Rights Groups Urge UN Ban on Peacekeeping by Bangladesh’s ‘Abusive’ RAB Unit

Ahammad Foyez
2022.01.20
Dhaka
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Rights Groups Urge UN Ban on Peacekeeping by Bangladesh’s ‘Abusive’ RAB Unit Members of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) stand guard during a raid on suspected drug dealers at Mohammadpur Geneva Camp in Dhaka, May 26, 2018.
[AP]

Updated at 4:58 p.m. ET on 2022-01-21

A dozen international human rights groups, in a letter made public Thursday, called on the United Nations to ban Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion from U.N. peacekeeping operations, citing allegations that it commits torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Human Rights Watch and 11 other organizations sent a joint letter privately to the head of the U.N.’s peacekeeping department about the issue on Nov. 8 last year but, in a statement on Thursday, HRW said they had not yet received a formal response.

In the meantime, citing concerns about serious human rights abuses, the United States last month announced sanctions on RAB and six of its current and former senior officers, including the ex-RAB chief who is now Bangladesh’s police chief.

“We strongly urge that the U.N. Department of Peace Operations ban all personnel with a history of RAB-affiliation from U.N. deployment,” said a joint letter publicized by New York-based HRW on Thursday.

“The deployment of members of the RAB in peacekeeping operations reinforces a message that grave human rights abuses will not preclude one from service under the U.N. flag, presenting a serious reputational risk for the U.N. Even more importantly, it increases the probabilities of human rights abuses being committed in the context of U.N. missions,” the groups also said.

According to the joint letter signed by HRW, Amnesty International and other organizations, Bangladesh was the biggest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations in 2020, deploying 6,731 uniformed personnel on various missions.

“We are concerned, however, that those committing grave human rights violations within Bangladesh are being rewarded by the government with deployment to U.N. missions abroad,” the groups said in their letter addressed to Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the under-secretary-general in charge of U.N. peace operations.

“In particular, we are concerned that individuals who have served with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) are being sent on U.N. missions, despite consistent and credible evidence of abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by members of this unit since its creation in 2004.”

During a daily press briefing at U.N. headquarters on Thursday, a reporter asked Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the Secretary-General, about the letter from the 12 human rights groups and whether the United Nations was considering action against the Bangladeshi paramilitary unit.

“[W]e just received the news of this,” Dujarric replied, according to a transcript. “We will obviously be taking a look at it. I would remind you that we do have a pretty stringent human rights screening policy that applies to individual units from every country. But, we, obviously, have been taking very seriously what is being done.”

Later, another U.N. spokesman told BenarNews that the world body was aware of recent reports about RAB in light of the U.S. sanctions, and that “all allegations of human rights violations should be investigated by the relevant national authorities.”

“The Department of Peace Operations is in the process of providing a response to the letter,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Aziz Haq said, referring to the joint letter from the human rights groups. “[T]he Rapid Action Battalion is not deployed in U.N. Missions as a unit.”

The Secretariat is committed to deploying personnel who “meet the highest standards of efficiency and integrity, including respect for and commitment to human rights,” he said.

A U.N. screening policy “places primary responsibility on Member States to ensure that the personnel they nominate for deployment have not been involved in past violations of international humanitarian and human rights law,” Haq added.

“In particular, all candidates for senior appointments undergo a suitability review, which includes a screening for human rights and conduct and discipline as per U.N. policy.”

Elite force

RAB which comprises members of Bangladesh’s police, army, navy, air force, and border guard, stands accused of more than 600 enforced disappearances in the past 12 years, a similar number of extrajudicial killings, and use of torture, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement in early December, when it announced sanctions on RAB.

The elite unit was founded in 2004, and charged with internal security, intelligence gathering related to criminal activities, and government-directed investigations, according to U.S. treasury officials.

In its action last month, the U.S. Treasury imposed financial sanctions on RAB and six of its current and former officers, saying they were responsible for serious human rights abuses.

In addition, Benazir Ahmed, a former director general of the force who is now Bangladesh’s police chief, was barred from entering the United States “due to his involvement in gross violations of human rights.”

Since the sanctions were announced, the Bangladesh government has responded with “denials and retaliation against human rights defenders and victims’ families,” according to Human Rights Watch.

“Families of victims of enforced disappearance report that officers are showing up at their homes, threatening them, and forcing them to sign false statements that their family member was not forcibly disappeared and that they had intentionally misled the police,” HRW said Thursday.

The police denied this claim in a statement later on Thursday. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police claimed the reports contained “exaggerated” and “fabricated” information, and that it was an attempt to tarnish the image of the police force.

“It is the police’s responsibility to keep in touch with the families during an investigation,” the police department said.

When asked about the demand of the rights group, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan praised RAB.

“RAB is doing many good works, like containing extremism …. But it becomes a victim of propaganda and injustice,” he said on Thursday when a reporter asked him about the letter.

Separately, A. K. M. Mozammel Haque, chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order, told BenarNews: “The government is investigating every allegation of rights violation by any forces as the government of Bangladesh is honoring [the] rights of people.”

But a noted Bangladeshi rights defender, Sultana Kamal, begged to differ. She said that the authorities had accused local rights groups of hurting the country’s image when they raised questions about the rights violations committed by RAB and other security forces.

“They accused us [rights groups] of tarnishing the country’s image, and always deny allegations against the law enforcers” she told BenarNews.

“That’s why [the law enforcers] continue rights violation with impunity.”

Imran Vittachi in Washington contributed to this report. 

This report has been updated to include fresh comments from U.N. spokesman Farhan Aziz Haq.

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