A report issued by the United Nations Working Group on Involuntary and Enforced Disappearances last week strongly criticized the government of Bangladesh, citing both the excessive use of force by state actors and a “high rate” of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
The report called on the Bangladeshi government to “investigate all cases of arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances, and excessive use of force, prosecute and if convicted, punish the perpetrators with appropriate sanctions, and provide full reparations to the victims.” Recognizing the criminal nature and impact on human dignity, the UN reiterated their commitment to the Bangladesh government to help implement the 1992 UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. While the government ratified the convention in 2000, they failed to comply with the contents of the treaty, which included the provision of a report on compliance one year after ratification. The final report was not provided until 2015.
The UN report on Involuntary and Enforced Disappearances was issued three days after the Working Group called on the government to “immediately reveal the whereabouts” of three men who were kidnapped six months earlier. All three men are sons of prominent members of the political opposition.
It was reported by Amnesty International that one of the three men was released on March 2nd, 2017. The whereabouts of the other two men remain unknown, and they have not been heard from since their abduction in August 2016.
Forced disappearances have been an on-going occurrence in Bangladesh, with 1,300 alleged extrajudicial killings and 325 enforced disappearances occurring under the current Awami government, which came to power in 2009. Similar figures were reported under the previous government, with many of these appearances still attributed to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of the Bangladesh police force.
Disappearances are a tool used by an increasingly authoritarian government regime to silence those who have spoken critically of government action. Civil society groups who work to promote civil and political rights have continued to face challenges in their work, including the passing of the Foreign Donations act in October 2016, which gives the government control over the activities of non-government organizations. Additionally, members of the media, members of civil society, and those who belong to the political opposition have been specifically targeted by the government. This activity increased in 2016, with the editors of two leading newspapers being charged with multiple crimes, including sedition and criminal defamation.
Amidst pressure to act, the government launched an initiative in May 2016 to find the perpetrators who killed bloggers, secularists, academics, and LGBTQIA+ activists. Following this, approximately 15,000 people were detained in June. Shortly after, alleged members and supporters of extremist groups responsible for the attack on the Holey Café in Dhaka on July 1st were killed by state forces in purportedly armed encounters. Several people were secretly detained by state forces and denied access to both lawyers and their families. Only one of the detainees was released, while the others remain imprisoned. Out of 90 people secretly detained in 2016, only 22 bodies have been found. The whereabouts of the rest remain unknown.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both highlighted Bangladesh’s security forces extensive and well-documented history of custodial abuse, including torture and other ill-treatment. It is hoped that the UN report, combined with international pressure, will bring about change in an increasingly troubled nation.