Rights commission on wrong track

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By C R Abrar

THIS year marks the 20th anniversary of the much-celebrated Paris Principles. The principles were framed to foster institutions in promoting and monitoring effective implementation of international human rights standards at the national level. The reluctance of the executive arm of the state to make itself accountable to any autonomous rights monitoring authority quite often leads external actors to take initiative, cajole and induce the government authorities concerned to establish national human rights institutions (variedly termed as commissions or committees in specific country situations). Under such context, a fair share of the burden to nurture and strengthen those institutions often falls on those external actors. The Bangladesh case has not been any exception.
After years of dithering and wasting resources when the elected public representatives failed to enact the law for setting up such an institution, ironically the onus fell on the military-backed caretaker government to form the National Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh. From its inception the commission suffered from Paris Principles deficit. It was deliberately kept weak through limited mandate and selection process of its functionaries. The rights practitioners viewed it as a toothless tiger. A glimmer of hope was raised among some as the Awami League government won a massive majority on the platform to usher in change and uphold the rule of law. Civil society expected the new government to graft new denture on the tiger. But subsequent amendment to the NHRC act dashed such optimism.
Upholding the Paris Principles would mean that the human rights commission focuses its work on core protection issues, such as ‘the prevention of torture and degrading treatment, summary executions, arbitrary detention and disappearances, or the protection of human rights defenders’. The commission was expected to play a critical role in advancing all aspects of the rule of law, including with regard to the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and the correctional system. Its additional responsibility included encouraging the objective of a universal culture of human rights by sensitising parliamentarians and civil society including educational institutions and the media.
Rights activists have bemoaned the restrictive nature of the commission’s mandate and the disproportionate say of the executive in the selection process of the chair and members of the commission. Section 12/2/c of the NHRC charter excludes ‘public servants’ and ‘employees engaged in the service of statutory government authority’ from the commission’s purview. One may also argue that the current system of selection, with near-exclusive authority of the executive, falls far short of the ‘necessary guarantees to ensure pluralist representation of the social forces (of civilian society) involved in the promotion and protection of human rights’ (Principle 4 of the Paris Principles). Added to these structural limitations, the alleged absence of team spirit and partisan bias of the key functionaries have further compromised the commission in Bangladesh and created conditions for it to deviate from the high standards of the Paris Principles.
Any rudimentary knowledge of the concept of human rights would inform that human beings are born with certain inalienable rights. They are entitled to enjoy those rights irrespective of their temporal and spatial existence and even the state has to respect and honour those rights. Every individual — the good and the bad, the prince and the pauper, the preacher and the sinner, the faithful and the atheist, the victim and the perpetrator, the powerful and the defenceless, the mighty and the weak — are all entitled to the protection of the law and to be treated with dignity in accordance with the law. As states have the propensity to undermine those rights the human rights commission as an institution is expected to act as a watchdog of the rights and freedom of every person, citizen or not, irrespective of gender, colour, language, faith, sexual orientation, political opinion and the like.
One would not be wrong to assume that in any given society it is the weak, the poor, the minorities, the women, the powerless and the disadvantaged who are generally treated unjustly and unfairly by the state institutions and thus require special support and attention of institutions such as the human rights commission. A handful of individuals and organisations that stand up for the rights and dignity of the abovementioned marginalised groups, i.e. the human rights defenders, also become targets of arbitrary and often illegitimate actions of the state. The commission has an added responsibility to provide them with unfettered protection. Perhaps, it would be worthwhile at this stage to examine how the commission and Bangladesh have dealt with a few of such cases in the recent past.
The role of the commission in the much talked about Limon case is a concrete example. When Limon was illegally shot and maimed by the members of law enforcement agencies, its chair took a public stand demanding justice. In addition, Limon was charged with a false arms-case. When his family filed a case against the police, the latter refused to entertain it. Later, public outrage followed by a court order forced the police to change its position. In the meantime, the maiming cost Limon one of his legs. When he went to secure support of the commission in pursuing his case, the latter hit the headlines when the chair counselled Limon to make a compromise with the perpetrators. Was the commission chief acting within his remit in offering such advice? Or would he defend his position by invoking the additional principles with quasi-judicial competence under the Paris Principles? Such a shift in position severely undermined the commission among the general people.
On another occasion, when the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit organised a national consultation on the ‘Rohingyas in Bangladesh: Economic Migrants or Asylum Seekers’, the rights chief began his statement pointing fingers at the ‘armchair intellectuals’ for ‘purposefully directing the attention of the nation to an issue (Rohinygas) when the whole country was engaged in the serious business of holding the trials of war criminals.’ One wonders what could have been the commission’s response if the question was posed: should the activists and aggrieved persons refrain from drawing attention to what they may perceive to be violations of rights until matters deemed by the state or the commission get sorted out? To the best of knowledge of this author, the Paris Principles do not privilege one set of violations over the others. It may very well be that the commission has a different take on this.
The Hefajat-e-Islam rally of May 5 and 6 this year created another important test for the commission. The nation was brought to the edge as the faith-based obscurantist elements staged a siege of the business district of Dhaka, after securing necessary permission from the home ministry. The government used lethal force when it felt that the situation was going out of control and decided to flush out the occupants in the early hours of May 6. There has been a lot of confusion about the human cost of the ’10-minute operation’ that the government claimed was surgically performed with zero casualty. Rumours were rife about the number of casualties of the two-day incident. Amnesty International claimed 44 people died, both Human Rights Watch and Al Jazeera reported 50 deaths, New Age 24, The Daily Star 27 and Odhikar 61 in their preliminary count. The information ministry in its July 10 letter to Odhikar acknowledged, ‘misgivings (bibhranti) have arisen among the public on the number of deaths’. Under such circumstances, may one ask why the human rights commission did not urge the government to institute a judicial enquiry into the incident or hold its own enquiry as it is mandated under Section 2/a/ii and iii with corresponding provisions of the Paris Principle 3/a/ii and iii? One may also ask what gave the commission the authority to reject the Odhikar report and figures of casualties and those of other organisations and news agencies when the commission had wretchedly failed to deliver on its own mandate. Was the commission playing to a certain gallery?
The Felani killing is another case in point. One has not found the commission active in rendering legal assistance to the family members of the deceased as they fought a legal battle against the mighty Indian border security establishment. Has there been any major follow-up on the public pronouncement of the commission after the infamous acquittal order of the self-confessed killer that the chair would take up the matter with his Indian counterpart? If so, does the Bangladeshi public have the right to know what transpired in that communication? Or is it something too confidential that the commission prefers to hold on to its chest as the foreign affairs establishment often does?
The commission has delivered very little in providing relief to the common people’s concerns on disappearance and extrajudicial killings. Although the commission’s website makes very clear its bold stand against such gross excesses, thus far it has delivered little in concrete terms. It is quite pertinent to mention here that the commission instituted enquiries into three cases of disappearances with representatives of the police, home affairs ministry and human rights organisations (nominated by the commission). But so far none of the reports of the enquiry committees has been finalised or made public. Is not it pertinent to ask what precludes the commission to complete the reports and release them in the public domain? Would not releasing the reports be in conformity with the spirit of the Paris Principles and massively contribute to the public confidence in the commission as a rights protecting institution? On the contrary, by withholding the report, if not suppressing it, does the commission not run the risk of portraying itself condoning impunity of the wrongdoers?
The heavy-handedness of law enforcement agencies in dealing with the political opposition has drastically shrunk the space for legitimate protest. Political parties are routinely denied their right to demonstrate and hold public rallies and are subjected to excessive use of force. Increasingly citizens’ groups concerned over treatment of garments workers or use of port, oil, gas and natural resources are also being denied permission to hold rallies and voice their concerns. Peaceful and unarmed rallies are dispersed with disproportionate use of force. One wonders if the human rights commission views these activisms and protests legitimate and, if it does, why it is keeping quiet as the state agencies become more and more reckless in denying the democratic space. Why do the Paris Principles not impel the commission to take a bold stand against the excesses of the executive arm of the state?
One may also note the commission’s reticence in upholding the freedom of expression as a national daily was shut down with its editor maltreated and put behind the bars and two television channels closed down indefinitely. One may have issues with the ideological moorings of the daily or the television channels concerned but does that provide justifiable ground for their closure without the due process of law? Does the commission not feel that it is within its mandate to protect the democratic space for all? Or does it feel that such a space should be the sole preserve of those who believe in particular ideology and of the followers of a nebulous concept peddled as the ‘spirit of the war of liberation’?
In recent times, the last resort of a democratic order and the rule of law, the higher judiciary, has become the focus of attention. Eminent jurists including Dr Kamal Hossain, Barrister Rafiqul Huq and Dr Rokonuddin Mahmud and rights activist Sara Hossain have expressed serious concerns about the state of higher judiciary including the Appellate Division. This does not bode well for the nation. May one ask whether the human rights commission is paying attention to such forewarnings of the learned jurists and rights practitioners? Or is the commission treating them as yet another bunch of political suspects engaged to discredit the existing regime?
Evidences are replete that the commission has become a mere appendage of the executive arm of the state. A part of the explanation lies in the legislation that created the institution and the other part in the failure of the key functionaries to adequately comprehend the concept of human rights, to uphold the dignity of their office, to maintain neutrality and objectivity and to shun their political leanings. All these have largely contributed for this institution becoming irrelevant to the common citizenry, instead of a source of support and strength in their struggle against the omnipotent state.

CR Abrar teaches international relations at Dhaka University. He is the president of Odhikar.

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