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Bangladesh: Where do the parties stand on human rights?

Published in: The Daily Star

WITH just weeks left before parliamentary elections, voters can be excused if they don't know where the political parties stand on human rights. The main political parties have plenty of reasons to complain about how the government and security forces have behaved since January 2007, but they also need to look inward. What will they do to promote and protect human rights if they come to power? How will they improve their own poor human rights records of the past? Will they purge all elements who have abusive records?

All parties claim to be fully committed to the protection of rights and ending abuses, but where do they actually stand on torture, Rab, the DGFI, real judicial independence, media freedom, the National Human Rights Commission, women's rights, and the prevailing climate of impunity -- to name but a few of the thorny issues the new government will face? How can they persuade voters to believe they will not just use nice words while in opposition, but then commit or allow abuses once in power?

The Fakhruddin government publicly stated its commitment to the rule of law, yet it has not taken measures so that the security forces abide by the law. Torture is routine and faked "encounter killings" continue in large numbers by members of Rab and the police. Virtually no one is held to account. Impunity is a deep-rooted problem, which, if not addressed, will lead to further human rights violations, undermine the rule of law and create political instability. The political parties, which took no serious actions to root out the problem, should commit to holding all human rights violators to account through an impartial, transparent and fair judicial process. No one -- not the army, the DGFI, Rab or the police -- should be above the law.

Corruption continues to be a serious problem in Bangladesh. Although fighting corruption was one of the main justifications for the caretaker government's stay in power, its anti-corruption drive has failed to live up to initial expectations. In some cases, the effort has been guided by political considerations, marked by incompetence, and, as confirmed by Human Rights Watch research, accompanied by illegal detentions. As a consequence, corruption remains a problem of endemic proportions in almost all sectors of society, robbing millions of people of basic rights. All parties will pay lip service to fighting corruption, but voters deserve to know how they intend to tackle the problem consistent with human rights standards.

It is also important to know where the parties stand on women's rights. The government's welcome announcement of a new National Women's Development Policy (NWDP) in March sparked protests from a number of Islamist groups. The government responded by establishing a committee of Islamic scholars, which recommended amendments to the policy that would, if accepted, seriously undermine government efforts to eliminate discrimination against women in both the public and private spheres.

The political parties need to declare their support to firmly and decisively implement the NWDP and to live up to the commitments made to the women of Bangladesh in the constitution and international treaties.

Of course, it would be wrong to solely blame the parties for their prevailing silence on fundamental policy issues. Some things, such as the nature and role of the military over the past two years, remain taboo subjects. The caretaker government, with its constitutional mandate of ensuring that the Election Commission can organise free and fair elections, should have encouraged a debate on issues of fundamental importance for Bangladesh's future. Instead, it completely ignored the fact that free and fair elections are not only a matter of technicalities and some campaign rallies.

For nearly 22 months, the state of emergency made it difficult and illegal for the parties to candidly share their ideas with voters. This aspect of the emergency was lifted in early November, but the free exchange of information continues to be affected by the fact that it has only been lifted for the parties and not for trade unions and other civil society actors. The state of emergency, therefore, continues to hamper the exchange of information and ideas essential for free and fair elections.

At the same time, the "minus-two" and "manage-two" policies, the long, arbitrary detentions of senior party officials and the ineffective anti-corruption campaign (it is not enough to assert that officials are corrupt, because "everyone knows" they are corrupt -- this has to be proven in an independent court with full due process; quite why the government failed so miserably to do this remains a mystery), have intentionally left the parties in disarray, while failing to break the nexus between politics, corruption and organised crime (which also includes the military, a subject few dare to raise in Bangladesh).

Sadly, foreign governments and international donor agencies that have provided support to the Election Commission and declared their intention to uphold international standards have shown limited concern about the absence of a genuinely open political climate.

The Awami League and BNP have been focusing their time and energy on the conditions under which the elections are to be held and on securing the political future of their leaders. But they have yet to release their election manifestos. Now is the time for them to recognise that meaningful elections also require that voters know where the political parties stand on key issues. Despite all the hurdles, they need to make their views known on how they intend to address major human rights problems. The Bangladeshi public and media should demand no less.

Brad Adams is Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

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