Over the years, Transparency International (TI) has done an admirable job in exposing perceptions of corruption around the world, providing one means of holding to account those who handle levers of power and resources.
This task is salient to present-day Bangladesh, where a large population is governed by a corrupt and highly polarising political establishment. Transparency International’s annual corruption index is followed to see whether the country ranks at the top of the list, again. Yet, this very important task is undermined when TI’s Bangladesh chapter undermines its own ethics as laid out in its Statement of Vision, Values and Guiding Principles. Here, the organisation proudly declares: “We will be democratic, politically non-partisan and non-sectarian in our work.” However, TI Bangladesh has been anything but democratic, non-partisan and non-sectarian in taking and positions within the country’s toxic tribunal politics. Here’s how.
Weighing in on Bangladesh’s Partisan Politics
From 15th December until 13th March of this year, nineteen statements were released on behalf of TI Bangladesh . Only five of these were concerned with corruption, while the rest demonstrated a partisan affinity to partisan politics.
In the current crisis supporters of the government are demanding the execution of opposition politicians and the banning of the party they lead. Many of them are being tried by a controversial “International Crimes Tribunal” as alleged war criminals over crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. The accused vehemently deny the charges, demanding fair trials, while the national politics is largely split down the middle over the whole affair.
International human bodies have criticised the tribunal process as unfair, with the Economist last December exposing collusionbetween the state, prosecutors and the judges of the court. Defence witness Shokranjan Bali, himself a victim of the 1971 war crimes, was abducted outside the court gates and has not been seen since. In the midst of this high-profile case of daylight corruption of the judiciary, TI Bangladesh’s voice was nowhere to be heard.
This changed however when the Tribunal passed judgement on one of the accused – Abdul Qader Molla – and handed down a sentence of life imprisonment. In addition to the controversies marring the conduct of the Tribunal, this particular verdict was not without disputation as many contradictions had been highlighted in the case.
Enter stage left Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), who issued an extraordinary statement making it very clear where they stood, dismissing any concerns whatsoever about the conduct of the Tribunal itself, or the collusion with government.
TIB’s Executive Director Dr. Iftekhar-uz-Zaman said on 6 February,
“TIB feels that the verdict given against Abdul Quader Mollah does not reflect the expectations of the people. This verdict is not compatible with the spirit of the liberation war and does not show proper respect to the martyrs, but rather it is disgraceful. We are frustrated, ashamed and disheartened. This verdict is not compatible with the earlier verdict given to Bacchu Razakar, when comparing the significance of their crimes. Thus the verdict has created frustration, anger and lack of trust among the people, and will further embolden the opponents of the International Crimes Tribunal.”
Their statement went on,
“Taking in consideration the reaction of the people against the verdict of Abdul Quader Mollah, and also utilizing legal expertise if necessary, the weakness of the law should be amended. Thus TIB is calling for justice to be conducted with the highest level of firmness and professionalism, for the crimes against humanity.”
To translate, firmness, according to TIB was the death penalty. Since the statement was issued, activists congregating around the Shahbag roundabout have staged demonstrations, with government connivance, demanding the death penalty for the all the accused, even though not all have been tried yet. The atmosphere has become polarised even further. To supporters Shahbag is seen as a extraordinary movement demanding justice for the crimes of 1971. For the opposition, they are seen as a simple lynch mob increasingly staged by the government. The government on its part, in response to Shahbag, has rushed through legislation giving it the power to overturn the punishment decisions of the Tribunal.
Transparency International Bangladesh’s partisan stance was compounded on 3rdMarch when it issued a statement condemning violence from Jamaat-Shibir after a death sentence was handed to a Jamaat leader, with the NGO effectively called for the party’s banning. And on 17 February, it abandoned any pretence of remaining above the fray by publicly backing the Shahbag demonstrations, while remaining silent about the hundreds — mostly from the opposition — killed, maimed and detained by the police.
Where is the Accountability at TIB?
In issuing their statement, Transparency International Bangladesh, far from upholding the organisation’s commitment to democratic, non-partisan, non-sectarian work, have done the opposite.
Is Transparency International paying lip service to its foundational values? Will its international ethics committee do the right thing and review TIB’s status as a national chapter?
In the past, the chapter had earned credibility in civil and wider society. It built a good reputation itself by confronting corruption wherever it came from, and its late chairman, Prof. Muzaffar Ahmed, was always vocal against corruption while remaining publicly neutral about politics.
The recent behaviour of TIB is demonstrative of how the mask of humanity is slipping from the faces of avowedly secular progressives such as Sultana Kamal, TIB’s Chair and Mahfuz Anam, TIB’s treasurer and editor of the increasingly pro-government, elite English language Daily Star. In recent weeks, when the international media would beam Bangladesh’s police brutality — which outlets such as the Daily Star refused to acknowledge — Ms Kamal, who is also executive director of human rights NGO Ain-O-Salish Kendra, made a public plea to the international media to ignore ‘selective images’ of the violence and asked reporters to check facts with a cross-section of society. Presumably that would also include checking her own, unsubstantiated allegations that opposition parties were wholly responsible for the violence.
Transparency International cannot afford to have rogue national chapters staffed by people who clearly have a vested interest in getting their hands dirty in the worst of – rather than staying above – Bangladesh’s highly charged and partisan political space. More sectorally however, this episode highlights the potentially undemocratic role of International NGOs operating in Bangladesh. What positive value do they bring to Bangladesh’s civil society, and how accountable are they not only in Bangladesh, but also in the countries in which they are head-quartered in?
Source: The Khichuri