Human Rights in Bangladesh 2002


By Ain o Shalish Kendra (ASK)
(Dhaka, 2003), Text pp.318, Price Tk.290

Reviewed by

Dr. Sumaiya Khair,
Associate Professor
Dept. of Law, Dhaka University

Human Rights in Bangladesh 2002 published by ASK primarily examines the infringement of human rights and Constitutional guarantees from different perspectives. It attempts to underscore the forces that essentially impede citizens' rights and privileges under law. Spread across seventeen chapters
the book expresses collective concern over the increasing divide between the state and the citizens resulting from derogation of civil and political rights with impunity. The tone of the book is set in the introductory section, which describes the modes whereby citizens are precluded from accessing equal opportunities due to lapses in governance, law enforcement and justice delivery. It is stressed that the dynamics of power operate to protect self-serving interests of those who have the requisite financial and political clout. Consequently, ordinary citizens are marginalised and unable to sustain in a system that is rife with endemic corruption and disparate treatment.

Chapter 1 presents salient events in areas of politics, administration, national economy, environment and external relations in an attempt to discern whether the Government has been able to achieve any improvements in relevant fields following the national elections of 2001. It underlines how politics and public administration are characterised by reprisal and violence and describes the consequent effects on ordinary citizens. The chapter focuses on the role of the Government in tackling these challenges
and examines at the same time, the impact of confrontational strategies adopted by the Opposition. It emphasises that the future of democracy is at stake due to continued antagonism and absence of dialogue between the Ruling Party and the Opposition.

Chapter 2 examines the nexus between good governance, corruption and human rights. Drawing upon Constitutional provisions in this context, the chapter illustrates the failures in governance and their impact on development and human rights. It stresses that in order to establish an accountable and transparent system there must be checks and balances between the different organs of the state, i.e., the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Highlighting instances of corruption this section explores the insidious effects of dishonesty on development processes. It states unequivocally that when malpractices are tolerated and sustained the state is confronted with challenges inter alia in areas of investment and productivity, resource mobilisation and policy decisions.

Chapter 3 deals with the somewhat complex issue of right to development and the status of human development in Bangladesh. It stresses on the need for a rights based approach to development for effectively addressing human deprivation and initiating attitudinal change towards the disadvantaged
segment of the population. It recognises that while fiscal measures are crucial for human development, they are insufficient, on their own, for dealing with other important aspects of people's lives like personal security, natural environment, community resources, social relations and so
on. In this context, the chapter isolates five distinct freedoms, i.e., political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, guarantees of transparency and protective security as essentials for empowering the poor and the disadvantaged. The chapter is hard hitting and comprehensive and
effectively brings to light different dimensions of human deprivation and its current status in Bangladesh.

An overview of the quality of education in Bangladesh is presented in Chapter 4. It is observed that although gender parity has been achieved and the number of schools and the rate of enrolment have risen, there is, nevertheless, no room for complacency as the education system still has a
long way to go in terms of quality, management and cost effectiveness. The urban-rural divide persists, as access to educational opportunities and net enrolment and achievement rates remain higher in urban areas as opposed to the rural. The chapter argues that the culture of private coaching, inefficient and dishonest management structure and a centralised system of
governance hinder the poor, the disabled and other marginalised groups from enforcing their rights to basic education.

Chapter 5 focusses on environmental activism and describes the proactive role of citizens in convincing the higher judiciary of the need to intervene on environmental issues. Apart from exploring current strategies and commitments adopted in both international and national contexts for reversing degradation of the global environment, the chapter examines legislative amendments and executive action in the area. It also highlights judicial decisions that direct both state and non-state actors to take necessary measures for promoting a safe and sustainable environment.

The role of the Judiciary is scrutinised again in Chapter 6. Drawing upon landmark decisions of the High Court and Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court, this chapter highlights class actions in defense of human rights. While some of the decisions paved the way for good governance, a few others seemingly curtailed the rights of citizens. Cases that form the crux of the chapter are premised inter alia on right to information, illegal detention, reservations about uniform personal laws and freedom of religion. This section observes that corruption, mismanagement and executive leverage over the courts imperil the credibility and independence of the Judiciary in more ways than one.

The issue of right to information is explored in detail in Chapter 7. This section deals at length with various statutory provisions and legal obstacles that are customarily utilised for restricting the free flow of information. It is alleged that these provisions are misinterpreted by Government agencies in a bid to legitimise their actions in denying the public access to information. The chapter exhorts on the need for wider dissemination of information in order to engender accountability in governance and ensure people's participation in policy decisions. This section is supplemented by Chapter 8, which underscores the challenges encountered by journalists in their professional lives. It gives accounts of
journalists being harassed, threatened and even detained and dragged to court on criminal charges of sedition and other anti-state activities without lawful justification. Poor governance, criminalisation of politics and the application of repressive laws severely constrain the freedom of press media and obstruct the journalists in the discharge of their professional responsibilities.

Chapter 9 documents instances of torture, ill treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention. It depicts patterns of custodial aggression, political hostility, campus violence and acts of terrorism that persistently threaten the law and order situation of the country. It also examines the impact of
new legislations that have apparently been enacted for curbing violence, but which, in effect, limit the rights of individuals. The newly enacted Law and Order Disruption Crimes (Speedy Trial) Act, 2002 and the Speedy Trial Tribunal Ordinance, 2002 are reminiscent of the severely critiqued, now
repealed, Public Safety (Special Provision) Act, 2000. It is claimed that selective application of these laws succeeds in harassing innocent civilians instead of bringing real criminals to justice. The deployment of the Army during Operation Clean Heart has had similar effects when people were taken into custody indiscriminately and tortured. Many died in custody allegedly from heart attacks.

Following from the previous section Chapter 10 looks at how the right to freedom of assembly and movement of citizens is curtailed by law enforcement authorities in flagrant violation of Constitutional
guarantees and other legal measures.

Chapter 11 describes prison conditions and the debilitating effects on the inmates. Overcrowding in prisons is a perennial problem that is compounded by absence of adequate staff, necessary facilities and satisfactory budgetary allocations. Diseases are rampant, as ailing Inmates are not provided with necessary and timely medical care. The treatment of inmates by prison staff is determined by the largesse offered in return for basic amenities. In the circumstances, it is the more affluent inmates who manage to buy services to the detriment of the poor. This chapter peruses prison reforms initiatives proposed by the Cabinet Committee on Jail Reforms that include inter alia action against corruption, legal assistance to prisoners, law reforms, and correction and rehabilitation measures.

Recalling international commitments to women's rights Chapter 12 analyses the status of women and the challenges women face constantly under national laws. Centering on selected areas of concerns, for example, maternal rights, land rights, citizenship rights, this chapter examines women's engagement with law in their everyday lives. It underlines the implications of gendered violence on women's physical safety and security. In this regard, women's insecurities are analysed in the context of state violence, domestic violence, human trafficking, and women in sex work. The chapter explicitly states that efforts to mainstream women in areas of economy, health, education and policy making are frustrated by bureaucratic lethargy, lack of political commitment and counterproductive pressure from the Legislature. The chapter calls for sustained attempts to deal with gender based inequality and discrimination.

Chapter 13 looks at the situation of minority communities in Bangladesh. It argues that differentiation on the basis of religion and ethnicity erodes the concept of nationhood and creates discord amongst populations. As it is, minority communities are marginalised in terms of rights, privileges, entitlements and equal opportunities. The situation is made more complex when they are subjected to torture, abduction, extortion, and attacks on life and property simply because they belong to a different social group. Although the Government is committed to protecting the rights of minorities
the tendency to play down rising incidents of violence and intolerance against them is indicative of double standards adopted by the state.

A review of children's rights with particular emphasis on child labour and commercial sexual exploitation of children and associated realities form the core of Chapter 14. Drawing upon ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and the Second World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children the chapter demonstrates the linkages between child
labour, trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation of children. This section delineates state obligations and revisits relevant policies and laws. It also explores the compulsions that sustain the phenomena and assesses the extent of violence children are subjected to. The chapter
recommends coordinated efforts at the national and regional levels for addressing the needs of vulnerable children and taking necessary measures for their protection.

Chapter 15 evaluates the consequences of distracted urban development on the poor and the destitute. While increasing landlessness, unemployment and natural calamities compel the poor to move to cities in search of a livelihood, there is no perceivable initiative either on the part of the
Government or the private sector to provide them with housing and shelter. Consequently, the poor resort to living in sordid urban slums, where they live in constant anxiety of being evicted either by the landowner or the Government. It is common for slum dwellers to be subjected to arrest,
intimidation and physical torture during eviction drives. This chapter peruses legal and policy framework in both international and domestic contexts on people's right to shelter and highlights public interest writs that have been instituted in this regard on various occasions. It examines
resettlement schemes undertaken so far and suggests an outline for providing the poor with sustainable housing.

Workers' rights are discussed in Chapter 16, which essentially examines the status of workers' in the garment factories and the conditions in which they work. This chapter provides an overview of the laws, Conventions and Codes of Conduct for the protection of workers' rights. It maintains that although many of the rights envisaged in international and domestic legal standards have been incorporated in Codes of Conduct of Transnational Companies (TNCs), their enforcement is minimal. Consequently, workers are deprived of their basic rights and this deprivation is often accompanied by a distinct gender bias. This chapter defines the role of various actors, i.e., the Government, TNCs, ILO, BGMEA and NGOs in ensuring workers' rights and minimum labour standards.

Chapter 17 investigates the impact of unplanned shrimp cultivation on agricultural lands, peoples' livelihoods and natural environment. In the absence of adequate legal measures, shrimp culture is carried out on an ad hoc basis under Government orders. Despite the fact that this sector provides people, specially women and children, with employment opportunities, it has far reaching mplications on their health, shelter and food security. Peasants are deprived from subsistence agriculture and
fishing as salt water from shrimp enclosures destroys agricultural lands. Working conditions are far from ideal as wages are low and the hard work adversely affects workers' health and well-being. The sector is also plagued by incidents of violence, land grabbing, kidnapping and assault and
hazardous practices that pose threats to the environment.

Drawing upon the expertise of authors who are well known in their respective disciplines, Human Rights in Bangladesh 2002 not only presents vivid accounts of human rights abuses but also describes citizens' initiatives in preventing human rights violations and advocating for change. It identifies institutional weaknesses and executive excesses that in effect circumscribe the rule of law and democratic practices. However, while the book provides useful information on various forms of human rights violation, many of the articles lack critical legal analysis of the issues at hand. Only a few of the articles offer adequate description of the substance of human rights from a purely legal perspective. As such, the standard of the articles lack coherence. However, the diversity of information in the book offers policy makers with a concrete reference point for initiating reforms in relevant areas of law, governance and justice.

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  Photo : Abir Abdullah/ Drik
( Evicted slum dweller, from High Court ground)