Human rights: Rhetoric and reality
Human rights as an issue and a concern is recognized universally in the contemporary world. So much so that human rights are all pervading and encompassing – prevailing human rights situation is generally treated as a yardstick of democracy, good governance and undoubtedly of gross national happiness. In the following paragraphs we will make an attempt to not only draw a pen-picture of human rights in Bangladesh today but also shed light on challenges to better and more effective promotion and protection of human rights in the country. It is merely from this perspective that we refer to the future of human rights in Bangladesh.
It is a matter of historical fact that Bangladesh is a direct product of realization of what jurists call collective or solidarity rights, in this particular case the right of nations and peoples to self-determination. At its birth, Bangladesh was also perceived to be a state which will champion human rights for all in various forms and manners. The Proclamation of Independence adopted on 10 April, 1971, declared in no unambiguous terms that the birth of Bangladesh was indispensable in order “to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice.” In today's parlance, equality, human dignity and social justice comprise the true essence of human rights.
However, our journey as a nation to uphold the basic tenets of human rights in national life has not been a smooth one. Nor did it always witness the desired upward trend. The tragic events of 1975 made such a deep wound in the constitutional governance of the country that full recovery from that still remains an uphill task. Since the fall of the autocratic regime of General Ershad, things definitely improved but the anticipated and expected return to democratic governance according to the 1972 Constitution still remains a far cry! There had been amendments to the constitution that deprived the latter of its true spirit and character, most importantly, it snatched away the principles of secularism and socialism. Subsequently, after many twists and turns, there were other amendments directed to remedy the negative effects of previous amendments. However commendable they may be, they proved impotent to revive true spirit of secularism and did not even venture to bring back the principle of socialism in its original understanding of creating opportunities and means for economic emancipation and empowerment of the common people of the country. These two failures are so devastating that in my opinion they are the root causes of our not-so-satisfactory performance in the field of human rights. At the same time they constitute the crater from where the lava of daunting challenges and threats to human rights in Bangladesh continues to flow.
Quite interestingly, the common perception of human rights in Bangladesh evolves around predominantly the civil and political rights of the citizens – no one will deny that human rights are violated when a person is detained without sufficient and lawful reasons, when a person is picked up allegedly by law enforcement agents in civilian clothes and no information regarding whereabouts of the detinue is provided to family members, friends or relatives; a person is tortured in detention, a peaceful demonstration is dispersed by force etc. etc. However, civil and political rights alone do not constitute the whole gamut of human rights. Human rights are also violated when a child in a Child Development Centre is allotted only Taka 52 for three meals a day, when lack of job opportunities force university graduates to seek a job of manual labour as a migrant worker, when thousands of madrassa students are deprived of modern educational facilities, when thousands of school children , especially in the rural areas are compelled to drop-out to be employed in the informal sector as a bread earner for the family, when a poor citizen is deprived of necessary medical care or when an orphan is left with no alternative to living in a deserted, dump, dormitory with no windows and over-flowing toilets etc.
I can very proudly say that this is where the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has begun making a difference. Today, more and more human rights activists, both individuals and institutions are dealing with human rights in their true nature- that human rights are interdependent and therefore, segmentation of human rights invariably leads to denial of other related human rights.
It is our understanding that preeminence of any particular set of rights, whether C&P or ESC rights will make it even more difficult to establish 'human rights culture' in the country. However, ESC rights were all too neglected for a very long period, and therefore we need to focus more on progressive realization of ESC rights. Bangladesh has so far demonstrated enviable performance regarding achieving the MDG goals pertaining more to ESC rights. That is definitely good news for future of human rights in the country.
One cannot but wonder with appreciation at the fact that Bangladesh is capable of feeding its ever increasing population. This has been possible thanks to the unwavering toil of our heroic farmers coupled with visionary and scientific agricultural and food policy of the government. These achievements have enabled the government to extend the scope of social safety network programmes. The more the state intervenes with these projects, more manifest is the welfare and pro-people character of the state. This again is good news for human rights in Bangladesh.
We have achievements to be proud of. But we also have threats and challenges to human rights. It is my honest belief that the future of human rights in Bangladesh will to a great extent be defined by how these threats and challenges are dealt with.
One of the most important challenges is demonstration of our commitment to rule of law as a cardinal principle of good governance. For this, we must do away with the culture of impunity. This necessitates that perpetrators of human rights must be duly punished. Justice cannot be a commodity for barter, nor can it be a matter of political convenience. Human rights and justice demand that the International Crimes Tribunal-Bangladesh (ICT-B) deliver justice, victims' justice and through due process of law , which we so far have noticed to be upheld and complied with, punish all those found guilty of committing genocide and crimes against humanity.
It is a matter of regret that confidence of the common people on administration of justice has waned greatly. Poor litigants consider the system confusing, complicated, extremely costly, and very harassing. Right of equal protection of and by the law often turns out to be hollow promises. The Judiciary must seriously consider reforming and overhauling the system of justice delivery to make it poor- friendly. Otherwise, I am afraid; it might one day find itself to be redundant, and access to justice not to speak of justice itself would remain a mirage.
Time and again we have witnessed how corruption adversely affects human rights of all. With rule of law taking a strong hold in our national life corruption will surely see its own demise. Nonetheless, corruption must also be combated separately and specifically. At the NHRC we have countless evidence to show how resources drained out by way of corruption impacts ESC rights, not to speak of civil and political rights. If we are serious about human rights we must fight and eliminate corruption.
However, the threat that looms large over our national life today is a product of senseless, rotten, outdated and discernable politics- if it at all can be termed as 'politics'. The emergence and resort to acts of terrorism, fundamentalism and violence pose the greatest threat and challenge not only to human rights but to the very existence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country. The reign of terror that was unleashed by certain quarters in the name of 'repulsing' national elections cannot be defined as anything else than most flagrant violation of human rights committed by non-state actors. The whole world witnessed with utmost unease how property was vandalized, vehicles including railway engines and compartments were set ablaze, anything living or non-living was stoned, petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails thrown at whomever and whatever the perpetrators wanted! Insanity was at its peak! Who will tell these 'politicians' and their rogue cohorts that democracy cannot be achieved through undemocratic means or that something essentially illegitimate can in no way gain legitimacy! Had these politicians only known how much evil they have committed against human rights in the country!
This recent reign of terror has another, more severe dimension adversely affecting overall human rights situation in the country – attack on the members of the different religious and ethnic minority communities in the country, especially the Hindus. Rape, arson, looting, physical torture, attack and demolition of places of worship, threat either for voting or for not voting have been commonplace! When human rights of the minorities became all too vulnerable because of excesses committed by ultra nationalist and religious fundamentalists, and the state , at least for the time being, seemed not capable enough to protect its citizens, we heard voices raised from different corners, both at the domestic and international levels, expressing concerns for 'dialogue on elections'! Human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities were displaced to the sidelines! Will human rights continue becoming a casualty of political expediency of the so-called proponents of human rights? This is a reality we cannot ignore when we talk about the future of human rights in Bangladesh.
We at the NHRC hear complaints about slow, invisible process of migration of our compatriots not professing the faith of the mainstream population. These stories are real, not imaginary. Can we stop this process of 'forced' migration? Can we invoke in them the lost belief that this land belongs to them in no less degree than it belongs to us? Are we in a position to respond to the question I was asked by an octogenarian widow in Avoinagar, Jessore in January, 2014:” Son, will you let us live on my motherland?”
Future of human rights in Bangladesh depends to a great extent on how we respond to this question ringing in the air today!
The author is Chairman, National Human Rights Commission