On Bangladesh, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Leads the Way

As the ASAN Fellow at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, I am gaining a tremendous amount of exposure to human rights issues from around the world. A panel discussion hosted on February 1 by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Guernica 37, and the Georgetown University Law Center’s Human Rights Institute was the latest example of an excellent education in human rights.

There is no dispute that serious human rights abuses are taking place in Bangladesh. Multiple independent reports have documented these abuses for years. In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed its concern “at the reported high rate of extrajudicial killings by police officers, soldiers and Rapid Action Battalion force members and at reports of enforced disappearances, as well as the excessive use of force by State actors.” It called on Bangladesh to “put an end to the practice of torture and ill-treatment,” and it expressed that it was “concerned about limitations on the rights of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and civil society organizations…to exercise their right to freedom of opinion, expression and association.”

The current government, which came into power after a controversial election in 2014, began consolidating its power by using security forces to oppress citizens, activists, opposition party members, and the media. People who are perceived to oppose the government have been disappeared, detained, or killed. Meanwhile, the government is using legal reforms to restrict the ability of civil society activists, human rights defenders, and members of the media to document abuses, publish their findings, and advocate for changes in government policy.

The panel discussion, entitled Bangladesh: Closing Civic Space and Disregarding International Criminal Accountability, sought to examine the abuses taking place in the country, and offer recommendations as to how to encourage Bangladesh to improve its human rights situation. David McKean, the Asia Program Officer at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, moderated the discussion between Ambassador Stephen Rapp, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes at the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. State Department, Toby Cadman, the Co-founder and Head of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers in London, and Almudena Bernabeu, also the Co-founder and Head of Guernica 37.

Over the course of the dialogue, the panel considered whether the level of disappearances and extrajudicial killings taking place in Bangladesh rise to the level of Crimes Against Humanity, such that the International Criminal Court should open an investigation. Toby Cadman had recently published an article making the case that the abuses are systematic and widespread, and that the Office of the Prosecutor should open a preliminary examination.

In addition, they examined the use of arbitrary arrests as a way of targeting dissidents in the name of fighting terrorism. In 2016, after a spate of terrible killings, Bangladesh security forces rounded up over 11,000 people in a matter of days. This fed into the panel’s debate regarding Bangladesh’s culpability for violence carried out by non-State actors. Under international human rights law, the State has a duty to protect those working as human rights defenders and journalists, and also has a duty to sufficiently investigate crimes and hold perpetrators accountable where possible.

Bangladesh has failed on both grounds.

With respect to other human rights violations, the panel discussed the procedural and substantive due process failures of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a Bangladeshi court tasked with administering criminal accountability for the genocide that took place during the 1971 Liberation War. When the ICT was initially established, those working on international criminal justice were optimistic to have an accountability mechanism instituted at the national level. As the ICT has overseen flawed trials that resulted in unsubstantiated convictions, leading to death sentences, the international community has condemned the ICT for failing to adhere to international standards of due process.

Finally, the panel addressed the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. The recent repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh gave the panel concerns that if the agreement is not implemented in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law, Bangladesh could be accused of causing additional violence and suffering.

In the audience was the family of a young man who had been disappeared. They were visibly shaken by the response by diplomats from the Bangladesh embassy, who were also present and used the audience question and answer period to deny that the government had committed any human rights abuses. The family members stood firm by their claim that their nephew had been last seen in the custody of Bangladesh security forces, and had not been heard from since. After the panel, they continued to tell their story, expressing their deep concern for their family that remained in Bangladesh.