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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 250
December 24, 2011

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Half of the Bangladeshis never heard of 'human rights'
Access to Justice

With the celebration of International Human Rights Day in our recent memory, it is alarming that perhaps half the population of Bangladesh has never heard of the term 'human rights'.

This worrying statistic is suggested by the results of a recent nationwide survey of human rights awareness. Conducted on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh (NHRC), the survey sought to establish a baseline level of public perceptions, attitudes and understanding of human rights.

The low level of human rights awareness is of concern for access to justice in this country, as people cannot claim their rights, or even identify when a right has been violated, if they are not first aware of the rights to which they are entitled.

Table 1: Quality of service provided by the formal justice system over the past 5 years

Of further concern, over half the people surveyed were either unaware or did not believe that human rights are legally protected and enforceable. Of those who were aware, only 6.1% knew they were protected by the Constitution.

When asked what they would do if the Government violated their rights, over 80% of respondents said they would take some form of individual or collective action, such as protesting. However, only 1.1% said they would report it to police, and even less would report it to a lawyer or the NHRC. These responses indicate a lack of awareness of human rights as legally enforceable, of the institutions that are able to deal with violations, and, possibly, a lack of trust or confidence in existing institutions.

Thus, a key step towards realising the NHRC's long-term goal of a countrywide human rights culture is improved awareness of legal means to claim rights and access justice. If one cannot seek redress for rights violations, then their protection is not real, and if there are no consequences, there is little discouragement against committing rights violations.

Bangladesh has two systems of justice, one formal and one informal. It may come as little surprise that people, especially in rural areas, are far more likely to use the informal system. However, the great value and a key objective of the NHRC survey is in illuminating where people go, and why, to seek justice for human rights violations, and their opinions of the services available.

Respondents were asked to provide their opinion about the quality, over the past five years, of the services that make up the formal justice sector, whether or not they had used them. Interestingly, given the negative press the police regularly receive, 33.7% of people believed the police service has improved, compared to 28.7% who believed it has gotten worse.

The majority of respondents could not provide an opinion about the High Court or the Government legal aid scheme, and over 40% could not answer about the subordinate courts, indicating most have very little direct experience with these services. In fact, 10.9% had not heard about the provision of legal aid through the National Legal Aid and Services Organisation (NLASO), reinforcing both a greater reliance upon informal justice, and a lack of awareness of access to justice to which all are entitled.

When asked why people do not use the formal justice system, the greatest reason by far, given by 73.8% of respondents, was the cost involved. Other reasons given for not accessing the formal justice system were perceived corruption, harassment by lawyers, complicated process and because the formal court system can be intimidating.

Vulnerable groups, such as women and minority groups, were least able to provide an opinion on formal justice services. Women who had been victims of violence reported difficulty in having their cases accepted by police, as well as harassment and being implicated in a false case. Survey respondents identified problems for women who pursue formal justice, including lack of support, often from family, and an environment that is not gender-sensitive.

Further, the NHRC reported that 90% of suspects brought to trial are not convicted. This low conviction rate leads to a denial of justice for many victims of crime, especially women and other marginalised groups.

As with the formal justice sector services, survey respondents were asked to rate the quality of services provided by the institutions and organisations of the informal justice sector over the past five years, whether or not they had used them.

Almost all respondents, 99.9%, had heard of traditional Shalish (mediation), the principal method of informal justice, and 53.3% believed their services have improved, significantly more than the 22.1% who believed they have declined. Only 11.7% could not answer, compared to the far greater numbers who could not answer about the formal judicial system.

Men are more likely to believe Shalish has improved than women, possibly indicating a lack of change within traditional Shalish in giving women a voice. Similarly, with Arbitration Councils men were much more likely to report an improvement, at 60.2%, than women, at 47.7%.

Just over 16% of respondents had not heard of NGO-led Shalish or NGO legal aid, and over 60% could not provide an opinion on either, indicating missed opportunities to access justice services. NGO legal aid was, however, viewed to be the least likely to be affected by corruption of all surveyed organisations, institutions and bodies.

Table 2: Quality of service provided by the informal justice system over the past 5 years

Corruption was the leading reason perceived by respondents for poor quality of service in every justice service. The authors of the survey report recommended following an initiative from Nepal, and painting the amounts to be paid for all court services on the walls. Such transparency would help assure people that they are not being unfairly charged.

Further recommendations from the report authors include:

· Human rights education should be incorporated into the school curriculum to raise general awareness and effect generational change.

· More information on the institutions that exist to deal with human rights violations must be provided to encourage people to use them.

· To ensure greater sensitivity and awareness within the justice systems, education on human rights in general, and women's rights and the rights of other vulnerable groups in particular, should be provided for role-players in both justice systems.

This is the abridged version of the nationwide survey of human rights awareness report.

Source: National Human Rights Commission.


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