Protect those who protect us
Enamul Haque, the Gobindaganj local correspondent of Bangla daily Samakal, has seriously been beaten by the Union Parishad Chairman Atikur Rahman on May 21, 2018. The journalist exposed severe loopholes in the rehabilitation process of the forcefully evicted Santals from their land more than a year ago. He had been reporting continuously on the plights of the Santals since their village was set on fire and Santals had been evicted forcefully in November 2016.
On May 28, 2018, APM Sohel, a student of Jagannath University’s (JnU) English department, who is also a leader of the quota reform movement (Joint General Convener), was attacked in front of the main gate of Jagannath University. These are only few of the recent examples of the lives of human rights defenders in Bangladesh.
2018 is the 20th year of the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The declaration is an important tool for human rights defenders as it recognizes their work, focuses on the need of protection, and also emphasizes on the responsibility of the state to ensure protection of human rights defenders.
Who are they?
As per the declaration, “human rights defender” is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. There is no specific definition of who is or can be a human rights defender. The HRD Declaration refers to any individual, group, or association who contributes to the protection and promotion of human rights.
In this backdrop, the recently concluded review of Bangladesh’s human rights situation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 14, 2018 has been considered as a significant event for the human rights defenders of Bangladesh.
Many HRDs were keen to observe how seriously their contributions and plights are taken into consideration by the government of Bangladesh as well as by international human rights communities.
The situation of human rights defenders did not get much attention during the previous two cycles of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Bangladesh, held in 2009 and 2013. There were no specific recommendations concerning HRDs in the first cycle in 2009. During the second cycle in 2013, Bangladesh received 196 recommendations, out of which only one recommendation made by Norway was directly related to HRDs: “Step up its efforts to ensure that HRDs are protected and allowed to conduct their work without hindrance, intimidation, or harassment -- both at the national and local levels.”
Bangladesh did accept this recommendation, however, the following five years subsequent to the review was probably the hardest time for the HRDs in Bangladesh.
Front Line Defenders, an international organization, working for the protection of human rights defenders stated in their UPR submission that they have documented 15 killings of HRDs between May 2013 and October 2017.
It said: “What began in 2013 as an assault on bloggers sharing secular views and criticizing the influence of fundamental Islam on Bangladeshi politics, transitioned into a lethal environment for HRDs advocating for human rights-related reforms to which those pushing a fundamentalist Islamic agenda were opposed as a responsibility to protect HRDs.”
Now, after the review it seems that the overall situation of human rights defenders, particularly the need for recognizing their legitimate work and to take steps for their protection, has widely been highlighted.
Front Line Defenders have noted that: “Bangladesh received more than 10 recommendations directly related to the protection of human rights defenders in the latest UPR.
“Given that Bangladesh had received only one recommendation related to human rights defenders in the previous UPR, this review highlights the deteriorating situation faced by human rights defenders in Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh seemed to have accepted most of the recommendations related to the protection of HRDs.
However, this is just a small step, the actual progress to ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders depends on many more practical and effective steps to be taken by the government.
We need our human rights defenders
The government’s failure to publicly condemn attacks on human rights defenders in the past has had severe and wide-reaching impacts on this community.
The wave of killings during 2015-2016 has spread fear among human rights defenders, and the climate of impunity that clouded the killings led to the disintegration of their networks and loss of trust in domestic protection mechanism.
To regain the trust and confidence of the HRDs, the government needs to do a lot -- starting from amending the restrictive legislation, including the 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act and the draft Digital Security Act, to ensuring impartial investigation and judicial procedure into the past violations against HRDs to strongly and publicly condemn the attacks on human rights defenders to send a powerful message to the perpetrators.
Sayeed Ahmad is a human rights activist based in Bangladesh.