(As published in the Huffington Post)
During the past few months, the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights has heard testimony about the disturbing human rights violations occurring in Bangladesh. Witnesses have testified that ethnic minorities, particularly the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, are subject to severe discrimination by the Islamist government and the military. Most troubling is that the world at large continues to ignore these issues. Indeed, few media outlets have mentioned the abuses that minorities in Bangladesh have endured since the country won its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Many countries provide aid to the Bangladeshi government, which in turn uses these funds to retain essential military backing; Canada alone supplied $82 million in 2011-2012. In this respect, Canada has leverage to influence the government in Dhaka, which is dependent on foreign aid, to curb human rights violations and end the culture of impunity that enables them.
The main issue brought up by human rights organizations, and at the Subcommittee by Kirit Sinha Roy and Dr. Anuradha Bose of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council’s (BHBCUC), is the treatment of ethnic minority groups, particularly Hindus, as second-class citizens. In 1988, Bangladesh’s constitution was revised to make Islam the state religion, though the government still identifies as secular. Of the country’s 156,000,000 people, almost 90 per cent are Muslim, 9.7 per cent are Hindu, and Buddhists and Christians only make up 0.7 per cent and 0.3 per cent of the population, respectively.
Our subcommittee has heard that members of these groups experience near-daily violence. In particular, many have been driven off their land so that it can be stolen using the Vested Property Law, which allows individuals to claim land as their own if it has been “abandoned.” More disturbing is the forced conversion of Hindus to Islam, which, in the case of many women, is preceded by their abduction and rape in order to force them to marry the men responsible. Other attacks have been more political in nature, with supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who tend to perceive Hindus as being staunch supporters of the ruling Awami League, sometimes attacking them during elections to prevent them from voting.
Virtually nobody has been held accountable for any of these incidents; indeed, the culture of impunity has proven to be so pervasive that these victims are often further mistreated by the police. This systemic discrimination has led to a mass exodus of Bangladesh’s religious minorities, with those possessing the financial means often fleeing to neighbouring India or overseas.
Discrimination is particularly brutal against the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region, who have suffered horrific human rights violations at the hands of Bangladeshi settlers and the military forces supporting them. The region was at the centre of a massive insurgency triggered by indigenous calls for the government to recognize the CHT’s autonomy. The insurgency proved to be both prolonged and bloody. It lasted for 20 years (1977-1997), and the government’s campaign was characterized by Amnesty International and other rights organizations as a series of atrocities, including “massacres, arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions.”
A peace agreement signed in 1997 was meant to end the conflict; however, it appears that the settlers have continued the abuses of the government without any repercussions. Indeed, Dr. Aditya Dewan, President of the International Council for Indigenous Peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, testified that the Bangladeshi government has systematically removed mentions of indigenous peoples from official documents in order to deny their unique status.
Much like other minorities, aboriginals are at risk of being driven from their land so that it can be effectively stolen by settlers, with 642 homes being burnt towards this end between 2009 and 2011 alone. Even peaceful protests are met with deadly force by the soldiers and armed settlers policing the region, and the civil rights of the region’s native peoples are either curtailed or suppressed. There appears to be a systematic campaign underway to gradually replace the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts with settlers by whatever means it deems necessary, regardless of the cost in human lives.
Because Canada is an aid donor to Bangladesh, it must take action to end the ongoing human rights violations against religious minorities and indigenous peoples. We can pressure Bangladesh to take action to end human rights violations and the culture of impunity.
Follow Irwin Cotler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@irwincotler