THE BLOG

Bangladesh and a Human Rights Crisis

07/02/2014 14:37 GMT | Updated 09/04/2014 10:59 BST

It is now a month since elections took place in Bangladesh. They were conducted against passionate controversy. The principal opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by former PM Khaleda Zia, boycotted the vote after the government refused to install a neutral caretaker government to oversee the process. The main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was banned from participating altogether.

The vote was a sham. More than half the seats were uncontested, and Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won 232 of the 300 seats, against only nominal opposition. The Jatiya Party, originally part of the government's coalition, pulled out of the process at the last minute, citing the lack of participation by the opposition. Jatiya's leader, former military strongman HM Ershad, was soon detained in a military hospital.

The election occurred during a turbulent period for the country. Over 150 people died before polling day. Regular street protests became violent as the Government pitted itself against an opposition furious over repeated clampdowns on freedom of speech and association.

Zia and Hasina's families have been rotating power for over 30 years, each taking retribution against the perceived iniquity of their predecessors. Sadly, the country's toxic cyclical politics is now being played out again.

When I founded the Parliamentary Human Rights group in 1976, I hoped to work with recently independent countries to promote the UN's treaties on civil and political rights. But in the new Bangladesh, the scars of a violent independence war had not healed. In 1975, the first President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family had been murdered in a military coup, fanning the culture of violent political animosity that continued through the decades.

In 2008, however, the general election was held under a caretaker government, and was generally seen as free and fair. Ironically, the refusal of Sheikh Hasina to retain that system from which she benefitted five years earlier was the reason for the opposition's boycott in 2014. The result is that today she leads a clearly illegitimate executive, heading towards one-party rule.

This democratic deficit has now been challenged by Bangladesh's international partners. The US Ambassador has expressed his dissatisfaction, noting the elections 'do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people'. He has challenged the government to produce a date for a fresh vote. The UK Government has so far offered tempered criticism.

If Bangladesh is to avoid an intractable political crisis, a new election must be called immediately. It should be held under a neutral administration, with fully sanctioned international supervision. After years of intimidation, bloodshed and division, to be offered a fair choice is the least ordinary Bangladeshis deserve. Clearly, there is a simmering wave of discontent and injustice across the country after millions were disenfranchised. This anger cannot simply be wished away.

With constructive diplomatic and economic ties, the UK and EU must push for this re-run immediately. It will require dialogue and engagement with all sides of the political spectrum. Extracting compromise out of such a highly-charged atmosphere is never easy. However, the Bangladesh government must realise that their credibility, both at home and abroad, has been profoundly undermined, and is further damaged by Sheikh Hasina grabbing the Home, Foreign and Defence Ministries.

It also means internationalising the now discredited International Crimes Tribunal. Ostensibly created by Sheikh Hasina to bring justice to the victims of the 1971 War, it has been used to arrest and execute leaders of the opposition.

Events of recent weeks have taken a more sinister turn. The Bangladesh Government has engaged in a brutal round of extra-judicial killings against the opposition. This week Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation into these crimes, cynically blamed on 'crossfire' - an unpalatable euphemism for victims of shootouts. It was revealed that many of these deaths were in custody. Student leaders of both BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami have been found dead after being arrested in the last fortnight. Further reports of opposition members being taken from their houses, beaten and killed continue.

The election and the crisis that has ensued has left Bangladesh bitterly divided. The government's argument that it is clamping down on 'terrorists' is a fallacy - its exclusion of moderate factions will only create a more desperate and violent political landscape. The profound contradiction in this approach is already being played out in Egypt. And while that country draws the world's focus, Bangladesh slips further into a human rights vacuum.