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We cannot afford to be bureaucratic about human rights

  • Published at 11:56 pm December 29th, 2019
Human rights need to be respected
Human rights need to be respected / BIGSTOCK

The NHRC’s policies on extra-judicial killings are nothing if not disappointing 

Recently, during a dialogue between civil society and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the newly appointed Chairperson Nasima Begum of the NHRC expressed that there exists no legal bar for the commission to investigate cases of human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies. 

She stressed that there exists no room for any debate regarding the interpretation of Section 18 of the NHRC Act 2009, as she does not believe there to be any barriers to investigate complaints against law enforcing agencies. Rather, she shared that, since she has taken office, the commission has been working on investigating such complaints.

Coming directly from the commission chair, this ray of hope given to the civil society was a fundamental improvement since the establishment of the commission. 

This improvement in perspective was gladly welcomed by the civil society and human rights defenders as it would cut short the lengthy periods of time spent waiting for a mere response from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

This would allow the commission to commence investigation immediately on the happenings or complaints of human rights violations by security forces.

Unfortunately, this newly kindled hope was extinguished quite quickly by the chairperson herself, when a newspaper article published on Human Rights Day quoted her saying: “There is a specific department allocated to investigating extra-judicial killings. I [the commission] do not have sufficient human resources to do such investigations.”

When an extra-judicial killing takes place at the hands of the law enforcement agencies -- and nobody is there to delve into the issue of human rights violations besides the executive department -- the check and balance to ensure the accountability of these law enforcement agencies becomes grossly frustrated. 

It was due to the lack of confidence the public had in the fairness, independence, and neutrality of the inquiries conducted by the executive department, which necessitated the involvement of the commission through its founding act.

The recent review of Bangladesh under Convention against Torture (CAT) also reiterated it.

According to the chair, the dialogue was her first time attending a civil society event since her entry in September 2019. Referring to her “newness,” she acknowledged the fact that she preferred knowing the law before delving into its implementation. The chair also emphasized that she wanted to show positive changes within the area of human rights through her actions.

There is no denying that the commission lost the  public’s trust due to its inaction in investigating violations by law enforcement agencies, as well as controversial investigations in some significant incidents: A few cases in point are investigations done on the rape of two Marma Sisters in Bandarban, or the gang rape of a woman in Subarnachar during the night of the 11th National Parliamentary Election in December 2018. 

Recalling the consequences of these incidents, the independence of the commission continues to remain questionable. It can be concluded from the commission’s annual report from 2018, that it disposed of 589 complaints out of 728 complaints, which is a significant improvement when compared to its complaints handling in previous years. However, what deserves intensive scrutiny is the nature of complaints addressed by the commission.

Most of the disposed complaints are related to violence against women and children. 

The disturbing picture of the lack of the commission’s initiative to principally address state violence is evident when a comparison is made with the annual report of the National Human Rights Commission, India -- a country whose founding acts of the commission is similar in text and language to that of Bangladesh.

Such concerns on and dilly-dallying of the commission, with regards to the complaints, bring forth the recent disappointment that the civil society had with the selection process and subsequent appointment of the members of the new commission this year.

It can be recalled that, even before the process of selection began, human rights organizations urged the selection committee to follow a transparent process while ensuring consultation with CSOs, HRDs, and other relevant stakeholders.

The civil society and human rights defenders hope that by the commission’s 10th anniversary, it will overcome the frustration and the disappointment of the public, regarding its functions, image, and the challenges it continues to face with regards to its mandate, and revive the trust and confidence the public had in this institution to some extent.

Regardless of such frustrations, we want to keep alive a sliver of hope that, in protecting human rights, the new commission may just be able to take visible steps to ensure the accountability of the government. 

Tamanna Hoq Riti and Maimuna Syed Ahmed work at Media and International Advocacy Unit, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK).