UN high commissioner calls for impartial, transparent probe into alleged Bangladesh abuses

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
UN high commissioner calls for impartial, transparent probe into alleged Bangladesh abuses United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (left) speaks to reporters during a news conference organized at the InterContinental Dhaka hotel, Aug. 17, 2022.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged Bangladesh’s government to probe alleged enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture committed by state-backed agencies, as she called on Wednesday for reforms to the nation’s security sector.

Bachelet addressed a broad range of rights issues during a press conference in Dhaka as she wound down a four-day trip to Bangladesh, the first visit to the South Asian nation by a United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

“I raised my deep concern about these serious allegations with government ministers and highlighted the need for an impartial, independent and transparent investigation into these allegations, accompanied by security sector reform,” Bachelet said, as she read out a statement summarizing her findings during the visit, which also took her to Rohingya refugee camps in the southeast.

“Various U.N. human rights mechanisms, including the U.N. Committee Against Torture, have been raising concerns for several years about allegations of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killing, torture – many of which have been attributed to the Rapid Action Battalion – and the lack of accountability for such violations,” Bachelet told reporters.

“There are continued, alarming allegations of both short-term and long-term enforced disappearances, and concerns about the lack of due process and judicial safeguards,” she said.

Bachelet, who will be leaving her post when her term expires on Aug. 31, was asked to comment on an investigative news report published this week about an alleged secret prison used to house victims of enforced disappearance and reportedly operated by the military’s intelligence wing.

In response, Bachelet said the Bangladesh government should investigate all allegations of human rights violations.

“Look, they (the allegations) might not all be true, but if I hear something, I always, in my case, ask what is true. Let’s analyze, let’s investigate and see if it’s true,” she said.

“If it’s not true, ok. You investigated, you know it’s not true, things are clear. But if it’s true, how will we remedy [it]?” she asked.

Bachelet noted “long-standing frustrations at the lack of progress in investigations and other obstacles to justice,” according to prepared remarks released by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“I encouraged the government to create an independent, specialized mechanism that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. My office is ready to provide advice on how such a body could be designed in line with international standards,” she said.

Banned in Bangladesh

On Sunday, Netra News, which bills itself as an investigative website and is registered in Sweden, published a report online about a secret prison allegedly run by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the nation’s military intelligence unit.

Relying on interviews with men who said they had been held at the prison, Netra News claimed it had pinpointed the prison’s location on satellite images after the detainees described landmarks near it. Netra News is banned by Bangladesh’s government and its website has been blocked in the country.

Bangladeshi officials have not stated a reason for blocking the site in March 2019, but some have accused Netra News of being linked to supporters of the political opposition and publishing fake news that is critical of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government.

Government officials have denied allegations that security forces, including the Rapid Action Battalion, have been involved in enforced disappearances and other rights abuses, even as the U.S. government sanctioned the elite police unit and six former and current officers last year.

Last week, before Bachelet arrived in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch and eight other international rights advocacy groups called on her to raise concerns about these issues during her meetings with Bangladesh leaders and call for an independent investigation.

“She should make clear to the government that ongoing security force abuses will jeopardize deployment of Bangladesh troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations,” the organizations said in a joint news release.

A U.N. spokesman noted last year that Bangladesh is the world’s largest contributor of uniformed personnel to such operations.

In response to this week’s explosive allegations about the secret prison, another human rights group, Amnesty International, also urged Bachelet to demand answers.

“Harrowing details of enforced disappearances disclosed by survivors in Netra News investigations should prompt independent, immediate and effective investigations into the incidents to hold perpetrators to account,” Amnesty’s South Asia branch said in a statement posted Monday on social media. 

“The U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet must clearly and strongly denounce these human rights violations and call for an independent and impartial inquiry into these barbaric practices during her ongoing Bangladesh visit.”

Meetings with officials

After arriving on Sunday, Bachelet met with the foreign, home, and law ministers, civil society leaders and family members of alleged enforced disappearance victims.

The senior U.N. official traveled to Cox’s Bazar on Tuesday where she met with Rohingya camp leaders, women, children and religious leaders. On Wednesday, she also met with the prime minister.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who met with Bachelet briefly on Sunday, said the two discussed extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Momen said he pointed out that of 76 allegations of such disappearances in the last decade, investigators had found up to 10 of the missing people. But, he suggested, the government was having difficulty finding the others because their families were too afraid to speak about the cases.

“Their families don’t give information out of fear. We would like to know about them,” he said about missing persons.

Cox’s Bazar visit

Bachelet did not speak to reporters on Tuesday after her meetings with Rohingya who are among the 1 million refugees living in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar – including about 740,000 who have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state since an August 2017 crackdown.

The Rohingya said that when they asked Bachelet about repatriation to Myanmar, she told them that now was not the time because the situation there is not stable.

On Wednesday, her prepared remarks included thoughts on her meetings with the refugees.

“They want to be productive, to earn a living, to contribute to society and improve their conditions of life,” she said.

“Many I spoke to were fearful of the security situation both in terms of the activity of armed groups and criminal gangs, but also the vulnerability of women and girls. The security and freedom of expression of Rohingya civil society and human rights defenders also needs to be protected,” Bachelet said.

The U.N. chief said she also worried about growing anti-Rohingya rhetoric in Bangladesh, where the refugees are stereotyped and blamed for crime.

“I call on the government and all Bangladeshis to be vigilant against such harmful rhetoric, to actively counter misinformation with facts, and to foster understanding with the host communities,” she said.

During her meeting with Bachelet, Prime Minister Hasina discussed her government’s concerns about repatriation.

“The Rohingya are nationals of Myanmar and they have to be taken back,” press secretary Ihsanul Karim quoted Hasina as saying, according to the Associated Press.


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