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For the past decade, Lord Avebury has organised regular hearings about Bangladesh in the House of Lords. These have often been important events since they provide a platform for the AL and BNP, among others, to have public discussions that, sadly, happen all too infrequently in Bangladesh. I've been invited to speak about the human rights situation at many of them, starting with the period of the last BNP government through the military-backed caretaker government and the current AL period. Often these meetings have produced more heat than light, as representatives of the two parties screamed, interrupted and almost came to blows with each other, but they have at least clarified in public where the parties stand on key issues.

Last week the AL and BNP sent delegations to another well-attended hearing. The meeting was particularly important since the BNP and other parties boycotted the last election and parliament is not, at present, a venue for political debates. The good news is that it wasn't a slugfest. No chairs or punches were thrown. And aside from the last few minutes, there was no shouting.

The AL and BNP took the hearing seriously and sent senior figures. The AL was led by H.T. Imam, a ministerial level political advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The BNP sent Sabihuddin Ahmed, the foreign policy advisor to Khaleda Zia and her former private secretary when she was prime minister, who is also a former ambassador to the UK. Both made reasoned speeches setting out their party's views, focussed primarily on the elections. Other representatives of each party also made statements (some more eloquent and credible than others).

Each side gave its version of why it was right and the other was wrong to take part in or boycott the elections. Each successfully pointed to the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the other: the AL used to be fervently in favour of the caretaker system for holding elections, while the BNP opposed it. The AL now wants Jamaat banned for the events of 1971, but in the 1990s entered into political alliances with Jamaat. The BNP now rails against the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and other human rights abuses, but it started Rab (and some BNP officials privately admit that from the beginning it was set up as a death squad to take out high level criminals). The BNP complains about repression against the media and NGOs -- but its time in power was characterised by arrests, attacks and intimidation of civil society.

The blame game in Bangladesh is a bottomless well.

I and others described the bad and worsening human rights situation. Extrajudicial executions by Rab and “joint forces” are increasing. The ludicrous practice of “crossfire killings” in which the authorities use the same concocted story of a detainee somehow ending up the casualty of a gunfight is again on the rise. Disappearances are regularly reported. Arbitrary arrests number in the hundreds if not thousands. Courts issue “fill in the blank” arrest warrants which are often filled in later with the names of opposition supporters. Jamaat and BNP thugs set buses on fire, killing innocent civilians. Many police officers have been killed. Significant amounts of property have been destroyed. Hindu communities have come under serious attack.

No discussion of human rights in Bangladesh could ignore the jailing and continuing court cases against Adilur Rahman, the director of Odhikar, and the harassment of his family. This has been particularly shocking and has been aimed at silencing an influential critic, as well as having a chilling effect on other organisations. Because Odhikar has had the courage to document abuses by government forces against Jamaat and Hefajat, the government has falsely claimed that Rahman is a supporter of both organisations.

I know Adil and his family well, and nothing could be further from the truth. He is a fervent opponent of militancy. These are not only false but dangerous accusations in the current environment and should, as a basic matter of decency, be withdrawn. If the government doesn't agree with the reporting of a human rights organisation it has the right and the means to respond, but not by using the criminal law or sending the security forces to harass family members and staff. It was heartening that when I made this statement the room fell silent and people around the room, including AL supporters, were nodding. They can remember when previous governments targeted human rights activists, including those with ties to the AL.

I ended with a plea: end the blame game and begin some long overdue introspection. Each party is so busy denigrating the other that it appears to have little or no capacity to consider what it has done wrong and what concrete steps it can take to improve. Indeed, it is striking how similar all the hearings called by Lord Avebury have been over the years: whoever is in power defends the indefensible, such as crossfire killings, while those in opposition become rabid defenders of human rights. Nothing illustrates this better than their rhetoric about Rab. When in opposition, AL members were being killed by Rab and the party called for its abolition and for perpetrators to be held accountable. Just after coming to office, in early 2009, then foreign minister Dipu Moni famously went to the UN Human Rights Council and announced a “zero tolerance” policy for extrajudicial executions. We and others welcomed this statement.

But the killings have continued. While in exile in London Sheikh Hasina promised me that she would control Rab and ensure it committed no further abuses. Yet Rab continues to kill and it remains the case -- 5 years after the AL came to power -- that not one member of the unit has ever been criminally prosecuted for a human rights abuse. When blatant abuses occur, such as the shooting of Limon, a 14-year old, the victim was charged with a crime and demonised instead of being compensated, with those who pulled the trigger prosecuted. Thankfully, those charges were later dropped, but only after a protracted campaign. Senior AL figures now loudly defend Rab and say it doesn't commit human rights violations. But this merely courts ridicule. No one in Bangladesh, including those who think Rab performs a valuable function in fighting crime and militancy, believes this nonsense.

I ended my presentation at the House of Lords by saying that it was a wasted opportunity for AL and BNP leaders to travel all the way to London just to blame the other side, without accepting any responsibility for the condition of the country. No one will believe them if they keep making hollow statements when in opposition or deny the obvious when in power.

The reality is that no matter how polite diplomats and donors may be in private, the international credibility of both major parties is close to zero. This will affect the country in many ways, from aid and foreign investment to economic growth and participation in UN peacekeeping.

It was sad that the AL and BNP had to travel to London to have a serious political discussion. This would have been a much more important event if it had happened in Dhaka, so long as it could be held in a respectful atmosphere. But can this happen if the country's leaders are unwilling to admit mistakes? The one hopeful aspect is that in private almost every Bangladeshi I spoke to agreed that the human rights situation has been bad under all governments and that each party needs to look inwards if they are to regain public trust and start serving the country's interests, instead of their own. I hope they took that message back to their party leaders in Dhaka.

Brad Adams is the Asia director at Human Rights Watch

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