Disband or Reform?
Photo: Munem Wasif/DrikNEWS
Last week Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on Bangladesh titled, "Ignoring Executions and Torture: Impunity for Bangladesh's Security Forces," where they clearly outlined their opinions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). The report cast a critical eye over the activities of the two agencies and openly called for both the DGFI and RAB to be disbanded. It stated that, "The very forces tasked with upholding the law and providing security to the public have become well known for breaking the law in the gravest manner without ever facing any consequences." It went on to say, "Forces such as Rab and the military intelligence agency DGFI have become symbols of abuse and impunity." Clearly they held nothing back when stating their case against the two forces, but the real question is, where do we go from here?
The current HRW report is not the first to implicate RAB in human rights atrocities; in December 2006 they produced a damning 79-page report on RAB titled "Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Torture and Extra-judicial Killings by Bangladesh's Elite Security Force". It detailed the highly questionable activities of RAB as well as investigating a number of high profile deaths caused by "crossfire". Published a month before the country went into a 23 month long state of emergency, the report was largely overlooked at a time when RAB and other security agencies were given increased powers. Yet it seems one of the key recommendations of that report was taken to heart more than two years after it was published. One of the recommendations to the future government was to, "Make strong and repeated public statements, at the highest institutional level, against unlawful killings and custodial abuse by RAB, and that all those responsible for abuses will be prosecuted." Seemingly Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the recommendation to heart when she announced that there would be a 'zero tolerance' policy for extra-judicial executions. She went on to say that state officials involved in such activities would also be brought to book. It proved to be an empty promise, as within weeks of her statement 'crossfire' killings made a comeback and she remained mum on the topic.
HRW believes the problem with RAB and DGFI is that essentially they are not accountable for their actions and that currently there are a number of laws that protect the members of such forces. In simple terms they are allowed to carry out their highly questionable activities and answer to no one. When one plainly looks at the facts which show over 1000 deaths in custody and through 'crossfire' along with countless accusations of torture, it is easy to agree with HRW recommendation to disband the DGFI and RAB, but that idea is a little too simplistic. If any branch of the government or for that matter any private institution is not working, or even if it is implicated in innumerable corruption cases, there is never an easy way to tackle the problem. But one thing is certain, disbanding them is usually not the best way to solve the problem. One must first isolate the problem and then look at constructive ways to solve them.
With regard to RAB and DGFI, isolating the problem is almost impossible. Whenever they have been accused of human rights violations they have vehemently denied any wrongdoing. Every now and then they have set up tribunals and apparently disciplined some of their officers, yet the tribunals continue to be held secretly and any and all punishment handed out is not equivalent to the crime. Officers are reshuffled, 'severely' reprimanded and essentially let off the hook for crimes which would send any other person to the gallows. In a press release Brad Adams, HRW Asia Director said, "If you are a soldier, a member of RAB or the intelligence services, or a police officer, you can get away with murder in Bangladesh." While his sentiments are easy to understand what should also be taken into consideration that very few, if any, members of DGFI and RAB have ever actually been convicted of murder or an extra-judicial killing. All the accusations against them at the end of the day are just that, accusations. No court has ever been able to try them as they are essentially protected by a multitude of laws that exempt them from being tried in civil courts, and even protect their otherwise allegedly unlawful actions while on duty.
HRW understands the problems within the system and that is why their recommendation to at least form an independent commission is a pragmatic one. They have suggested that such commissions be formed for both the RAB and the DGFI and that they assess the forces performance and identify those believed to be responsible for serious violations such as torture and extra-judicial killings. Along with that HRW believes that the commissions should form an action plan to transform them into agencies that operate within the law and obey the basic norms of international human rights. This suggestion is seemingly far more practical than simply disbanding the two forces and in a way if the commission is set up and goes about its activities properly it could be a sort of truth and reconciliation commission. Weeding out those who committed human rights offences such as torture and extra-judicial killings will probably have two distinctive results.
First and foremost by finding and trying people guilty of the crimes they committed while on duty it will act as a wake up call to every single officer. They should not and can not take their duties lightly, they are being paid by the state to uphold the law and not break it. It will be a sort of scare tactic to everyone else in the force that they cannot bend the law and those that do will be punished harshly. It will also help bridge the gap between ordinary citizens and the forces, as currently many view their tactics as a form of vigilante justice. It will also help the families of those who have allegedly been killed by the forces to grieve and finally move forward with their lives. The formation of a commission could be a win-win situation, for the government, RAB, DGFI and the average citizen. Truth be told, while many people have died along the way and human rights have been trampled on, both the agencies have done their fare share to help protect their country and its citizens. The main problem is an ethical one. If they can break the rules to do their job, then why shouldn't others be allowed to do so? If that was the case then it would be acceptable for a member of the government to accept a bribe for any sort of contract that was in the best interests of the country. He could very well say, that he got the job done and that's what counts. But life is not as simple as that.
RAB and DGFI have essentially taken a Machiavellian perspective to their work. For them the ends justify the means, if people (innocent or not) die or are tortured in the process then so be it. Interestingly even if they think otherwise their opinion on the matter has never been made public, thus leading the public to think they do not care much for civil liberties and human rights. Their attitude and actions must change and in the process so should they. If it's a toss up between disbanding and reforming them, then there is really only one answer. Reform.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009