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Lord Roper: My Lords, I begin by expressing my gratitude for the good wishes to my noble friend Lord Dykes expressed by so many participants in the debate. I go on to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, on what, I thought, was an
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outstanding maiden speech. She spoke about her background but also addressed the issues that we are considering today.
I feel that it has been a useful debate, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said about us wasting our time; I thought that we wasted it rather well. I thank the Minister for his full reply and all those who took part in the debate, which was surprisingly non-polemical. At times, it seemed more like a seminar than a debate. I am grateful for that. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, human rights in Bangladesh have not been high on the agenda of the media or the public in this country, in spite of the close historical, sporting and cultural ties between our two countries. The Economist observed last week that the problem was,
It explained that that was partly because the Government there made it hard for international journalists to visit and partly because, when they did visit, the Government did not like what they wrotein particular, the recent suggestions that the country was seeing a rise in Islamic extremism and was becoming a haven for international terrorists.
The biggest headache for western diplomats in Dhaka, the Economist says, is whether democracy can survive and whether the elections scheduled for 2006 will be held. The main opposition party, the Awami League, threatens to boycott the polls, in the face of a rising tide of violence against its leaders and supporters.
The Home Office was forced to take Bangladesh off the so-called white list of supposedly safe countries to which asylum seekers could be returned without the right of an in-country appeal when the High Court ruled in February, after an exhaustive survey of the evidence, that no rational decision-maker could have been satisfied that there was in general in Bangladesh no serious risk of persecution. The FCO's latest human rights report describes Bangladesh as the second most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist. Even at a distance, one can see that reflected in the paranoia of the reaction to an attempt to hold a rational discussion of the rise of extremism, intolerance and violence, particularly as they affect religious, ethnic and political minorities, as well as secular and progressive groups. Last Friday, a steering committee under my chairmanship convened a one-day meeting at SOAS to discuss the matters. We understood that the high commission had protested to the Foreign Office about the holding of such a meeting. The noble Lord may be able to assure us that it was told that, in this country, the Government have nothing to say about
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any lawful discussions, including those concerned with human rights. Just for the record, we invited the high commissioner and four other people representing the Bangladesh Government to participate. We gave them two 10-minute slots in the plenary session compared with only one for all other groups, including the official opposition.
The high commissioner was heckled when he said that there was no violation of human rights in Bangladesh; that many MPs belonging to the main party now in governmentthe BNPwere assassinated during the 19962001 Awami League terms of office; and that the rise of Ahmadiyya Muslims was not so important because there were only a small number of them compared with the majority Sunni population. But, in spite of those provocative remarks, order was maintained by the chair and the high commissioner was allowed extra time to compensate for the interruptions.
When the second government speaker in turn exceeded his allotted 10 minutes and refused to obey the chair's ruling that he should sit down, the high commissioner and his grouptwice as many as the number that we had officially invited and in spite of being told in writing three times that we could not accept the additional nominations because of the limited capacity of the hallcreated a disturbance and then walked out. He subsequently issued a false statement claiming that the meeting had broken up in disarray, when, in fact, it continued peacefully until 18:00 hours as scheduled.
By walking out, the high commissioner's group forfeited the chance to participate in the afternoon workshops, which were very useful in focusing on particular aspects of the problem; namely, human rights in general, the persecution of minorities; the rise of religious extremism and the threat to secular democracy; and international aspects, including the role of donors and international NGOs.
I believe that this was the first time that an attempt had been made to look at the situation of all of the besieged minority groups together and, if possible, to point to ways of halting the downward slide to anarchy, lawlessness and repression. The participants all agreed, apart from the Bangladesh officials, that it was an outstanding success. They were enthusiastic about setting up a network that will continue the work of the conference, as I hope Ministers will have seen from the resolution, a copy of which was sent to them.
We would have liked to hear from the two official spokesmen how they saw the key governance challenges that they face and how best outside assistance could help to address them. That was the subject of a meeting held last February in Washington between members of the donor community, including the UK, US, EU, World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Since then, I know that the UK and the European Union have raised further concerns with Dhaka. Unfortunately, it was as if none of those had registered with them.
The British high commissioner in Dhaka only a few weeks ago expressed concern over the lack of progress in the investigation of an attempt on his life, in which three people died, and over the continuation of similar attacks. He mentioned the increased aid that the UK is giving for
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police reform, which is part of a package that makes us the biggest donorslarger even than the World Bank. Will the Minister say whether, as Mr Choudury suggested, aid can be deployed effectively to improve the law and order situation in the absence of much firmer leadership from the Government, in a situation where we have, as one participant describes it,
The UK has repeatedly pressed Bangladesh to investigate terrorist crimes and to bring those responsible to justice. The dreadful murder of Shah A M S Kibria, the distinguished former Minister and ambassador to the UN, and the failure of the authorities to take the steps that might have saved his life, was only the latest in a series of outrages, which included attempts on the lives of the Leader of the Opposition in August 2004 and, of course, on our high commissioner earlier in that year.
The Bangladesh high commissioner did not mention the belated request that I understand has been made by his Government to Interpol and the FBI for help in tracking down "terrorists sheltered by a foreign intelligence agency" allegedly responsible for the killing of 21 people in the attack on the Leader of the Opposition's rally last August or the improper release of confessions said to have been made by two people held in custody for those offences, although neither of them has been taken to court. Some of us saw those moves, and the orders issued to law enforcers to strengthen their efforts to arrest known terrorists, as preliminary results of the conference. Can the noble Baroness in her reply say whether we have received any requests for help in the detection of those crimes? If so, what reply have we made?
Even if they convict a few terrorists, that will not deal with the larger penumbra of religious and communal hatred which has inspired attacks on secular organisations, such as the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, which have made significant contributions in the past towards the country's development, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community's mosques and members, and places of worship belonging to the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities.
In some of those attacks the police actively collaborated with the bigots. I hope that the training we provide for the police will help them to enforce the law more impartially. But what can we do as presidency of the EU from next week to raise the pressure on Dhaka, not just to end terrorist atrocities and improve the performance and behaviour of the police, but to stamp out the hatemongers who create the climate in which the terrorists thrive?
The UN Rapporteur on Religious Freedom reported to the Human Rights Commission in March on the killing of an Ahmadiyya Imam, a Hindu priest and a Buddhist monk, as well as other sectarian outrages and threats. The Government's response has been merely to reiterate that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution while, at the same time, they have banned publications by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
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The Government have indeed banned two extremist bodies, but not the International Khatme Nabuwat Movement Bangladesh, whose members incite to violence against the Ahmadis, as we saw in a terrifying video that was shown at the conference on Friday. There is no law in Bangladesh forbidding incitement to religious hatred. If there is a law against incitement to commit other substantive criminal offences, it is not enforced against religious fanatics. An informer from another extremist groupthe Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladeshtold the police that that group was engaged in a systematic campaign against cultural activities considered to be non-Islamic.
Former Minister, Professor Abu Sayed, claims that camps have been established in Bangladesh for the training of thousands of militants, with the assistance of coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, and that these groups were infiltrating public departments and civil society with the aim of launching an Islamist revolution. He is not the only person to have made those allegations. But the response of the police is not to investigate those charges, but to raid the professor's house and to confiscate books on the rise of communism and extremism.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions said that he has received no substantive response to the three communications sent to the Bangladesh Government about killings by the rapid action battalion. Representations by Amnesty International have also fallen on deaf ears. Amnesty International says that the RAB killed 147 people in 2004. It talks about a growing tide of violence on members of the Opposition and on public places such as cinemas.
Our conference heard from representatives of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts where the 1997 peace accords have not been implemented as the CHT ministry has now publicly acknowledged. The people are steadily being deprived of the ancestral lands which have belonged to the Jumma people from time immemorial. The very demography of the CHT is being changed under military occupation. The commission set up to resolve land disputes has never been activated. The attacks on tribal people in 2003, which involved killings, rapes and the burning of hundreds of homes, have not been properly investigated, like all of the preceding atrocities over many years.
Violence against the press is on the rise. The US ambassador says that journalism is the most dangerous profession in Bangladesh. In the past 12 months, more than 400 journalists have received death threats, 320 have been tortured and five have been murdered, including Mr Golam Mahfuz, deputy editor of a daily paper, who was stabbed to death less than a month ago. The editor and publisher of a former weekly tabloid were charged with sedition and the publisher spent 17 months behind bars before he was given bail.
Apart from the perilous situation of the religious and ethnic minorities, violence against women and children in Bangladesh has reached an unacceptable level and the court system is stacked against the victims, as the Daily Star of Dhaka noted last Sunday. The Government do not enforce laws prohibiting discrimination against
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women, minority groups and people with disabilities. Bangladesh is an increasingly dangerous and threatening place for them as well as those belonging to minority faiths, ethnic groups, opposition parties and secular organisations.
At the root of all those problems lies the cancer of extremism. Bangladesh is at the front line of the war against terrorism fuelled by a maverick branch of Islam that aims to transform the country into a Taliban-style dictatorship. But instead of acknowledging the threat to the country's stability and acting vigorously against the peddlers of hatred and violence, the government pretend that nothing is wrong. They have colluded with extremist groups and failed to defend the rights of vulnerable people, in spite of repeated pleas by the Foreign Office, the US State Department, the European Union and the agencies of the Human Rights Commission. They have managed to keep a relatively low profile in Europe, compared with other hotspots in the world, in spite of the danger that such bigotry and hatred, if allowed to fester in Bangladesh, could spread outwards from the sub-continent to the rest of the world including Britain.
The British Government and the people of this country must support embattled minorities and human rights defenders, and build solidarity in the struggle to preserve their vanishing freedoms. We must fashion a coalition for liberty that spans all people under threat and their allies throughout the world. I beg to move for Papers.
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