We must act to halt rights violations in Bangladesh

IN this year, alone, at least four atheist bloggers have been murdered by machete-wielding attackers in the south-central Asian country of Bangladesh. Most recently, Faisal Arefin Dipan, a secular publisher was hacked to death and three other people, also bloggers and publishers, were severely injured in two separate attacks. The outbreak of violence has sparked protests in Dhaka. Hundreds took to the streets against perceived government inaction; writers and publishers set fire to books in protest.

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First published in The National, 23 November 2015

While the world’s fight against Daesh is stealing the international news headlines, many other conflicts and human rights abuses around the world go almost unnoticed. But we don’t have to look far to find people extremely concerned with the effects of continuous political unrest and grave human rights abuses in Bangladesh.

As Scotland’s member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, I had the pleasure of meeting with Bangladeshi community representatives in Scotland, among them the oldest member, Hazi Nurul Amin Shek from Aberdeen, who arrived in Scotland in 1960. Although estimates suggest there are just a few thousand Bangladeshis residing in Scotland, there is a steady growth of Scotland-born Bangladeshis due to the arriving generation’s age. 

The Scots-Bangladeshi community may be relatively small but they are vocal, calling for any assistance that would put an end to the ongoing political unrest in their home country.

They have every reason to be concerned, as fears of Islamic extremist violence have been rising. Political instability and widespread violence are threatening economic gains and democracy in Bangladesh, which is home to 150 million and one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Bangladesh stands out as one of the few Muslim-majority democracies in the world, but a longstanding disagreement between the government and the opposition surrounding the conduct of national elections held in January 2014 led to the steady shrinking of that democratic space. 

The violence has disrupted the key garment industry and tarnished the image of a country that, while still poor, has made remarkable gains in life expectancy, literacy and gender equality.

Since the boycott of the national election by the opposition, hundreds have been killed and injured by both government forces and opposition militants. The country’s security forces are accused of carrying out enforced disappearances, killings, and arbitrary arrests, particularly targeting opposition leaders and supporters with impunity. All this is played out against a backdrop of rising religious tensions, creating new challenges for the fragile establishment.

The seriousness of the situation and the urgency for action was reflected by the 20-strong Bangladeshi delegation attending our meeting. Arriving from all corners of Scotland, many were successful self-employed businessmen and active members of our society, involved in various community activities. Family is the core of social life in Bangladesh and a core part of Scots-Bangladeshi culture too. Family ties are incredibly important and so greater is their concern for those they left behind.

During our meeting we discussed the increasing restrictions on civil society, unacceptable limits on free expression and speech, and numerous cases of enforced disappearances, including the disappearance of Salah Uddin Ahmed, spokesperson and joint-secretary of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). It is clear that voices of opposition are ever more at risk in Bangladesh as groups have found themselves increasingly threatened and under attack. I was taken by their commitment to do something about the crisis in Bangladesh, but there is no simple answer.

I have taken up their concerns in Brussels. The European Parliament and the European External Action Service strongly condemn human rights abuses regardless of which country or government is deemed responsible. This was also the case following violence and unrest linked to the 2014 general election in Bangladesh. The EU is Bangladesh’s first trading partner and we are the biggest export market for Bangladeshi products. We should be able to do more and have some sort of impact on the promotion of democracy and good governance in a country where cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and unlawful imprisonment of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and social media campaigners are becoming more prevalent.

This is why I have written to the EU Foreign Affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, questioning the application of the EC-Bangladesh Cooperation Agreement of 2001 and seeking answers on the EU’s direct diplomatic engagement, and I await her response. The EU has leverage to influence the government in Dhaka, dependent as it is on trade with the EU, but similarly the UK Government, as the largest grant donor, could play an influential part.

According to the Operational Plan released by the Department of International Development, Bangladesh is not aid dependent – total aid is about two per cent of GDP – but the UK has a long-standing and positive relationship with Bangladesh, with strong cultural ties. More than half a million Bangladeshis live in the UK, most of whom will be equally concerned with the current state of affairs back home. The UK Government should be seen taking action and reacting to these concerns as a government of all UK residents, not just a select few. 

While foreign affairs remain one of the reserved powers of the Westminster Government, I expect them to do their job and put pressure on the Bangladeshi Government to encourage an end to human rights violations and the culture of impunity criticised by so many impartial observers and by the Bangladeshi community in Scotland.