US report points at pressure on minorities, extra-judicial killings and corruption
The United States has said it increased monitoring on issues related to intimidation and other forms of pressure on minorities, especially Hindus, in anticipation of the next general election in Bangladesh as happened during the previous election campaigns.
A US State Department report styled “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record 2005-2006” also said weak political and governmental institutions, pervasive corruption and general indifference by ruling parties to human rights continued to undermine basic civil liberties.
The report released on Wednesday and submitted to Congress said extra-judicial killings, torture, and other widespread abuses by law enforcement personnel such as the police and Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) went largely unpunished, and “the BNP exploited its position to gain unfair advantage over the opposition.”
Supporting Human Rights and Democracy addresses US efforts in 95 countries and demonstrates the link between the findings of the annual country reports–a comprehensive, accurate account on human rights conditions around the world–and the efforts by the US to help remedy the human-rights abuses identified in the reports, said a press release issued by the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Dhaka on Thursday.
“Bangladesh’s elections are generally free and fair, although politics are traditionally acrimonious. Violence resulting in death was a pervasive element in the country’s politics in 2005,” the report said.
It further said the Awami League (AL) boycotted parliament for most of 2005, refused to contest parliamentary by-elections, rejected offers of dialogue from the ruling BNP, and threatened to boycott the general election expected in January 2007 unless the BNP accepts its demands for major changes in the caretaker government and electoral systems.
The report said the US officials routinely highlighted the importance of democratic and rights-based practices in Bangladesh during senior-level visits and through discussions with Bangladeshi officials, members of civil society, and the press.
“The United States urged the opposition to exercise, not surrender, its rights, and pressed the Government to allow lawful opposition activity,” the report said.
It said the US brought Bangladeshi-American public officials to Bangladesh to discuss democracy and the American political system, including such issues as voter rights and preventing voter intimidation.
About the US goals the report said, “The US human rights and democracy goals in Bangladesh include full participation by political parties in free and fair national elections in 2007 and greater protection of human rights.”
It said the US promoted democracy and human rights in Bangladesh by supporting democratic institutions and practices, encouraging transparency and accountability in government actions and policies, endorsing respect for the rule of law, and seeking justice for the perpetrators of political and extremist violence.
Trafficking in persons (TIP) and other abuses against women and children remained serious problems, and criminals, political activists and Islamist militants threatened and occasionally attacked journalists, the report said.
The US funded numerous projects to promote democracy in Bangladesh and lay the foundation for 2007 elections. These initiatives included a programme to conduct professional leadership training courses for 355 mid-level leaders from all major parties and a programme in which 20,000 members of those parties’ student wings participated in festivals and training events aimed at better defining youth-related issues within party platforms.
A US-funded survey on the integrity of the 2001 voter list revealed that eight percent of its names were inaccurate, which became an important part of the public debate on whether to create a new list or revise the existing one.
“US officials and US-sponsored Bangladeshi monitors observed several parliamentary by-elections and the Chittagong mayoral election and confirmed that the AL incumbent won reelection freely and fairly,” it said.
On religious freedom it said while the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the government’s record of protecting religious minorities was inconsistent, and police were often ineffective in assisting members of religious minorities who were victims of crime.
About the Ahmadiyya the report said the under secretary of State for Political Affairs and the assistant secretary of State for South Asian Affairs met with leaders of all religious minority groups to underscore support for their rights and safety against persecution and violence.
The International Khatme Nabuwat Movement of Bangladesh continued its often-violent campaign to force the government to declare members of the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslims, but in the government last year took concerted steps to protect the Ahmadiyyas, due in large part to US and other diplomatic pressure.
It said an Ahmadiyya missionary along with members of other minority communities and human rights activists travelled to various locations in the US through the International Visitor Leadership Programme.
“Because minorities, especially Hindus, were subjected to intimidation and other forms of pressure during previous election campaigns, the United States increased its monitoring of this issue in anticipation of the 2007 election,” it said.
On freedom of the press, it said the US promoted media freedom and freedom of speech in Bangladesh. US efforts focused attention on the security and freedom of journalists, who continued to face pressure from criminals, political activists and Islamist extremists.
It said the US sponsored training for 48 journalists, emphasising investigative reporting skills for those who cover stories involving violence against women and children’s rights, and also sponsored training for reporters to serve as watchdogs in elections.
As the general election approaches, US diplomacy efforts continued to promote respect for freedom of association and assembly for all participants in the democratic process.
It said the US promoted the development of stronger local government associations to act as advocates for enhanced local governance.
Both the US-supported Bangladesh Union Parishad Forum (comparable to an American city council) and the Municipal Association of Bangladesh held extensive strategic planning workshops to articulate a vision for short, medium, and long-term policy goals. The US supported the formation of women’s caucuses within both organisations to deal more directly with issues of gender representation, reserved seats for women and the responsibilities of female council members, it said.
On corruption it said the US last year worked with other donors and the government to design a long-term, government-wide anti-corruption strategy, which led to a draft national integrity strategy. This draft was under review by several ministries and, once adopted, will set the road map for the government’s overall approach to combat corruption.
The US collaborated with 11 local and international organisations to launch a test initiative entitled “In Quest of Good Governance” to promote citizen participation in the allocation and use of resources in their respective areas. The Moulvibazar district in northeast Bangladesh was the first pilot area.
The report said the US worked closely with the government to combat TIP.
“US officials met with the Government to monitor the progress of the special anti-trafficking police unit and to discuss strategies for improving the Government’s ability to prosecute TIP cases,” it said.
“To improve legal protection for abused women, a coalition of human rights organisations was launched with US support to advocate for the criminalisation of domestic violence,” the report said adding that this coalition was drafting legislation to make domestic violence punishable with prison terms.
The coalition published three major research reports on human rights abuses, including one on the prevalence of domestic violence in marriage.
The report also mentioned the US assistance to over 20,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the US advocacy for the adoption of international labour standards in Bangladesh’s Export Processing Zones (EPZs).