The British government has raised concerns about the records of Bangladesh's human rights and democracy in a report it released for the year 2018.
British High Commissioner Robert Dickson in his remarks about the report on Wednesday said Bangladesh remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office “priority” country for human rights.
“As our annual report makes clear, we are concerned by allegations of diminished protection of human rights and democracy and pressure on freedom of expression,” he said in Dhaka.
“We have discussed these issues with the government of Bangladesh. We are particularly concerned about media freedom,” Dickson said.
“It is vital in a democracy that journalists can play their part in holding government to account. That is why the UK is committed to the protection of journalists across the world and will be co-hosting a global Media Freedom Conference in July”.
The report observed that the protection of human rights and democracy in Bangladesh diminished in 2018, and the December general election was affected by numerous credible allegations of irregularities and by significant violence.
Here are the excerpts:
There was an increase in allegations of extrajudicial killings and freedom of expression was further reduced.
Homosexuality remains illegal in Bangladesh, and LGBT campaigners have been targeted by extremists in the past and remain under pressure.
Enforced disappearances, freedom of religion or belief, and modern slavery remain UK human rights priorities in Bangladesh.
The UK was consistent and clear that we wanted to see free, fair, inclusive, and peaceful elections which would support Bangladesh’s development as a democratic and prosperous country.
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, delivered this message to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in September during the UN General Assembly.
Ministers repeatedly raised concerns about the election with the Government of Bangladesh and with opposition parties throughout 2018.
While it was encouraging that all opposition parties eventually contested the elections, there were credible accounts of obstacles, including arrests, which constrained or prevented campaigning by opposition parties, and of irregularities in the conduct of elections on polling day which prevented some people from voting.
The UK urged a full, credible and transparent resolution of all complaints related to the conduct of the elections.
The number of reports of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ‘war on drugs’, which took place from May to July, supported allegations that the security forces continue to be able to act with impunity.
Many incidents from previous years remained unresolved.
The FCO continued to raise the importance of compliance with human rights standards with the Government of Bangladesh, including at the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in May.
Freedom of expression attracted significant UK and civil society attention following the introduction of a new and controversial Digital Security Act in October.
The Bangladeshi government sought to reassure the public that the law was designed to protect privacy and maintain religious harmony, but civil society saw it as a restriction on freedom of expression ahead of the general election.
The British High Commissioner joined an EU statement raising concerns that the act would unduly restrict freedom of expression and calling for it to be brought in line with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Minister for Asia, Mark Field, raised the issue with Bangladesh’s Information Minister in December.
Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the same position as in 2017.
According to Ain o Salish Kendra, a law and mediation organisation based in Dhaka, 54 journalists were charged in 2018 under the Information and Communication Telecommunications Act, which criminalises the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals.
Dr Shahidul Alam, a photojournalist and human rights activist, was arrested under the act in August.
The Foreign Secretary, other ministers, and the High Commission raised Dr Alam’s case with the Government of Bangladesh. Dr Alam was subsequently released in November.
Bangladesh has a National Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking for 2018 to 2020. Progress remained slow, but we continued our work on preventing child labour, child marriage and irregular migration.
Our modern slavery strategy pulls these and other thematic work strands together, and we will use the UK Bangladesh Strategic Dialogue in 2019 to pursue these issues in greater depth.
We saw no progress towards the abolition of the death penalty: 191 death sentences were reportedly issued (including 19 for the 2004 attack on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina), although none were carried out.
On World Day Against the Death Penalty, the UK joined other EU members to call on the authorities to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step towards the abolition of capital punishment, and to reiterate our opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances.
The UNHCR estimated that the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh increased by a further 14,649 during the period between January and October.
This brought the total population of refugees who have fled atrocities in Burma to over 900,000.
Bangladesh showed great generosity in welcoming the Rohingya refugees and conditions in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar improved in comparison with the start of the crisis in August 2017.
However, risks remained, including of sexual violence, trafficking, violent crime, abduction, exploitation, and limited access to basic services for men, women and children in the camps.
Challenging conditions and issues relating to their legal status under Bangladeshi law meant that access to justice and security remained limited.
The UK committed an additional £70 million through UN agencies and NGOs, prioritising the protection of rights, including essential documentation, child protection, anti-trafficking measures, case management for survivors of abuse and exploitation, and legal assistance services.
The total UK commitment is £129 million.