Seeking to justify state-sponsored murders and disappearances

Comparing Bangladesh’s serious human rights violations with the situation in Western liberal democracies is both inaccurate and dangerous.

Seeking to justify state-sponsored murders and disappearances
A protest on December 10th, 2021, International Human Rights Day involving families relatives had been killed or disappeared by law enforcement agencies. This happened the same that the US government imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion. Photo: Habibur Rahman/Alamy

In 2017, Sheikh Hasina stood up in parliament and made a striking claim.

“275,000 British citizens disappeared,” in one recent year in the United Kingdom and the “whereabouts of 20,000 is not known.”

She made these claims seeking to downplay the national and international concern about the number of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh — where people are picked up by law enforcement agencies, detained in secret prisons and remain disappeared for periods of time, sometimes forever.

275,000 people disappeared by law enforcement authorities in the UK? 20,000 people still in secret detention?

Of course not.

Hasina was — presumably quite deliberately — seeking to conflate on the one hand secret detentions by the Bangladesh state and on the other hand people in the UK who go missing — leaving home for one reason or the other without telling anyone, most returning or found after a short period of time, where the state has no involvement.

No doubt there are some real social issues of concern that lead so many people to go missing like this in the UK, but whatever these reasons may be, they in no way can be compared to the secret state detentions and disappearances that take place in Bangladesh. In these cases, law enforcement officials pick a person up from their home, work or the streets, keep them locked up in secret detention centres refusing to acknowledge that they have them in their custody, and either kill them, release them, or formally arrest them.

It is a common tactic of Awami League leaders to try and suggest there is no difference between the human rights situation in Bangladesh and that in Western liberal democracies — suggesting that those who criticise Bangladesh are simply hypocrites. Indeed the prime minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy tried to use much the same tactic in trying to defend the hundreds of people arrested and detained in Bangladesh under the Digital Security Act.

With the recent decision by the US government to impose sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion — describing it as “foreign entity that is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse” — the Awami League has continued with this strategy.

The foreign minister, AK Abdul Momen, is reported to have told local media that “Six lakh (six hundred thousand) people disappear every year in the US.” This is exactly the same kind of distortion, made by Sheikh Hasina four years earlier in relation to the United Kingdom. These are people reported as missing, usually for short periods of time — with no state involvement.

It is, however, much more surprising to read one of Bangladesh’s most highly respected academics using the same tactic as these Awami League leaders.

Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, was quoted as saying in an article on the recent US government sanctions, that: “Every year, the US has a higher number of extrajudicial killings than in Bangladesh”. He also said, “If I look at the number of extrajudicial killings, the number of such killings in Bangladesh is much less than in the United States.”

If that was true, then he would be right to question the legitimacy of the US imposing such sanctions.

But just as Sheikh Hasina misrepresented the term “disappearances”, Ahmed has done the same with “extrajudicial killings”.

Extrajudicial killings, in this context, means extrajudicial executions, that is to say a deliberate killing of a person by a state agent or official, often carried out by death squads or militias of one kind or the other. It does not mean — as Ahmed seeks to suggest — deaths as a result of actions by the police in the course of arrest which in the United States is certainly very high, over 1,000 people in most years.

This distinction between extrajudicial executions and other kinds of deaths at the hands of the state officials is apparent from how in 1992 the mandate of the United Nations rapporteur on “Summary or Arbitrary Executions” was amended to include “Extra-judicial executions”. A recent report of the rapporteur stated the following: “In 1992, the resolution was amended adding the term ‘extra-judicial’ to the Mandate’s title. The resolution focused on ‘extra-legal executions’ without defining the term but singled out for condemnation ‘the practice of killing and executing political opponents or suspected offenders carried out by armed forces, law enforcement or other governmental agencies or by paramilitary or political groups acting with the tacit or other support of such forces or agencies’”.

A proportion of the US police deaths which occur in the course of arrest may well be  unlawful in the police’s use of disproportionate force, but only a very small number — for example in the case of George Floyd — amount to murder. Even in this case, however, the police officer was not convicted of intentional killing, but unintentional second degree murder.

Moreover, of course, however worthy of criticism US police should be in relation to their use of force, no deaths in the United States are the result of a systematic policy by a state agency or a death squad. In Bangladesh, however, the evidence suggests, extra-judicial killings are in effect cold-blooded murders, not the result of “gunfire” when people resist arrest or when the criminal’s accomplices open fire as RAB and the police claim.

Moreover, in the United States all deaths are investigated, and decisions made whether or not to prosecute — again processes that are completely lacking in Bangladesh

When this columnist contacted Imtiaz Ahmed to obtain his response, he referred to this article about police deaths in the USA, and said, “I can only say that I don’t agree with your interpretation”. He also added, “Please note that the US killing in Afghanistan in the last 20 years, and many other wars, was also unlawful.”

There is no doubt that the human rights record of the United Kingdom and the United States is far from blemish free and requires improvement — often in significant ways. But Ahmed, an eminent academic, should be far more careful before he makes these kinds of sloppy and dangerous comparisons which, no doubt unintentionally, help the Bangladeshi government to justify murders, that some say amount to crimes against humanity.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.