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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: 175
January 30, 2005

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Let people's Voices be Heard

Conference on human rights and governance: local and global perspectives

Shaila Shahid

The effort aims to facilitating the process of giving voice to the voiceless and also try to build consensus in the society. Let people's voices be heard- by asserting the slogan Manusher jonno-an initiative for promoting human rights and good governance, along with its 61 partners organised the conference on "Human rights and Governance: Local and Global perspective", that was held from January 16th to 18th at Bangladesh Institute of Administrative Management (BIAM), Dhaka.

UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief and internationally renowned human rights activist Asma Jahangir was presented at the inaugural session as guest speaker. Dr. Hameeda Hossain, chairperson of Manusher Jonno, chaired the inaugural session. Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Barrister Moudud Ahmed was the chief guest of the occasion. Among the special guest's prominent economist professor Rehman Sobhan, Head of DFID-Bangladesh David Wood and country director, CARE, Bangladesh Steve Wallace were present at the inaugural session.

Asma Jahangir, a founding member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, stressed the need for ensuring independence of the judiciary and said if an independent judiciary is in place, only then a government with strong political will can address law and order problems. She called for coordinated initiatives by the South Asian human rights organisations at national and regional levels to protect human rights in the region. In this regard, she called to appoint human right officers in the SAARC Secretariat to deal with the human right issues in this region. Hameeda Hossain, chairperson of Manusher Jonno, echoed Asma's views and said impact of extra-judicial deaths on the law and order may not be good in the long run. Economist Professor Rehman Sobhan said justice and law have become marketable commodities in Bangladesh, and only so-called elite class can afford those.

Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed, said in his speech that all the pre-conditions to ensuring good governance are prevailing in Bangladesh. 'A democratic system, a democratically elected parliament, an independent judiciary and a free press are all there providing a favourable condition to ensuring good governance in the country. Now the question is how to improve the quality of governance,' he explained.

Shaheen Anam, team leader, Manusher Jonno, presented the keynote paper. Steve Wallace, country director of CARE Bangladesh, David Wood, head of DFID, Bangladesh, and Manusher Jonno partner representative Nasima Begum also spoke at the opening of the conference. Speakers called for the empowerment of poor and marginalised people, who have been so far deprived of their human and social rights. An exhibition of publication, posters and other materials related to human rights and governance was also organised on the sideline of the three-day conference.

The second day of the conference held a total of six sessions including 'Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives', 'Violence against Women', 'Rights of Marginalised People', 'Child Workers Rights' and 'Electoral Rights'.

Addressing the first plenary of the conference on human rights Asma Jahangir, asked the human rights activists of Bangladesh to submit evidences of genocide during the country's Liberation War in 1971 to the United Nations, so that they could take legal steps against the war criminals. "I found documents on genocide on Rwanda and other countries in the UN archives, but not any on Bangladesh's Liberation War'. She stressed the need for making the activities of criminal courts more transparent and accountable to improve the human rights scenario.

Advocate Sara Hossain and advocate Shahdeen Malik spoke at the plenary while Shireen Huq of DANIDA was presented as chairperson. Adovacte Sara urged the human rights activists and members of civil societies of the SAARC countries to take coordinated initiatives to prevent extra-judicial killings. Advocate Shadhin Malik stressed the need for ensuring independence of the judiciary and said only an independent judiciary could improve the human rights situation of the country and, thereby, improve the law and order situation.

Gender specialist Dr. Maleka Begum presented the keynote paper on the workshop on "Violence against women". She illustrated and explained different forms of torture and violence against women and also argued women to strongly protest the mentality of this patriarchal society. Monira Rahman of Acid survivors foundation and Dr. Firdous Azim from Naripokko were the panelists of the workshop.

Speakers at the session on child rights said people have to uphold the rights of children. Human rights and advocacy director of BRAC, Afsan Choudhury, said that in the development activities NGOs have a tendency to please the government, but thereby the programmes fail, as government's traditional machineries are not pro-child and pro-development. Child neurologist Dr Naila Khan, head of Shishu Bikash Kendra of Bangladesh Shishu Hospital, said that the government, instead of ensuring free reproductive health service for women, has introduced community clinics for women, which indicates commercialisation of the service sector. UM Habibunnesa, head of the justice and violence programme of Save the Children UK, said that 3,634 children were arrested by the police as offenders in 2004. Dr Muhammad Ibrahim, executive director of the Centre for Mass Education and Science, moderated the session.

Professor Ahmed Kamal moderated another workshop on 'Rights of Marginalised People' where Khushi Kabir and Dr Nafisur Rahman spoke. Suriya Haq of the Fulki moderated the workshop on 'Rights of Working People in Formal and Non-formal Areas' and Enayetullah Khan, editor of the New Age, Shirin Akhter of Kormojibi Nari, Sultan Mahmud of the BILS and Pratima Paul of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies held the discussion. Dr Shirin Sharmeen Chowdhury placed a keynote on 'Electoral Rights' where Munira Khan of the FEMA, Dr Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah of Janipop, Roekya Kabir of the BNPS, AHM Noman of the CCHRB and Sharmin Mursheed of the Brotee took part in the discussions.

The third day of the conference also held six parallel workshops. Renowned women and human rights activist Farida Akhter, of UBINIG presented her keynote paper on the session of "Civil society activism: Media and role of state for good governance". She expressed her great concern on media's role in generating activism and to make it effective. She emphasised that whether civil society activism includes or reflects the voice of poor, marginalised mass people like farmers, day labourer or grass-roots level women. The editor of the daily Prothom Alo Mr. Matiur Rahman also expressed the need for a strong and accountable news media. Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed of Bishwa Shahitya Kendra and Aroma Dutta of Prip trust also spoke at the workshop.

Another workshop titled "Role of international institutions to promote good governance: country perspective " was moderated by Mr. Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star. Dr. Atiur Rahman, chairperson of Unnayan Shamunnay presented the keynote paper. Professor MM Akash of Dhaka university, Dr. Rushidan Islam Rahman, of Bangladesh institute of development studies spoke at the conference, while Zakir Shahin, from Krisoker Saar (Farmers' Voice), a tinny research institute expressed the need for changing our attitude from donor funded project culture to life long program approach. Dr. Anannya Raihan from CPD also presented his paper on the workshop of "Corporate Governance: social accountability " and country director Nasreen Huq of Action Aid moderated the session.

Former chief justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman addressed as the chief guest of the concluding session of the conference. He stressed that we ought to have asked for the report when the first incident of death occurred. That would make the law and order men more cautious". Noted lawyer Dr Kamal Hossain and Rokia A Rahman, president of Women Entrepreneurs Association attended the function as special guests. Shaheen Anam, Team Leader of Manusher Jonno, was in the chair. Dr Kamal Hossain expressed his frustration over the prevailing law and order situation and said no case is taken at any police station without consultation. Shaheen Anam, team leader of MJ expressed that their efforts would be fruitful if they could able to bring some changes in the society. She thanked all concerned for making the conference a success.

The three-day session concluded by presenting a set of recommendations. According to the recommendations, there should be no extra judicial killing without trial, freedom of judiciary and the government's willingness are enough to curb crime. Poverty reduction strategic paper (PRSP) and Millennium Development Goal (MDG) should be taken into account while formulating government rules in establishing good governance and human rights. The role of the attorney general as an independent public prosecutor is vital to keep the judiciary above controversy. Competent people should be appointed judge in the higher court. Articles 33 and 35 of the constitution should be upheld to function criminal procedure. More women should be included in economic activities. The government should bring transparency and dynamism in its administrative affairs to curb corruption. Proactive media are a must to create public awareness and bridge existing divisions among the civil society.

Good governance is basically a mechanisms by which people uses to voice there concerns and interests, workout their differences, exercise their legal rights and meet their obligations. Thus the conference attempted to bring all the mass people and civil society in one umbrella by upholding the vision of human rights and justice. Hence access to justice and the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable need to be reflected in all policy making body of the Government. Only then we would be able to create space for people to live in peace and harmony.


The author is working as Law Desk Assistant of The Daily Star


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