UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet delivered this address on 17 August:
I would like to begin by warmly thanking the government of Bangladesh for its invitation, the first time a high commissioner for human rights has visited the country. I hope my visit will build on the government’s engagement with the UN’s human rights mechanisms and help deepen cooperation with us, furthering the promotion and protection of human rights in Bangladesh.
My visit coincided with an important day of national mourning, commemorating the assassination of the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on 15 August 1975. It was a day which naturally lent itself to reflections on the history of Bangladesh – its painful past, a people’s struggle for independence and for their human rights, millions of whom had been forced to flee in 1971.
In my discussions with civil society members and government officials, the sense of pride at this history of resistance and resilience of the Bangladeshi people came across strongly.
Bangladesh has made remarkable economic and social progress and is aiming to graduate from least-developed country status in a few years. Starting from a low baseline, Bangladesh has made strides in socioeconomic development, poverty eradication, access to education and health, women’s and children’s mortality, and access to food, water and sanitation.
Bangladesh has been a leader in international fora on key human rights issues such as migration and climate change. It has also stepped up to provide refuge to more than one million Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee persecution and serious international crimes being committed against them across the border in Myanmar.
Bangladesh also continues to face challenges on the human rights front, and I have been able to discuss many of these extensively with the government and civil society members.
In Dhaka, I met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and the ministers for foreign affairs, home affairs, law and education and other state officials. I met with the national human rights commission and representatives of civil society, as well as members of the diplomatic community and academics.
I was able to interact with students at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies on climate change and human rights. The delegation from my office was also able to represent me in meetings with other stakeholders, including trade unions and political parties.
My discussions came against the backdrop of increased economic strains due in part to the impact of the Covid pandemic and the globally reverberating consequences of the war in Ukraine. Rising food and fuel prices mean that the cost of living is increasing, and in such circumstances, of course, the most marginalised and vulnerable are hit the hardest.
The country’s extreme vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change is a persistent challenge.
Bangladesh is also entering an election cycle, with general elections due next year, which tends to be a time of increased polarisation and tension.
In such circumstances, what is key is that people from various sectors of society are heard and that they feel heard. Civil society members are important resources that governments need to tap into. Critical voices can help to identify the problems, to acknowledge them, to dive deep into the causes and discuss solutions.
Acknowledging the challenges is always the first step to overcoming them.
My exchanges with civil society representatives were rich and insightful – this was not surprising as Bangladesh has historically had a wealth of civil society expertise in various fields.
But successive UN human rights reports have documented a narrowing civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals, often leading to self-censorship. Laws and policies over-regulating NGOs and broadly restricting the freedom of expression make it difficult – and sometimes risky – for them to function effectively.
Democratic and civic space, as well as effective checks and balances and accountability are essential as Bangladesh aims for the next levels of development. It also contributes to decrease the risk of corruption and other hurdles to sustainable economic development and sound fiscal management.
The election period will be an important time for Bangladesh to maximise civic and political space, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly of political activists, human rights defenders, opposition parties and journalists. It is also important to ensure that law enforcement forces have the necessary training to manage protests without resorting to the excessive use of force.
There needs to be space for more dialogue among political parties and with a wide range of civil society actors to prevent grievances from building and erupting in social unrest. The voices of women, religious minorities and indigenous peoples, and especially young people need to be heard.
Women’s formal participation in political decision-making processes at local levels has improved in recent years. I also called on the government to take proactive measures to increase the number of women in decision-making positions at all levels.
There has been much progress – more and more women have entered the labour force in some sectors, and the country has witnessed improvements in girls’ education, with gender parity reached in primary schools.
But despite the adoption of a number of important national policy frameworks, challenges to gender equality remain. Violence against women, including sexual violence, remains high and access to justice and accountability for the victims remains difficult.
I welcomed the government’s legal recognition of hijras and I hope it will take further steps to respect, protect and fulfil the fundamental human rights of LGBTIQ+ persons.
I stressed the importance of protecting minority groups, such as Hindus and indigenous peoples, from violence or land encroachments. The peace accord in the Chittagong Hill Tracts 25 years ago was an important achievement. But given the continued allegations of human rights violations, linked with land disputes and the need for demilitarisation, I called for full implementation of the peace accord and unrestricted access for independent actors to visit the area.
Bangladesh has a solid framework in its constitution, laws and international commitments to draw from in facing human rights challenges. It is party to all the core UN human rights treaties, except for the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance – which I have called on the government to ratify.
The committees reviewing states’ compliance with these treaties have made important recommendations, as have various UN human rights independent experts. Recommendations have also been made through the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review process.
It is vital that the government focuses on implementation and an institutionalised system for follow up. These recommendations are important benchmarks and help strengthen linkages between human rights and the sustainable development goals.
Various UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN Committee Against Torture, have been raising concerns for several years about allegations of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killing, torture – many of which have been attributed to the Rapid Action Battalion – and the lack of accountability for such violations.
I raised my deep concern about these serious allegations with government ministers and highlighted the need for an impartial, independent and transparent investigation into these allegations, accompanied by security sector reform.
There are continued alarming allegations of both short-term and long-term enforced disappearances and concerns about the lack of due process and judicial safeguards.
Particularly given the long-standing frustrations at the lack of progress in investigations and other obstacles to justice, I encouraged the government to create an independent, specialised mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. My office is ready to provide advice on how such a body could be designed in line with international standards.
Inviting the UN working group on enforced disappearances to visit Bangladesh would also show a commitment to decisively address this issue. As the biggest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, Bangladesh should ensure it has a robust system in place for the careful human rights screening of security personnel.
I also discussed law reforms to bring domestic legislation in line with international human rights laws.
My office and the government have engaged in dialogue on review of the Digital Security Act. I acknowledge the need to regulate the online space, addressing online hate speech, disinformation and combating cybercrime. Addressing these concerns is not simple, as regulating communications always creates risks for the protection of freedom of expression.
We have submitted our recommendations for repeal and revision of certain provisions of the act, with a view to ensuring their compliance with international human rights laws and standards, and preventing arbitrary application or misuse.
We look forward to the government’s feedback and timeline to expedite the review. We also discussed the importance of working closely with civil society and the UN to ensure that the new draft data protection law and the OTT (Over The Top Platforms) regulations meet international human rights standards.
The UN is firmly against imposition of the death penalty in any and all circumstances, and I also encouraged steps to reduce its scope and move towards a moratorium.
During my time in Bangladesh, I also visited Cox’s Bazar, where an impressive effort has been made by the government, the UN and other partners in the Rohingya refugee camps. The importance of Bangladesh’s humanitarian contribution – and its historical significance – cannot be overstated. The international community must sustain its support to Bangladesh in its response and press Myanmar to create conditions for return, address the root causes and pursue accountability.
These are people who fled extreme violence and systematic discrimination five years ago, in one of the largest movements of people in recent history. What I heard in my conversations with women, young people, religious leaders and other Rohingya refugees in the camps was a resounding hope that they will be able to return to their villages and homes in Myanmar – but only when the conditions are right.
Unfortunately, the current situation across the border means that the conditions are not right for returns. Repatriation must always be conducted in a voluntary and dignified manner, only when safe and sustainable conditions exist in Myanmar.
In the camps, I was heartened to see young girls and boys at learning centres and attended lively maths and Burmese classes taught by community members. The younger children were energised and spoke of their aspirations for their future.
In my meeting with older children, however, there was more frustration at the passage of time. One boy spoke of the years lost that he will never get back and expressed a strong desire to contribute to his community and, eventually, to his home country Myanmar.
Expanding these education and livelihood opportunities for girls and boys will be the best way to prevent social problems and criminality and to fully prepare refugees for sustainable reintegration in Myanmar society.
The refugees I spoke to in Cox’s Bazar, and indeed refugees and internally displaced people I’ve met in various parts of the world, stressed that they do not want to be dependent on aid. They want to be productive, to earn a living, to contribute to society and improve their conditions of life.
I encourage the government to give space to community-led initiatives in the camps in Bhashan Char and Cox’s Bazar, so that those with such aspirations are able to support and contribute to serving the needs of fellow refugees. Many I spoke to were fearful of the security situation both in terms of the activity of armed groups and criminal gangs, but also the vulnerability of women and girls. The security and freedom of expression of Rohingya civil society and human rights defenders also needs to be protected.
I am very worried about increasing anti-Rohingya rhetoric in Bangladesh, stereotyping and scapegoating Rohingyas as the source of crime and other problems. I am particularly concerned that a pre-electoral context, combined with economic difficulties and uncertainties, will mean more hate speech against these vulnerable communities.
I call on the government and all Bangladeshis to be vigilant against such harmful rhetoric, to actively counter misinformation with facts, and to foster understanding with the host communities.
As Bangladesh continues to grow economically, effective, accountable and inclusive institutions – in line with the sustainable development goals (no 16) – are essential for achieving the next level of development. This means inclusivity, participation and accountability.
Strengthening the independence of institutions, including the national human rights commission, the elections commission and the judiciary, will be key. The UN country team stands by to support implementation of all sustainable development goals.
I hope my visit will further boost Bangladesh’s engagement – government and non-governmental – with the UN human rights office and mechanisms. Bangladesh will also undertake its fourth universal periodic review in the Human Rights Council next year, which will be an important moment to take stock of progress.
It is encouraging that the new special rapporteur on climate change and human rights will visit the country soon. I call on the international community to support Bangladesh and other vulnerable states in their demand for effective climate action.
For all the significant human rights challenges ahead – economic, climate-related, political, social and humanitarian – I am convinced that if the powerful resources within the whole society are harnessed, and if policies and responses are crafted with the participation of many diverse voices, Bangladesh will continue to shine brighter in its remarkable development journey. – UN Human Rights