It is fair to say that Bangladesh’s human rights community was split on whether the visit of the UN’s Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet would improve the situation of human rights in the country or not. There were some who thought — as voiced in one article on this very site — that the government would find a way to “manage” her and use her visit as a public relations exercise, pointing to Bachelet’s visit to China which was accused by some of being a whitewash. Others, however, thought that the Commissioner’s visit would do the opposite and direct more attention on those violations.
It still remains unclear exactly why the government agreed to accept the UN’s proposal for Bachelet’s visit, since it must have known of the risk of severe criticism from her. A leaked government memo written for a July 2022 “inter-ministerial” meeting, obtained by Netra News, does provide some clues.
Although officials realised there was a risk of “some critical post-visit remarks” by Bachelet, the memo noted that if her visit “can be well managed, [it] can be an important manifestation not only [of] Bangladesh's strong willingness to continue close engagements with the UN human rights system but also to showcase Bangladesh's important undertakings in many areas of human rights. This is expected not only to further strengthen our standing in the multilateral system, but also is likely to appease some of our bilateral partners.”
The memo went on to say that during the visit, “the effort of the government would be to show in the best possible manner that, in Bangladesh [there] exists a rights-enabling environment through the independent judiciary, strong and vibrant media and civil society organizations, and efficient executives.”
Now that the visit is over, which section of Bangladesh’s human rights community was correct? And was the government able to tame the the Commissioner, as it hoped?
The most important outcome appears to be that the final statement given by Bachelet at the end of her visit entirely contradicts the government narrative on enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and reduced freedom of expression.
The government has sought very hard to claim that these concerns are not legitimate — that they are the manifestations of biased journalists and human rights organisations and an aggrieved opposition. The government had even organised an "alternative" civil society meeting with Bachelet comprising pro-government citizens who told her that she should not give any credibility to these claims.
However, this narrative was not accepted by Bachelet who in her statement voiced her “deep concern” about the “serious allegations” of killings and torture as well as “continued, alarming allegations” of enforced disappearances, and concerns about the lack of due process and judicial safeguards calling for an “impartial, independent and transparent investigation” into these cases to be established.
Bachelet also criticised “a narrowing of civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals often leading to self-censorship”, and how the “overregulating” of NGOs and “broadly restricting the freedom of expression make it difficult — and sometimes risky — for them to function effectively.”
Some might argue that the statement could have been stronger. There was no mention of the Chittagong Hill Tracts or specific reference to media freedom, for example. One might have hoped that the statement would have identified Odhikhar as an organisation under particular harassment or indeed mention a recent Netra News report, published during her visit which revealed the existence of a secret detention centre in the heart of DGFI, the country’s infamous military intelligence agency.
However, it is significant that Bachelet rejected the government’s narrative and accepted the reality of the country’s most serious human rights concerns.
This is a serious rebuke to the government and the statement will hopefully provide some kind of cover to human rights activists and journalists seeking to raise these concerns within Bangladesh in the coming months.
So that is certainly positive.
However, in terms of actual changes on the ground, it is unlikely that Bachelet’s visit will in itself result in the government making any key human rights reforms.
Apart from anything else, the government can rely on the lack of independent media along with censorship (and self-censorship) to prevent these criticisms and comments being widely read or heard in the country — and therefore having any serious impact on it. A perfect illustration of this is how one of the country’s leading English language newspapers, headlined a report on Bachelet's statement: “UN rights chief hails economic development of Bangladesh” and sub-headed it “The high commissioner praises Bangladesh’s achievement in education, health, immigration, and climate change.”
However, as previously noted by this writer, even if Bachelet’s visit may not trigger reforms, some senior government officials do recognise that the need for credible elections requires the government to make significant changes.
As an aside, Bachelet’s statement also exposed the blatant misrepresentations by some of the government ministers in their recent statements to the media. After meeting Bachelet, the law minister Anisul Huq said that Bachelet did not raise “any concern” regarding the human rights situation in the country. And the foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said, she did not “raise” allegations of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killings in his meeting with her. Clearly, both of these were untruths, given what she said in her own official statement later.
Momen’s statement was notable in other ways. He brought up a recent Netra News article, “An open letter to Michelle Bachelet” and implied that the fact he was able to read it in Bangladesh showed that there were no restrictions on freedom of speech.
However, he failed to mention that, in fact, the government blocked Netra News website; that the article could only be viewed in Bangladesh as we have a mirror site which is more difficult to block; that there is no way that any Bangladesh based media site could have published that article; that one of the editors is blocked from entering the country; and that another editor has a criminal case against him and if he entered the country would almost certainly be arrested.
That is not freedom of the media!
Momen also made a number of entirely untrue and seriously defamatory claims against the author of the article at a press conference which were then repeated by numerous media organisations. This is exactly how media censorship works — write an article that the government finds annoying, and you face reprisals. In this case it was defamatory allegations, but for other Bangladesh-based journalists and editors it will be other forms of intimidation and harassment to them or their family, affecting their everyday lives and work, which could amount to threats of detention.
This is exactly the very “narrowing of civic space… intimidation and reprisals” that Michelle Bachelet was referring to in her statement.