Bangladesh’s win in the election for membership of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is a, sure enough, a pointer of its global standing as a nation, regardless of what a small cabal of Western nations would have others believe.
Bangladesh won the seat for the term 2023-25, by securing 160 out of 189 votes. Bangladesh received the highest votes in the Asia Pacific Group – ahead of Maldives (154 votes), Vietnam (145 votes) and Kyrgyzstan (126 votes). Bahrain withdrew their candidature a few days ago. The Republic of Korea (123 votes) and Afghanistan (12 votes) lost the election.
This would be the fifth term for Bangladesh as a member of the 47-strong UNHRC.
The Bangladesh government has rightly claimed in a press statement that “this is a clear manifestation of the recognition by the international community of Bangladesh’s continued endeavour and commitment for the promotion and protection of human rights… This also nullifies the ongoing smear campaign with falsified and fabricated information, by some politically motivated vested corners at home and abroad, aimed at negatively portraying the human rights situation of Bangladesh.”
This also comes at a time when the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances stands exposed for significant errors in its list for Bangladesh. The inclusion of two insurgents from India’s Manipur state, who have been released from jail or are locked up in India to face charges of armed separatism, was unbelievable. How could a UN group miss on the well-reported trial of UNLF chairman Rajkumar Meghen and include him as a victim of enforced disappearance? The only explanation seems they took the data supplied by local rights NGOs too seriously and didn’t run a double check.
So, while there are documented cases of human rights violations in Bangladesh, as in any other country including the US, the UN Report should have been error-free.
Several western diplomats based in Dhaka miss no opportunity to lecture the Bangladesh government on improving the human rights situation and on the need for inclusive elections. But do they advise the opposition on the need to avoid violence?
Opposition parties like the BNP have ruled out participation in the next national polls and called for a violent ouster of the government. And what are the western diplomats doing? Lecturing the government in Dhaka to be “nice and kind” to those who are openly threatening that BNP’s Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman would run the government after December 10 and are calling for extensive road and bridge blockades to bring down the government – clearly a recipe to ruin the national economy. The lack of western resolve to resist the Taliban led to a cataclysmic disaster in Afghanistan, the impact of which is now borne by the Afghan people, especially the women.
And now these preachers of modernity tell Bangladesh and its long-serving woman Prime Minister, who has presided over an incredible decade of economic growth and human development, to go soft on bus-burning and bridge-blocking?
Western diplomats have always considered capitals like Dhaka to be their playground. BBC Bangla ran a piece by Akbar Hossain (on January 11, 2022) on the diplomatic manoeuvres in an uncertain Dhaka landscape after the BNP-Jamaat coalition government ended its term in 2006 and was replaced by a caretaker administration.
Hossain has detailed the diplomatic maneuverers of the US, British envoys and the one representing the UN. According to the article, they were all operating to correct the country’s many deficits — the trust deficit between the two major parties, the BNP and the Awami League, and their top leaders; the democracy deficit that was leading to situations in which the opposition parties were reluctant to contest in the polls; and the faith deficit in the army which had become a key player, but which BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia felt would largely back her.
Be that as it may, the BBC story offers a few pointers on western diplomats playing their “democracy game”. The extra-constitutional or unconstitutional role played by the unelected caretaker government, which turned Bangladesh into a playground of foreign maneuverers and severely undermined its sovereignty, must have influenced the subsequent Awami League decision to use its majority and scrap the caretaker arrangement.
If the leading democracies in the west and neighbouring India can do without a caretaker, so went the logic, Bangladesh jolly well can.
If the west is serious about inclusive elections in Bangladesh, its diplomats must ask the opposition to give away the “oust government” violent agitation and join the elections. It is fair of them to send observers to monitor the poll process – but it is also incumbent that observers from other countries are allowed. If the west expects Hasina to shackle her security forces while opposition activists run riot and bring the national economy to a standstill, I would only recall the title of Charles Dickens’s novel “Great Expectations”. Dear Sirs, no government worth its salt will abandon its responsibility of governance and maintenance of law and order. And Sheikh Hasina, who lost almost her entire family and still braved military dictators to bring democracy back to Bangladesh and then bring her party back to power surviving twenty assassination attempts including the deadly August 2004 grenade attack, is no western stooge like Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani who will pack bags to flee at the first sight of trouble.
Writer: Sukharanjan Dasgupta, Kolkata-based commentator and author of “Midnight Massacre” on the 15 August 1975 coup.