Cover Story: Human Rights
The Rights Way: Following Through
While there is seemingly no lack of good intention, the main challenge on the human rights front now is making good on the promises made.
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
|The Domestic Violence Act 2009 will address family violence.
After 1/11, through the holding of a free and fair election, a new Bangladesh was expected, where peace, prosperity and the rule of law would prevail. Yet, during the reign of the interim governments and, following the national elections, in the first year of the rule of the current government, there were many human rights violations. The current government has made several commitments and begun taking measures in some.
Among the top priority areas in the Awami League's election manifesto, were the elimination of poverty and inequality and the establishment of good governance. The reality of these terms is as broad as they sound, if not broader.
A major part of the poverty and inequality elimination measures is to do with women.
"Poverty alleviation of women is a big part of the agenda," says Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs, "and a number of programmes aimed at the mainstreaming of women are in the pipeline. This includes economic empowerment of women through vocational training, special training for disabled women, etc."
One such measure is the government's initiative in improving women's washrooms in all educational institutions. "This is a very small but practical example," says Chaudhury. "The lack of maintenance, absence of hygiene and privacy is a contributing factor to the dropout rates of girls and women in schools and colleges." The facilities exist but they must be maintained, Chaudhury points out.
Major headway has also been made with regards to the Domestic Violence Act 2009 (Paribarik Nirjaton Protirodh Shurokkha Ain). After several consultations with different stakeholders, including over 30 women's groups and human rights organisations, a draft bill has been prepared.
Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury lays emphasis on the significance of the bill. "The Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain 2000 (amended in 2003) protects women from violence such as trafficking and acid crimes. However," says Chaudhury, "there are no clear stipulations on violence in the family, what it entails, what the penalties are, etc. Family violence must be addressed."
Under this law, according to the state minister, punishment is not the main objective. "We of course encourage the development of understanding within families. The law stresses on the protection of women from abusive family members." The law will soon be finalised and presented in parliament.
|Still waiting for full implementation of the 1997 CHT Peace Accord.
The recently passed Sexual Harassment Policy has also been a major step in ensuring security of women in the workplace and in general. According to Dr Chaudhury, as per the High Court guidelines given earlier this year, sexual harassment is a criminal act and the ban is an interim measure until new legislation can be passed in parliament. The guidelines also stipulate that every institution must have a committee to deal with complaints/cases of sexual harassment. "The Women and Children Affairs Ministry has formed such a committee and some other institutions are in the process of forming them."
The government also has plans to revive the Women Development Policy, initially formulated by the Awami League in 1997 and later amended, though not passed, in 2004 and 2008. The policy includes provisions seeking to ensure equality of women and men in national life, women's security at the national, social and family level and their empowerment on the political, social and economic fronts. More specifically, it has clauses on reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women via direct election, equal opportunity for and control on all earned movable and immovable property, increasing women's participation in public bodies and higher levels of policy-making in political, administrative and professional bodies and more. The overall goal of the policy is the social, political and economic empowerment of women and their greater involvement in nation-building in general and policy matters in particular and consists of several short-term, mid-term and long-term goals.
"The policy was an outcome of Bangladesh's commitment to the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and in accordance with the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)," says Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury.
The policy, however, gave rise to much controversy which some legal and religious experts claimed was politically motivated. According to Dr Chaudhury, however, the policy was formed after several exchanges between various stakeholders and social groups and there should be no problem in implementing it. "It is a democratic country," she says. "Not everyone will agree on everything and they are free to express their opinions, but the ultimate space for debate and approval is the parliament, and if it is passed, there should be no problems in implementing it."
The gap between promise and practice, however, is probably what needs to be addressed the most. According to June 2009 statistics given by Human Rights Forum on UPR (Universal Periodic Review) in Bangladesh -- a coalition of 17 human rights, women's rights, labour and indigenous people's and development organisations -- despite the government's promised "zero tolerance" policy, at least 25 people were killed extra-judicially by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), police and army between January and May alone, with the government defending such action as self-defense, or, alternately, by claiming that "crossfire" deaths do not occur in Bangladesh. The rights of minority groups such as women, indigenous communities and workers also remain areas of concern.
According to lawyer and human rights activist Sara Hossain, there has been a positive shift in discourse over the past year, but action remains to be taken.
"There has been a major and very positive discourse shift on rights over the past year," says Barrister Sara Hossain, "with the government's manifesto and statements by its ministers promising a reassertation of due process, basic rights and access to justice. This is a positive step, but action must follow -- that is where we still see a gap."
Hossain notes the government's commitment to ending discriminatory laws. "Some of the most discriminatory laws are those related to women, such as the Hindu marriage laws and all religious-personal laws generally," says Hossain.
|Impunity and due process are areas of concern in the BDR mutiny and other pending cases.
The issues of impunity and due process are also major ones, Hossain points out. "While the resolution of the Bangabandhu murder case with a great effort to make sure that due process is followed is a very welcome precedent, this must also be applied to other cases that now face us, whether concerning past abuses, such as the trial of war criminals as well as more contemporary cases such as the BDR mutiny."
"The spate of deaths in custody of BDR personnel has given rise not only to concern but also fear," says Hossain. "The fact that lawyers are not being allowed to monitor the proceedings, the lack of open trials, results in the absence of transparency."
The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord also remains to be fully implemented. "Importantly," says Hossain, "the government has acted swiftly to reactivate the implementation process for the accord, but it has still not announced a clear roadmap and they also need to consult more widely to ensure that best practices are followed."
While some issues remain to be addressed in terms of policy and law, implementation of those which exist is key. From its promises, the government does not seem to be lacking in intention -- which is positive in itself -- but its sincerity and efficiency remain to be proven in the remainder of its term. Ensuring human rights, however, does not depend on the government alone, but also on the active involvement of non-government organisations, civil society and society in general. In the year to come, a growing awareness and mobilisation of these groups, along with the government following through on its promises with strong action, are what is being looked forward to on the human rights front.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010