangladesh government has repeatedly ignored the clear and tangible pathways laid out by UN experts for the Bangladesh government to remedy a pattern of grave abuses,” Bleckner said. “The UPR should underscore for Bangladesh the reputational cost of its failure to comply with human rights obligations.”

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