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UNHCHR’s visit: Enforced Disappearances in the Country and Criminalization in the CHT

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Photo : Michelle Bachelet

Mangal Kumar Chakma

Recently in August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, paid visit to Bangladesh. During her visit, Bachelet highlighted, among other things, the issue of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the country since 2009. On the other hand, she also stressed the issue of full implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord of 1997 and ensuring unrestricted access for independent actors to visit the CHT area.

Various human rights organizations including the UN Committee against Torture have been accusing the Rapid Action Battalion and the Defense Intelligence Agency of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and repression in Bangladesh for several years. According to human rights organizations, 605 people went missing from 2009 to September 2021. The Human Rights Watch has published a list of 86 people who have been detained in unknown locations for 10 years.

Michelle Bachelet in a press conference held in Dhaka on August 17, 2022 at the end of her visit mentioned the lack of accountability in the field of human rights in Bangladesh. Therefore, she called on the government of Bangladesh for an impartial, independent and transparent investigation of these allegations. She recommended ensuring effective inclusion, participation and accountability. She urged the government to introduce an independent and specialized mechanism to ensure accountability and transparency, especially in cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. She also said that the United Nations office is ready to provide advice and assistance on how to set up such an independent body following international standards.

Now it remains to be seen how and to what extent the government takes into account the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and undertakes what kind of steps. It goes without saying that the government can never avoid responsibility in cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. If the government responds to Bachelet’s call for positive action, it will undoubtedly inspire hope for human rights accountability and the rule of law in the country.

The systematic criminalization of the movement for the rights of the Jumma people of CHT as well as the rights activists and organizationsby the government and the state machineries is closely linked withthe enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of the country. There is no opportunity to see this criminalization practice inCHT in isolation from the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the country. The army and defense intelligence agency DGFI continues to criminalize individuals and organizations who are vocal in their demand for land rights and basic human rights of the indigenous Jumma people including the implementation of the CHT Accord as ‘terrorists’, ‘extortionists’, and ‘armed miscreants’. As a part of that, anti-human activities such as house searches, arrests planting arms, extrajudicial killings in the name of crossfire, filing of conspiracy cases, detention and torture in camps without handing over to the courts are being carried out. Along with this, activities of anti-Jumma interests such as land grabbing and eviction, violence against Jumma women, infiltration of outsiders, communal attacks and burning of Jumma villages, anti-Accord propaganda etc. are also being vigorously continued.

The CHT Accord was concluded in 1997 with the aim of solution to the CHT problem through political and peaceful means. Immediately after the signing of the Accord, the then government implemented some provisions of the Accord. But later, no government came forward to implement the Accord as required. Even though the Awami League government, which signed the Accord, has been in power for almost 14 years since 2009, it has not come forward to implement the core issues of the Accord.

As a result, core issues of the Accord, such as, taking legal and administrative steps to preserve the characteristics of the tribal area status of CHT region; Devolution of political, administrative and economic powers and functions including general administration, law and order, police, land and land management, forest and environment, tourism, development of communication system etc. to the CHT Regional Council and the three Hill District Councils; Conducting elections for Regional Council and three Hill District Councils by formulating Election Rules and Election Roll Rules for making voter lists with permanent residents; withdrawal of all temporary camps including de facto military rule ‘Operation Uttoron’; Returning the dispossessed land to the Jumma people by settling the land disputes through the Land Commission and formulating the Rules of the Land Commission; proper rehabilitation of India-returnee Jumma refugees and Internal Jumma families by returning their respective lands to them; cancellation of land leases given to non-local residents; Recruitment of Permanent Residents in all jobs in CHT on priority basis to indigenous Jumma peoples; Amendment of the Police Act of 1861, Police Regulations, Forest Act of 1927 and CHT Regulation of 1900 including other laws applicable in CHT to make them consistent with the Accord; dignified rehabilitation of Bengalis settlers outside the CHT, etc. remain unimplemented as of to-date.

Not only has the current Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina not come forward to implement the Hill Accord, moreover, it imposede facto military rule ‘Operation Uttoron’ in the CHT on September 1, 2001 violating the CHT Accord. By virtue to this ‘Operation Uttaran’, the army continues to control all important matters of CHT including administration, law and order, judiciary, development. Instead of solving the CHT problem through political and peaceful means, the present government undertook the policy of solving the CHT problem through military means like previous dictators. Instead of withdrawing all temporary camps as per the Accord, new camps are now being established in the sites from which army camps withdrawn earlier. More than 20 army camps have been setup during the Covid-19 pandemic alone.

In place of vesting the subjects of ‘Police (Local)’ and ‘Supervision and Development District Law and Order’ to the three Hill District Councils with and constituting ‘Hill Police Force’ as per the rules and regulations of the Hill District Councils, the government has recently taken the initiative to set up APBN camps in the places of withdrawn army camps.

The Army and Defense Intelligence Agency have imposed unannounced censorship on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media coverage of human rights violations in CHT. Narrowing civic space, increased surveillance, intimidation and reprisals leads to self-censorship. As a result, the national mass media of the country is avoiding to publish the news of oppression and torture by various state forces. Moreover, the government has also banned many news portals related to CHT. On the other hand, in 2015, on the recommendation of the security forces, the Home Ministry imposed 11 restrictions on the CHT, one of which is the requirement of permission from the Home Ministry for foreigners to visit the CHT and the mandatory presence of army representatives when national and foreign organizations and individuals talk to the indigenous Jumma people in the CHT. In this way, CHT region has been practically turned into a blockade area today like a large prison.

Under such circumstances, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, in her speech at a press conference on August 17, stressed the importance of protecting indigenous ethnic groups, including the Hindu community, from violence and land encroachments. She also said in the press conference that the CHT Accord signed 25 years ago was an important achievement. But given ongoing allegations of human rights violations related to land disputes and the need for demilitarization, Bachelet has called for the full implementation of the CHT Accord and unrestricted access for independent actors to visit the area.

But like the issues of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, it remains to be seen how much the government takes into account and what steps does it take regarding full implementation of the CHT Accord, resolution of land disputes, demilitarization of the area by withdrawing all temporary camps, above all the removal of restrictions on foreigners visiting CHT or the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Chief regarding Chittagong Hill Tracts?

However, it is very difficult to expect the government to come forward in this regard after seeing the statements and attitudes of the ministers and bureaucrats of the government. The government is yet to come out of that culture of one-sided information regarding CHT issues. The way the Home Minister briefed Michelle Bachelet on the CHT Accord which was informed to journalists, it is confirmed that the government is still bullying same phrase that 48 sections out of the 72 of the Accord have been implemented. It could be said that as a result of not allowing the Human Rights High Commissioner to visit the CHT region, a negative impression could have already been portrayed in the United Nations. If the allegations of human rights violations in the CHT were untrue, there would have been no reason not to allow Bachelet to visit the hills.

But all of us who want a genuine political and peaceful solution to the CHT problem hope that the government will take positive steps. It goes without saying that the government will not be able to avoid the responsibility of gross failure and negligence in the implementation of the CHT Accord even for a long period of 14 years of continuous state power. There is strong anger and dissatisfaction with the government at home and abroad including the Jumma people of CHT. Realizing this reality, if the government takes into account the call of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and moves forward for the full implementation of the CHT Accord, it will undoubtedly be good for the greater interest of the current government as well as the country. Otherwise, as the issue of continued enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings and impunity in the country has become a global issue during the tenure of the current government, the issues of implementation of the CHT Accord will also turn into the same set at the international arena.

It goes without saying that the issue of the implementation of the CHT Accord and the militarization and persecution of the army has not only come up in this investigative visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the past, the CHT issue has been raised in the recommendations and observations of the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples under the UN Human Rights Commission, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues under the Economic and Social Council, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) under the Human Rights Council, the UN specialized agency International Labor Organization (ILO) and various UN treaty committees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for cooperation in setting up an independent mechanism to account for disappearances and extrajudicial killings, as such, the implementation of the CHT Accord, demilitarization and the lifting of restrictions on CHT areas is not out of this process. The United Nations also has a special mechanism for implementing on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states and indigenous peoples including peace accords and reconciliation initiatives, and their constitutional recognition.

For example, in accordance with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/25, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides technical advice to member states and/or indigenous peoples upon request to identify their needs. As part of this process, the Expert Mechanism conducted such missions to Finland and Mexico in 2018, New Zealand in 2019, and Sweden and Brazil in 2020. So, if the government is sincere to move forward the CHT issues, it can use this special mechanism of expert mechanism under Human Rights Council.

Ms Bachelet is expected to address a session of the UN Human Rights Council next month before her term expires. I think it needs to be given special importance for Bangladesh. Bachelet’s speech at the press conference revealed that the new Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights is coming to visit Bangladesh soon. The issue of indigenous peoples is closely related to climate change and human rights. Therefore, according to Bachelet’s recommendation, it is important for the government to take special measures to protect indigenous and minority communities from violence and land encroachment including the implementation of the CHT Accord.

It is particularly important that allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the country, demilitarization of the CHT and restrictions on CHT areas have been raised against the army and military intelligence agencies. In fact, it is essential to consider this complaint seriously rather than denying it. According to the CHT Accord, withdrawal of all temporary camps and military rule called ‘Operation Uttoron’ from the CHT, which was also decided in several meetings of the CHT Accord Implementation and Monitoring Committee, should be taken into consideration for implementation without further delay. It is essential for the sake of protection of the image of the military forces as well as the country. If not, the role of the military in the international arena including the UN peacekeeping mission may be fallen in question.

Prior to the UN High Commissioner’s visit to Dhaka, it is mentioned in a statement of 9 organizations including Human Rights Watch issuedon August 10, 2022 that the ongoing incidents of human rights violations by law and order and security forces will affect the deployment of Bangladesh army personnel in the UN peacekeeping mission. At the same time, 6 Jumma rights organizations called on the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to temporarily stop the deployment of members of the Bangladesh Armed Forces in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission for human rights violations in the CHT. The submission of 6 Jumma organizations can also be considered to have a significance.

At that time, a human rights delegation held an advocacy meeting with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and discussed the issues of implementation of the CHT Accord and human rights situation in the CHT. They highlighted expropriation of lands and eviction of Jumma peoples in the name of tourism and establishment and expansion of camps by the army and law enforcement forces; inciting and aiding settlers and land grabbers to set fire to houses and plantations of Jumma people for the purpose of expropriation of land; mobilizing settler and fundamentalist groups to obstruct the implementation of the CHT Accord; criminalization of Jumma rights activists, filing of fabricated cases, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, detention and torture in camps, houses searching and rummage of valuables; violence against Jumma women and children.

Therefore, in the greater interest of the country, it is the aspiration of countrymen that the government should come forward for implementation of the CHT Accord including demilitarization of the region, settlement of land disputes and proper introduction of the special governance system of CHT incorporating CHT Regional Council and three Hill District Councils and so on.

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