Adopted 72 years ago by the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was meant to ensure basic rights and fundamental freedoms across the globe. Its thirty articles contain provisions for upholding equality before law, rights and dignity of humans; freedom of thought, religion, conscience, opinion and expression; life, liberty and security of all; and freedom of movement, peaceful assembly or association. It emphasised that the will of the people should be the basis of governmental authority, which is to be expressed through periodic and genuine elections based on universal and equal suffrage and free voting procedures. It forbade torture and cruel or inhuman treatment, arbitrary arrests and detentions. Many other conventions, charters and treaties have been subsequently approved by the global community during the past seven decades that aids in the enforcement, implementation and review of these universal rights.
Although Bangladesh has adopted many of these conventions and charters pertaining to social, political, civic and cultural rights, there has been a visible lack of initiative in condoning some critical global instruments. One such instrument is the optional protocol linked to the 'United Nations Convention against Torture'. Another is the 'International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance'. The authorities in Bangladesh have tended to repeatedly shun international reviews and audits on human rights, especially during the past decade. Although the UN experts have sought information about complaints lodged by the victims of enforced disappearances, the authorities have refrained from offering any reply. Similarly, the government has not accorded permission for visits by at least half a dozen Special Rapporteurs of the UN to investigate different allegations. Moreover, both local and international human rights organisations often faced obstacles in the discharge of their responsibilities.
It is in this backdrop that the World Human Rights Day was observed in Bangladesh on December 10, as elsewhere in the world. The issue of human rights is no more a matter of individual jurisdiction or national sovereignty in the modern era. Some people complain that the United Nations and human rights organisations tend to maintain silence on the question of human rights violations in developed countries. But this is not true as evidenced by the grilling the USA faced last month at the UN Human Rights Council session. The most powerful nation on earth participated in that review despite leaving the council in 2018, where discriminations based on colour, religion and gender, hate-speech, religious intolerance and violence, as well as cruel treatment of immigrants in the USA were heavily criticised. During that review, the Special Rapporteurs of the UN also called for lifting indemnity against human rights violations committed on the pretext of so-called war on terrorism.
The trend of political partisanship and partiality in the areas of law enforcement and human rights in Bangladesh is now a well-established fact, as has been observed in blatantly discriminatory treatment by police with regard to pro-ruling party and opposition meetings, gatherings or processions, especially since the highly controversial and one-sided elections of 2014 and 2018. The law apparently follows the dictates of those in power instead of following its due course. There were some visible protests in the past, but even that has subsided now in the face of a manifestly ruthless authoritarian rule. These are all natural consequences emanating from an all-engulfing grip of the ruling party on the country's constitutional pillars, viz., the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Bangladesh could have played a positive role in mellowing or improving the rights situation in the country. But apart from organising some publicity stunts, it is mostly a silent spectator in the unfolding of events that continue to blight the country's human rights records, including enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings in the guise of 'cross-fires'. Even two former chairmen of the commission told the media recently that it had failed to earn the confidence of the people.
The Human Rights Forum Bangladesh (HRFB) had earlier complained after the formation of the new Commission in October last year that those who did not possess any experience in working on human rights issues were given preference in the appointments. The TIB chief in Bangladesh opined that the Commission had become a rehabilitation centre for retired bureaucrats. On the other hand, the first chairman of NHRC claimed that if the commission did not want to upset the government through words or deeds, then it was already a dead entity. According to HRFB, there have been 535 extrajudicial killings in the country between January 2019 and 25 June 2020, but the current NHRC did not play any role whatsoever in protesting or investigating these.
In this backdrop, a joint declaration issued on the eve of this year's World Human Rights Day by an alliance of seven international human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights urged the world community to take a firm stand on human rights violations in Bangladesh. The declaration said that the ruling party here has intensified the pressure on critics and free media in the wake of difficulties faced by the people due to Covid-19 pandemic. The government has been continually applying repressive laws like the Digital Security Act for targeting the dissenting voices. Moreover, the law enforcers are being indemnified despite carrying out enforced disappearances, tortures and extrajudicial killings.
The paralysing impact of Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the discriminations and deprivations in human societies and posed newer challenges for upholding human rights and freedoms around the world. The path to sustainable development goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations has become narrower and more difficult due to its unforeseen consequences. The challenges and importance of protecting the livelihood and dignity of humans have therefore increased manifold. The theme of this year's World Human Rights Day - 'Recover Better - Stand up for Human Rights' has thus become more crucial than ever before for the teeming billions who face constant discriminations across the globe.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.