Global rights campaigner Amnesty International has asked Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to withdraw the restrictions imposed on foreigners wishing to visit or organise activities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The London-based group in a statement issued on Monday urged the premier to ensure her government’s “compliance with its international obligations vis-à-vis the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and other communities in the CHT, by withdrawing the memorandum.”
They said that the memorandum had failed to explain why the restrictions are necessary and proportionate, and pursue a legitimate aim.
The memorandum, first issued in January this year, was greeted with national and international criticism; in response, the government withdrew some of the restrictions in April, Amnesty said. “However, the memorandum continues to impose serious restrictions on human rights.”
The revised version of the memorandum, entitled “Implementation of decisions regarding the visit of foreign nationals to the CHT, having meetings with local tribal people,” places restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement, assembly and association, and freedom from discrimination.
The restrictions focus on interactions between foreign nationals (and in some cases the general population of Bangladesh) and the “tribal” peoples in the CHT region, and as such, are discriminatory, the statement issued by South Asia Research Director and Transition Lead David Griffiths said.
They also threaten other human rights such as freedom of expression – including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds – and non-interference with privacy and family, the statement reads.
According to sources, the Home Ministry adopted 11-point decisions at a meeting on January 7 based on a report prepared by the Border Guard Bangladesh, aimed at “improving law and order and preserving sovereignty.”
The decisions were issued on January 27 to the administrative bodies in the three hill districts, the PMO, the law enforcement agencies and other offices concerned. However, the government later revised the directives but kept the restriction on the foreign nationals.
“The memorandum requires that foreign nationals wishing to visit the region apply in advance to the government to gain permission to visit the region. It lays out the procedure to be followed depending on whether the person in question is a tourist, a diplomat or a United Nations employee, an employee of a company operating in the CHT, or other category of visitor.
“If visitors to the region – including Bangladeshi nationals – wish to hold a meeting with anyone in the region, they must seek prior permission from a government official, specifying who will attend and the matters to be discussed and the reasons for the meeting. If the authorities decide to grant permission, the local law enforcement authorities will be notified.”
Amnesty alleged that the memorandum openly violates a number of human rights safeguards including freedom of movement, right to privacy and family life and arbitrariness.
“While the CHT is not exclusively inhabited by the Indigenous Peoples, the memorandum's title indicates that the primary aim is to place restrictions on meetings with 'tribal' individuals and communities (since 2010, the government of Bangladesh has denied the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the country and instead uses the term 'tribal').”
It says that since 51.4% of the population of the CHT is indigenous, according to the 1991 census, therefore “any measure solely affecting the CHT will have a significantly disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples.
“As the government has not explained why measures restricting freedom of access to the CHT are necessary, Amnesty International believes that the impact of these measures will be discriminatory with regard to the Indigenous Peoples.
Amnesty also criticised an “unjustified restriction” imposed on the right of the Indigenous Peoples who reside outside the CHT – both from other parts of Bangladesh and from neighbouring countries – to hold meetings in the CHT with their Indigenous kinfolk.
The International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) and other indigenous groups have been protesting the directives terming them embarrassing, shameful and discriminatory.
“When the government is trying to implement the [1997 CHT] peace accord, a group has acted clandestinely to make these decisions only to embarrass the government. People who do not want to see the execution of the accord can take such decisions,” CHTC Member Dr Iftekharuzzaman earlier said at a programme in February.