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     Volume 8 Issue 57 | February 13, 2009 |

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UN Human Rights Council, Geneva

The Need to Go beyond Rhetoric

On February 3, Bangladesh underwent its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the three-hour interactive dialogue, the Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, her first overseas representation of her country, presented a statement and responded to questions and heard recommendations from various states. Munira Khan, member of the newly formed National Human Rights Commission and Attorney General Mahbubey Alam also attended the session.

The UN General Assembly (GA) on 15 March 2006 created the new Human Rights Council (HRC). The HRC was created to replace and improve the former UN human rights body (the Commission on Human Rights). Among the many changes was the creation of a new mechanism through which UN member states can be reviewed on their adherence to human rights standards. The objective of the UPR is to review the fulfilments of the human rights obligations and commitments by all 192 UN member-states. The UN member states are reviewed every four years on progress, challenges and needs for improvement. The review is conducted by the 47 member states of the Human Rights Council as well as observer states. The UPR was formed to act as an intergovernmental process by which states review the fulfilment of human rights obligations of other States. The UPR meets three times a year with 16 member-States being reviewed each session. Each country's situation is examined during a three-hour dialogue, during which recommendations are made. The first cycle runs from 2008-20111.

Sultana Kamal

A coalition of 17 human rights and development organisations from Bangladesh (the UPR Forum), including Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Nagorik Uddyog, Naripokkho and Steps, participated in the review process. The Forum team was led by Advocate Sultana Kamal. Hana Shams Ahmed caught up with Kamal after the review session in Geneva to ask about what the expectations of the NGOs and civil society were from this UPR session and the government and whether these expectations were met.

How can Bangladesh benefit from the UPR?
This is a UN mechanism for monitoring the human rights situations of member countries. It’s a mechanism for the civil society of Bangladesh and citizens of other countries to act as watchdogs on the human rights situations of the country and the member countries have to submit their report every four years on their human rights conditions. They make voluntary pledges and are then assessed on the basis of those pledges. That’s why this time when there were no concrete pledges made or any concrete commitments given by the Foreign Minister in the UPR we were concerned about what basis either the international community or the country could measure the human rights condition of the country - whether there were violations or not. This is not to put the government in a difficult situation but rather to help the government really be aware of the violations taking place either by the government itself or by non-government or non-state agents, to see whether they can be remedied or immediately stopped.

The Forum members have submitted an extensive report on human rights violations in Bangladesh on various grounds including among others violations by the state including extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, forced detention and restrictions on freedom of expression. Do you think this works as a process of accountability for the government on the state’s human rights violations?
I think it does because the state will then have to answer through the reporting system what they have done, to see that violations do not happen anymore. Human rights violations may happen for many different reasons - advertently or inadvertently. The State, through this mechanism, is made aware of the conditions in the area of human rights and is given a chance to mend that.

But we saw the process at Bangladesh’s UPR session where there were certain questions asked but the government representatives sidestepped those questions…
In that case the government will be questioned again on the basis of that and then they will be assessed on that particular performance and marked low in the human rights protection responsibility. It is always better to be able to face the challenge, be transparent in responding to questions raised.

This was an opportunity for member-States to emphasise their commitment to human rights issues around the world. Do you think the other countries were critical of the government or do you think they were happy to maintain a diplomatic relationship?
If you want to get my reaction on the interaction [between the Bangladesh government and other nations] then I would say that most of the countries intervening were rather formal. They welcomed the Foreign Minister, greeted her and made their presentations. But not many fundamental or basic questions were raised by most of the countries. There were 49 countries speaking. But most of these countries also avoided questioning or commenting on issues like implementation of the CHT Accord, the women’s advancement policy strategies for poverty alleviation, ending the culture of impunity or extra judicial killings, condition of the outcastes or the dalits and also the migrant and garment workers were not spoken about. I will therefore say that most of the countries were rather diplomatic.

It was also a very good opportunity for our government to prove its human rights commitments. The previous democratically elected government has been criticised heavily for creating a political culture where the rights of minorities were heavily curtailed, where there was no redress on extra-judicial killings and the press was always under threat. It was also an opportunity for the new government to bring faith in them.

How well do you think the government responded to the critical/sensitive questions by the other countries?
In most cases the government’s replies were rather generic. There were no specific answers to any of the questions. One example is when the question of rights of the minorities came up; the government response was that people of different religions were living in harmony for ages in Bangladesh. That was not expected.

This government came to power promising to bring ‘change’ in the country’s politics. What positive pledges do you think the government made?
Very specifically two. One is that there would be zero tolerance towards extra-judicial killings. The other was when the Foreign Minister said that her government would be held accountable to whatever pledges they were making. I appreciate her saying they would be held accountable by the people.

But did she mention any measurable targets?
No and that’s where we have a problem. She only made some general statements, statements that only dwell at the policy level. Those were not really any concrete, action-oriented statements. Many of her replies don’t relate to the questions of human rights.

One of the most important demands before the national elections last year from all voters was the trial of the war criminals. What do you think of the Foreign Minister’s declaration that the government would seek UN assistance to try war criminals?
These needs to be assessed further as the government so far did not make it at all clear to anybody what kind of assistance they would seek. There is a question of ownership of the process and there is a question of seeking other kinds of assistance from external resources like expert investigation, expertise in collecting evidence for crimes that were committed about 40 years ago, ensuring clarity of the procedure etc. There is also a question of sustenance of the trial that needs to be addressed whether they are going to seek a particular kind of assistance and to what extent were not made clear to us. I personally am not against seeking international assistance because that will probably ensure sustenance of the endeavour. The issue will then seem not to have stemmed from any internal con, sense of personal vengeance or as if to try to put somebody in a disadvantaged position with political implications. But I would like to make it clear that the ownership of the whole process has to remain with the national government.

The past government has completely avoided resolving the CHT issue. But there is expectation from the indigenous people that this government who signed the historic CHT Accord and also made a pledge in their election manifesto will be more attentive towards it. What do you think of her avoidance of whether they would fully implement the CHT Accord?
CHT was not dealt with the way we had expected. It was this government that signed the CHT Accord in 1997 and our present Prime Minister was then the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She is the one who signed the Accord on behalf of the government and the People. The Foreign Minister should have been much more outspoken on this issue and could have easily promised that they were going to see that the Accord is implemented accordingly.

How important is the refugee convention for Bangladesh?
It’s very important not only for Bangladesh, in that many Bangladeshis go abroad as refugees and this convention has been useful in saving the lives and dignity of Bangladeshi refugees in those countries - the convention has mutual value. We have to be equally sensitive to refugees we get from other countries. The statement she made about the Rohingya refugees, though we may like their coming in or not, was not, I am afraid, very sensitive. We may say that the conditions given by the Convention may be difficult to meet for a country like Bangladesh as it is overpopulated with limited resources and the influx of refugees will complicate our problems. The 1951 Convention so far has proved to be very effective to save the lives and dignity of refugees and therefore is important for all countries.

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