Human right bodies have slammed the Bangladesh government for turning a blind eye toward enforced disappearances, saying the state is repeatedly denying increasing occurrences in the past few years.
The latest example of such a denial by the ruling Awami League — the oldest political party of Bangladesh — government was the state report it submitted at the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, held from May 7-18. Bangladesh was one of the 14 states reviewed by the UPR Working Group during its May session.
Even though enforced disappearance is considered by the United Nation a “heinous crime” and the sitting government of this South Asian nation of 170 million is being accused of even patronizing such disappearances on some occasions, the report it submitted to the UPR did not even mention the issue.
U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), which conducted a thorough and in-depth investigation on Bangladesh’s enforced disappearances, strongly criticized the country’s silence on this issue in the latest round of UPR.
Brad Adams, Asia Director of HRW, said in a statement, “Bangladesh needs to stop ignoring and start addressing serious human rights violations, such as when its security forces engage in enforced disappearances, killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests, many of them politically motivated.”
“The Bangladesh government should use the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council as a time for reflection, not self-congratulation,” Adams added.
Dhaka-based human rights lawyer Dr. Shahdeen Malik said that the Bangladesh government is in a state of “dangerous denial” about enforced disappearances. “This gross violation of human rights is not at all addressed by the authorities concerned. This is alarming,” said Malik.
During the third UPR cycle in the Swiss city of Geneva, Bangladesh was asked to spell out the steps it has taken to implement recommendations posed during its previous reviews, which the state committed to follow up on, as well as to highlight recent human rights developments in the country.
Since the UN Human Rights Council’s first meeting held in June 2006, all 193 UN member states — including Bangladesh — have been reviewed twice, in the first and second UPR cycles. Bangladesh’s first and second UPR reviews took place in February 2009 and April 2013, respectively.
At the third UPR review, according to HRW, the Bangladesh delegation led by its Law Minister Anisul Huq highlighted only what the government considered to be positive steps and glossed over concerns about critical issues such as enforced disappearances along with secret and arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings.
The closest the Bangladesh state report comes to those aforementioned issues is when it narrates how the court sentenced 16 Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) — an elite police force — members for the abduction and murder of a city mayor and his six aides. The episode was raised to press home the claim that “Bangladesh maintains a ‘zero tolerance’ for crimes by law enforcement agencies.”
The country, in its previous state report submitted at the second round of UPR review in 2013, said, “The existing legal regime does not contain any reference to disappearance/enforced disappearance. The legally recognized term for it under the Penal Code is kidnapping/ abduction.”
It also said, “In recent times, there has been a tendency to use the name of RAB and other LEAs [law enforcement agencies] in relation to cases of kidnapping/abduction. RAB has, so far, arrested more than 500 criminals disguised as LEAs, including those involved in abduction.”
Interestingly, even though occurrences of reported and documented enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings have increased since the second periodic review, the state report submitted in 2018 made even fewer references to the issue than the 2013 document. (Editor’s note: The Bangladesh government has since responded to the criticisms. View the response here.)
However, in addition to the national report provided by the state, the UPR will also consider the report prepared based on the information gathered by the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights and the report based on the information provided by other stakeholders, including national human rights institutions, regional organizations, and civil society groups.
While the Bangladesh government has largely ignored and suppressed the issue of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings, other reports submitted to the UPR — including the one prepared by the United Nation’s High Commissioner of Human Rights and the one prepared by a total of 56 prominent national and international organizations — mentioned these crimes.
The report on Bangladesh from the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights expressed concerns about the “reported high rate of extrajudicial killings and reports of enforced disappearances and the excessive use of force by State actors, and at the lack of investigations and accountability of perpetrators.”
The UN report said that domestic law did not “effectively criminalize enforced disappearances and that Bangladesh did not accept that enforced disappearances occurred.”
In its report, the UN Human Rights Committee urged Bangladesh to put an end “to the practice of torture and ill-treatment and enforce the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act.” It also asked the country to establish an independent complaint mechanism to investigate all reported allegations and ensure that alleged perpetrators of those crimes were prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the report of the stakeholders submitted at the UPR mentioned of the “increasing number of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests.”
The stakeholder report documented 845 cases of extrajudicial killings and about 48 cases of victims being tortured to death from May 2013 until September 2017. It also mentioned of about 300 persons allegedly subjected to enforced disappearance from May 2013 to September 2017, many of whom were found dead later on.
The stakeholder report mentioned that the “involvement of law enforcement agencies in disappearance cases was confirmed” on a number of occasions but “was denied by the government despite numerous and credible allegations.”
HRW has pointed out the stark contrast between the state report and the other two reports placed before the UPR committee. According to the NGO, the Bangladesh government “has failed to respond to pressing human rights concerns in the country.”
HRW also pointed out that Bangladesh had pledged during the previous periodic review “to thoroughly and impartially investigate and prosecute all allegations of human rights violations, in particular by the security forces.”
“But it has ignored and denied reports of violations since then, including about violence by the security forces during the 2014 elections and against people who protested the conduct of the elections. The government delegation claimed that it is taking action against those responsible for abuse, but there is little evidence or transparency on this,” said HRW.
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist