Monday, March 07, 2005

HUMAN RIGHTS: Amnesty and Bangladesh’s human rights defenders

We all know by now that ‘human rights’ itself is highly abused term, and they are being used to justify intervention by the imperial powers. India’s ruling class through their media also argues that as the South Asian regional power India should intervene into Bangladesh militarily to rescue her from the failed state of governance. Under this highly sensitive international and regional context the human rights defenders will have to be extremely careful in phrasing their text and arguing for their case. They should not become tool for imperial and regional intervention of any sorts.

Amnesty and Bangladesh’s human rights defenders
Farhad Mazhar

Transparency & accountability

An English language daily reported on March 2, 2005, that Amnesty International would release on the day its report entitled ‘Bangladesh Human Rights Defenders under Attack.’ It was both a national and international launch, and the report mentioned somewhat sweepingly that the Amnesty document cited ‘hundreds of human rights defenders ... received death threat” and that ‘scores of them have been attacked and many killed’ and that several journalists have had their hands or fingers cut (as in the old imperial days or the medieval times which are still in vogue in some countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran for that matter, parenthesis editor’s), ands that ‘many have to had to leave their homes,’ etc. The ‘failure of the government’ to prevent and bring to book some of these instances of violence, both establishmentarian as also private, has been identified as the cause of the abuse of human rights defenders. ‘Abusing the human rights (HR) defenders in Bangladesh has been continuing alarmingly due to the failure of the government’, the report says.

The newspaper reporting the content of the AI report mentioned only the name of ‘Dr. Quazi Faruk Ahmad of Proshika, but no other victims who were claimed to be killed or maimed. The newspaper report, citing the document, also failed to mention the names of those who had to flee their homes to escape reprisals, so to speak, in their onerous mission of defending human rights. As examples of abuse suffered by the human rights defenders by the present government, the daily quotes from the report ‘arrest and torture and harassment through filing case after case on the ground of unsubstantiated criminal accusations (as) against Dr. (sic) Quazi Faruk Ahmed of Proshika, one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh.’ There are, according to the report, 18 cases against Quazi .

Next day, New Age reported, ‘Amnesty’s report on human rights draws sharp reaction.’

While on a seminar, organised by Amnesty International in the city, the report said that with a view to finalizing the draft after consultations with some very select group of participants, some of whom wear political stripes. The consultation meeting was non-transparent, and it consequently led to ‘a number of discussants,’ according to the report in this newspaper, ‘who attended the seminar on the first day’ to dub the report as politically insensitive, lacking in global perspective and the local context. It was also critiqued and rubbished for ‘partisan’ preferences, and the AI’s lamentable of what state, religion, secularism, human rights’ and other such concepts mean by the book. It is a very serious charge indeed against an internationally-reputed human rights organization.

The sharp division on Amnesty’s report in Bangladesh in the civil society and the erosion of its credibility have negative implications for all human rights defenders in Bangladesh; and it does not matter where they stand with regard to this report.

A re-examination of Amnesty’s controversial text would, therefore, be an exercise which only Amnesty can undertake to restore its credence as well as credentials.

United Nations and ‘human rights defenders’

A literal meaning of the definition ‘human rights defenders’ may be misunderstood unless it is seen in the perspective of the Human Rights Declaration as it evolved in the United Nations systems in 1984 and further amplified with the adoption of a text by the UN General Assembly in 1998. The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The text is known as the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”(General Assembly resolution 53/144 of 9 December 1998). It is abbreviated as “The Declaration on Human Rights defenders”.

At its fifty-sixth session, the Commission on Human Rights requested the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative on human rights (vide resolution 2000/61 of 26 April 2000).The responsibility was defined largely on the basis of the Declaration.

The Declaration recognizes that the definition of a human rights defender must be broadly understood as encompassing also those striving for the promotion, protection and realization of social, economic and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. This is the reason why NGOs having no explicit role in defending human rights are covered under the head of ‘human rights defenders’. The Special Representative, Ms. Hina Jilani of Pakistan, the appointed Special Representative, stated in her first annual report (E/CN.4/2001/94) that she believed that her mandate was broad enough to include, for example, those defending the right to a healthy environment, promoting the rights of indigenous peoples, or engaging in trade union activities, etc. A broad definition that ultimately blurs the precise sense of the term ‘human rights defenders’ is already a debatable issue among the human rights activists; but by maintaining objectivity and evidence-based reporting, human rights activities are dealing with these expanded definitions.

For example, if someone is accused of financial corruption or some other crimes and cases are being filed against the person, should it be reported as repression of human rights defenders? All NGOs are accountable for their financial dealings of public money and the role they play in society to the people as well as to the due process of law. In that case, we must demand a fair and transparent trial for the accused or provide clear evidence that the accused is innocent and indeed a victim of government’s wrath. Secondly when a case is already in the court on what basis or evidence could we claim that it is based on ‘unsubstantiated criminal accusation’? We must not interfere in the due process of the law. Nevertheless, we must vehemently oppose the practice of the government to ruin an organisation when the chief of the organisation is accused or arrested. For one person, an organization must not be victimised. So, the issue is not merely a person, it is the life of an organisation that is thrown into jeopardy. It can not be acceptable, no matter if the accusation is substantiated or unsubstantiated. It is our task to stand by the side of the victims of an organisation who are innocent and our dear colleagues in the struggle for the human rights, including social and cultural struggle.

Amnesty International as an external agency must also reflect if it is at all prudent to disregard the law and the due judicial process of a small country like Bangladesh, unless we take up the issue separately. Undermining the legal system of a country to defend an accused portraying as a victim simply because some one is happened to be a ‘human rights defender’, according to UN definition is actually abuse of the term ‘human rights defenders’ and misuse of the purpose of the Declaration. It assumes that just because some one is human right defenders by UN definition can not commit any financial or other crimes and State law of the land can not bring him to justice. This is a pathetic position of Amnesty International.

The mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders, as set out in Commission on Human Rights resolution 2000/61, is:

a) To seek, receive, examine and respond to information on the situation and the rights of anyone, acting individually or in association with others, to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms;

b) To establish cooperation and conduct dialogue with governments and other interested actors on the promotion and effective implementation of the Declaration; and

c) To recommend strategies better to protect human rights defenders.

The Declaration is addressed not just to states and to human rights defenders, but to everyone, reminding that we all have a role to fulfill as human rights defenders and emphasizes that there is a global human rights movement that involves us all.

The Declaration is not, in itself, a legally binding instrument. However, it contains a series of principles and rights that are based on human rights standards enshrined in other international instruments that are legally binding - such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

However, the significance of the declaration lies in the fact that it was adopted by consensus by the General Assembly and therefore represents a very strong commitment by States to its implementation.

In this context our task in Bangladesh will be to create enabling policy and legal environment so that we could adopt the Declaration as binding national legislation. While many of us as human rights defenders suffered and still suffering in the hands of all the regimes of Bangladesh, it is absolutely irresponsible and disservice to the cause of human rights and the human rights movement in our country to take ideological and partisan position in any text we prepare for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or for that matter for media and public consumption. It may sabotage our principal interest to promote and defend the universal human rights as enshrined in various international covenants. We must be strategically neutral and objective and must not load the text leading into partisan and ideological polarization, while the Amnesty’s report, it seems clear, was not being prepared keeping it in mind.

The Declaration relating to the rights of human rights defenders does not create new rights, but provides support and protection of human rights defenders in the context of their work. The Declaration outlines some specific duties of states and the responsibilities of everyone with regard to defending human rights, in addition to explaining its relationship with national law. It is important to note that human rights defenders have an obligation under the Declaration to conduct peaceful activities.

The declaration accords Rights and protections accorded to human rights defenders in Articles 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13 of the Declaration.

Similarly in articles 2, 9, 12, 14 and 15 make particular reference to the role of States and indicate that each state has a responsibility and duty with regard to human rights. The Declaration also emphasizes that everyone has duties towards and within the community and encourages us all to be human rights defenders. Articles 10, 11 and 18 outline responsibilities for everyone to promote human rights, to safeguard democracy and its institutions and not to violate the human rights of others.

Article 11 is very important since it makes a special reference to the responsibilities of persons exercising professions that can affect the human rights of others. Articles 3 and 4 outline the relationship of the Declaration to national and international law with a view to assuring the application of the highest possible legal standards of human rights.

If any of us for some reason has been abused because of our explicit political partisanship, because of our taking side in the power game to realise personal aspirations we should be careful not to mix up those cases with other genuine cases of human rights defenders.

Abuse of the rhetoric of ‘human rights’

We all know by now that ‘human rights’ itself is highly abused term, and they are being used to justify intervention by the imperial powers. India’s ruling class through their media also argues that as the South Asian regional power India should intervene into Bangladesh militarily to rescue her from the failed state of governance. Under this highly sensitive international and regional context the human rights defenders will have to be extremely careful in phrasing their text and arguing for their case. They should not become tool for imperial and regional intervention of any sorts.

Experts have been reminding us that it is doubly difficult for countries like Bangladesh in the era of globalisation to reconfigure the state to response to the demand of the universal human rights that impinge on the principle of ‘nation-based citizenship and the boundaries of the nation’.

Globalisation does not only imply economic, informational or cultural globalisation. Hardly people notice that internationalisation of various legal regimes, including universal human rights, has direct implication for the sovereignty of the states, nations and cultures. It reconfigures the structure, power as well as the capacity of the states in general to address issues related to citizen’s rights as was envisioned in the early ages of the modern state formation. Professor Saskia Sassen of Urban Planning at Columbia University and also serving at the faculty of the School of International and Public Affairs, argues, ‘international human rights, while partly rooted in the founding documents of certain nation-state, are today a force that can undermine the exclusive authority of the state over its nationals and thereby contribute to transforming the interstate system and international legal orders’ (Sassen 1996; p- 89). These are very crucial issues for the human rights defenders; Amnesty will have to earn a more contemporary mind and learn to be well informed professionally to deal with states like Bangladesh, Nepal and other small countries and nations which are already vulnerable in the present world order.

Amnesty will have to realize the nature of the struggle we, as human rights defenders, are facing in dealing with our community, despite the death threat, torture and repression. We could win the battle within our communities only by maintaining our organic and historical link with the spirit of our communities defined by language, religion, and culture and material life. The issue of ‘external actors and agents’ is a serious matter indeed, we do not want people of Bangladesh view Amnesty as agent coming from without with different agenda except human rights. This will be fatal for our local struggles.

I was reading the press conference of Abbas Faiz of Amnesty International on 5 March 2005 in news papers. It was sad to see how he is more interested in phrasing his position in accordance with the colonial and imperial discourse of George Bush and Tony Blaire, blaming the people of Bangladesh for ‘spiralling religious militancy’. But when asked if he has compared the situation of Bangladesh with other countries in the world or in the region, he could not say a word. Hardly one could get any sign of understanding of the difficulties under which the human rights defenders are fighting in Bangladesh. We have no choice, no matter how difficult it is, but to fight against both the ‘crusaders’ and the ‘jihadis’; we must stand stoutly against war, violence and terror of all types coming both from state and non state actors’ without losing organic relation with our communities. It seems Amnesty of Abbas Faiz would like to fight for the ‘crusaders’ backed by fire power and all the modern arsenals to kill the people around the world, by further complicating our realities and aggravating the situation for the human rights defenders grounded within their own communities. By becoming a means of international and regional propaganda Amnesty International sadly demonstrating that the organisation is less interested in promoting human rights, but rather taking sides in the global battle fields.