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UN rights chief ‘worried’ about anti-Rohingya rhetoric in Bangladesh

Published : 17 Aug 2022 09:40 PM

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday before leaving Dhaka said that she was “very worried” about increasing anti-Rohingya rhetoric in Bangladesh, stereotyping and scapegoating Rohingyas as the source of crime and other problems.

“I am particularly concerned that a pre-electoral context, combined with economic difficulties and uncertainties, will mean more hate speech against these vulnerable communities,” she said as she visited the Cox’s Bazar camps apart from meeting government ministers, members of the civil society and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her Aug 14-17 first-ever visit.

She said an impressive effort has been made by the government, the UN and other partners in the Rohingya refugee camps.

“The importance of Bangladesh’s humanitarian contribution – and its historical significance – cannot be overstated. The international community must sustain its support to Bangladesh in its response, and press Myanmar to create conditions for return, address the root causes and pursue accountability,” she said.

“Unfortunately the current situation across the border means that the conditions are not right for returns. Repatriation must always be conducted in a voluntary and dignified manner, only when safe and sustainable conditions exist in Myanmar.”

She said the UN human rights body was the first that raised alarm on the Rohingya situation in 2004 and 2015.

Replying to a question, she said if the analyses of the UN rights body were taken into consideration “may be it could have prevented the bloodshed”.

She said the UN rights body “should fit better” in the Security Council decisions to take the preventive measures.

On the issues of disappearances, and concerns about the lack of due process and judicial safeguards in Bangladesh, she said she encouraged the government to create an “independent, specialised 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, adding that inviting the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit Bangladesh would also show a commitment to decisively address this issue.

“As the biggest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, Bangladesh should ensure it has a robust system in place to ensure the careful human rights screening of security personnel.”

She also discussed law reforms, to bring domestic legislation in line with international human rights laws.

“My Office and the Government have engaged in dialogue on review of the Digital Security Act. I acknowledge the need to regulate the online space, addressing online hate speech, disinformation and combating cybercrime. Addressing these concerns is not simple, as regulating communications always creates risks for the protection of freedom of expression.”

“We have submitted our recommendations for repeal and revision of certain provisions of the Act, with a view to ensuring their compliance with international human rights laws and standards and preventing arbitrary application or misuse. We look forward to the Government’s feedback and timeline to expedite the review. We also discussed the importance of working closely with civil society and the UN to ensure that the new draft Data Protection Law and the OTT (Over The Top Platforms) regulations meet international human rights standards.”

She also talked about the upcoming general elections.

“My discussions came against the backdrop of increased economic strains due in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the globally reverberating consequences of the war in Ukraine. Rising food and fuel prices mean that the cost of living is increasing, and in such circumstances, of course the most marginalized and vulnerable are hit the hardest. The country’s extreme vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change is a persistent challenge. Bangladesh is also entering an election cycle, with general elections due next year, which tends to be a time of increased polarisation and tension.

“In such circumstances, what is key is that people from various sectors of society are heard and that they feel heard. Civil society members are important resources that governments need to tap into. Critical voices can help to identify the problems, to acknowledge them, to dive deep into the causes and discuss solutions.

“Acknowledging the challenges is always the first step to overcoming them,” she said.

“My exchanges with civil society representatives were rich and insightful – this was not surprising as Bangladesh has historically had a wealth of civil society expertise in various fields. But successive UN human rights reports have documented a narrowing of civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals often leading to self-censorship. Laws and policies over-regulating NGOs and broadly restricting the freedom of expression make it difficult – and sometimes risky – for them to function effectively.”

She also suggested holding national dialogue bringing all the stakeholders together to address the challenges of the country.

“As Bangladesh continues to grow economically, effective, accountable and inclusive institutions – in line with the Sustainable Development Goals(SDG) 16 – are essential for achieving the next level of development. This means inclusivity, participation and accountability. Strengthening the independence of institutions, including the national human rights commission, the elections commission and the judiciary, will be key. The UN Country Team stands by to support implementation of all SDGs,” she said.

She hoped that her visit would further boost Bangladesh’s engagement – government and non-governmental – with the UN Human Rights Office and mechanisms.

“Bangladesh will also undertake its fourth Universal Periodic Review in the Human Rights Council next year, which will be an important moment to take stock of progress,” she said.

“It is encouraging that the new Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights will visit the country soon. I call on the international community to support Bangladesh and other vulnerable States in their demand for effective climate action.

“For all the significant human rights challenges ahead – economic, climate-related, political, social and humanitarian –I am convinced that if the powerful resources within the whole society are harnessed, and policies and responses are crafted with the participation of many diverse voices, Bangladesh will continue to shine brighter in its remarkable development journey,” she said.