Bangladesh and the UN Human Rights Council

Published : 25 Oct 2022 08:32 PM

The media reported from New York on 10 October that the United Nations had censured 42 nations for retaliating against human rights activists and journalists. These countries had been singled out of 193 member States for condemnation– virtually blacklisting them– for retaliating against human rights activists and journalists. It was also pointed out that these countries included some of the world’s worst authoritarian regimes with notoriety for extensive human rights abuses. It was also alleged that in these countries if one cooperated with the United Nations and complained about human rights abuses in their home country, chances were that they, in all likelihood, would find themselves targeted by restrictive legislation, either jailed, persecuted, tortured or under government surveillance.

Highlighting a number of “disturbing trends” over the past year, the annual report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres -‘Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights’ (A/HRC/51/47)-  detailed how people — mainly victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders and journalists – suffered reprisals and intimidation by States and non-State actors. Consequently, because of such intimidation, in a third of the countries named in the report, individuals and groups, including civil society organizations (CSOs), either refrained from cooperating or only agreed to report their cases anonymously out of fear of reprisals. 

The report apparently also mentioned that intimidation and reprisals disproportionally affected certain populations and groups, including representatives of indigenous peoples, minorities or those who work on environment and climate change issues, as well as people who may be suffering discrimination based on age, sexual orientation and gender.

The report apparently also mentioned that intimidation and reprisals disproportionally affected certain populations and groups, including representatives of indigenous peoples, minorities or those who work on environment and climate change issues, as well as people who may be suffering discrimination based on age, sexual orientation and gender. The 42 States referred to in the report (which covered the period from 1 May 2021 to 30 April 2022 included Afghanistan, Andorra, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Laos People’s Democratic Republic, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Philippines, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, State of Palestine, Thailand, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Viet Nam, and Yemen.

Such criticism and evaluation was taken one step forward with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres congratulating Ales Bialiatski and the organizations Memorial and the Centre for Civil Liberties on being awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. This was interpreted as recognition of the power of civil society in advancing peace. It was also mentioned that “Civil society groups (CSOs) are the oxygen of democracy, and catalysts for peace, social progress and economic growth. They help keep governments accountable and carry the voices of the vulnerable into the halls of power”. In addition, the  Secretary-General warned that “human rights defenders, women’s rights advocates, environmental activists, journalists and others face arbitrary arrest, harsh prison sentences, smear campaigns, crippling fines and violent attacks.”

Such observations by the responsible authorities of the United Nations immediately drew the attention of those, in some of the above-named 42 countries who were critical of observance of human rights in these countries. In some cases it was politicized- as in the case of Bangladesh. 

Consequently, there was an upturn in the table a day later when Bangladesh and 13 other countries were elected as UN Human Rights Council members for the 2023-25 Session by the United Nations General Assembly.

In the election, Bangladesh, contrary to the earlier UNSG report, was the highest recipient of votes in the Asia Pacific Group (160 votes) and was able to secure one of the four seats in the UNHRC, competing with seven aspirant countries from the Asia Pacific Group. The other three countries from the region elected were the Maldives (154 votes), Vietnam (145 votes) and Kyrgyzstan (126 votes). Bahrain withdrew its candidature a few days ago, while the Republic of Korea (123 votes) and Afghanistan (12 votes) lost the election.

It would be the fifth term of Bangladesh as a member of the 47-member UNHRC. Bangladesh won the previous UNHRC elections in 2006, 2009, 2014 and 2018, effectively for all possible terms as per the rules of business of the Council.

The other nations are Algeria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Georgia, Germany, Morocco, Romania, South Africa and Sudan.

The UNHRC holds regular sessions three times a year, in March, June, and September. It can also decide at any time to hold a special session to address human rights violations and emergencies, at the request of one-third of the member states. As of May 2020, there have been 28 special sessions. The Council consists of 47 members, elected yearly by the General Assembly for  three-year terms. Members are selected via the basis of equitable geographic rotation using the UN regional grouping system. Members are eligible for re-election for one additional term, after which they must relinquish their seat.

The seats are distributed along the following lines: 13 for the African Group, 13 for the Asia-Pacific Group, 6 for the Eastern European Group, 8 for the Latin American and Caribbean Group and 7 for the Western European and Others Group

The fact that Bangladesh has been elected once again negative reports espoused about the country’s governance system clearly indicates that the majority of the countries in the world are aware of the measures that have been and are being taken to uphold human rights within Bangladesh.

It would be natural at this point to refer to several measures undertaken that only underlines the belief within the government and its leadership to look after the citizens and help them to overcome the multifarious challenges that have to be faced by the nearly 170 million population.

This story of success has been reflected in the manner in which Bangladesh has been able to achieve the majority of the Millennium Development Goals better than any other country in South Asia and are now progressing towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The world has also seen how despite great difficulties we have permitted more than one million Rohingyas to enter our country as refugees and given them the necessary support in various dimensions of their lives- till they can return safely and with dignity as citizens of Myanmar. The world has also watched how gender discrimination has been removed and girl children and also boys going to school receive nearly 30 million school text-books free of cost . This has helped to push up the literacy rate.

Other countries have also witnessed how despite financial shortcomings Bangladesh has been able to tackle the Covid Pandemic through vaccines, a vast amount of which has also been given to us by friendly countries. This has enabled us to move forward. We also know of the role being played by the Bangladesh Armed Forces and also the Police personnel within the dimension of UN Peacekeeping efforts. This has continued despite several of our Peacekeepers having to lay down their lives to ensure peace and security in foreign countries. We have also seen how in the month of October, there was total security that was provided to people of different religions to perform their religious rites. It would also be correct for one to point out how the current government is helping hundreds of thousands homeless people with free homes.

aFundamentalism, terrorism and communalism are all being contained with the assistance of the relevant authorities and also through digital measures. This process has also seen the rise of social media usage and the prevalence of the Right to Information process. The use of print media and the electronic media has also enabled the general population to be kept informed in a logical manner. Such a broad-based effort in the rural areas has been taken forward through the use of solar panels and the use of renewable energy. The use of mobile phones has seen massive growth. It has also facilitated the use of the internet and connectivity.

The result of this extremely competitive election is also a clear manifestation of the recognition by the international community of Bangladesh's continued endeavour and commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in national as well as the international arena. This also nullifies the ongoing smear campaign with falsified and fabricated information by some politically motivated vested corners at home and abroad aimed at negatively portraying the human rights situation of Bangladesh.

The above are only some reasons why Bangladesh deserves to be in the UNHRC.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance