The human rights situation of Bangladesh is going to be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on May 14, 2018 through its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.
UPR is a significant process which involves a review of the human rights records of all United Nations member states. This provides the opportunity for each state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their countries and also to fulfill their human rights obligations.
Under the UPR process, the state under review submits its national report, and civil society organisations (CSOs) have the opportunity to submit alternative reports, which is called “stakeholders' submission” and the UN agencies also make their inputs.
It is true that like any other mechanism of the UN, the UPR has several inherent limitations. It is a state-driven process facilitated by UN, which is an organisation of the states. The other big limitation is that CSOs cannot take part directly in the review process; rather they have to lobby with other member states to raise the concerns on their behalf and put forward recommendations that contribute to the betterment of the human rights situation on the ground. But there remain a few challenges.
First, the governments in power accuse civil society of complaining to foreigners and thus tarnishing the image of the country to the rest of the world. Sometimes they may go as far as to call the CSOs “unpatriotic” or “traitors”. Governments forget that criticising or standing against the policies or actions of the government in power is not the same as opposing the state or compromising the independence of the state. They should recall that on many occasions they talk to foreign government officials and often complain about political parties in opposition.
The second challenge is that no state wants to be too critical about the human rights situation of another state as its own human rights records are not always very clean. Hence they lack moral strength and remain careful so that they don't face similar criticisms in return. Also, most of the time, their position is a calculated one; bilateral relationship with the state under review is considered which, in turn, is determined by economic and geopolitical interests. Moreover, there are always “friendly” states which praise and pat the back of the state under review.
The third and main challenge is that governments take this kind of exercise merely as a process to comply with as there is no strong monitoring of the implementation of their commitments. They know very well that there will be much ado around the review process and then everyone will forget about it until the next review comes after five years. To some extent, many governments in fact love to keep their CSOs engaged with such state-driven processes which eats up the time, resources and energy of the CSOs.
Now the question is, how can the civil society tackle these challenges and overcome the limitations of the process?
Firstly, CSOs should make it clear that UPR is not just a review done in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but is the result of a long-term process. For example, during Bangladesh's second cycle review held on April 29, 2013, Bangladesh received 196 recommendations of which Bangladesh accepted 164. Now we should ask: Was there any concrete process undertaken by the government to detail out a plan of action to implement and realise the accepted recommendations? Was any measurable step taken by the National Human Rights Commission, which is supposed to play the bridge-building role between the rights-holders and duty bearers? Has any shadow plan been developed and pushed by CSOs?
We should also inquire, when the government of Bangladesh prepared their report for the third cycle, did they do a stocktaking of the implementation of the recommendations of the previous cycle and highlight it with measurable indicators in their recent state report?
According to the resolution A/HRC/RES/5/1 of the UN Human Rights Council, in order to write a national report to be submitted to the Human Rights Council for the review, the state under review is “encouraged” to hold a “broad consultation process at the national level with all relevant stakeholders.” Idealists say that these consultations should take place at least a year before the review in different cities and parts of the country and include a broad range of CSOs such as national institutions, NGOs, human rights defenders, local associations, grassroots organisations, trade unions, indigenous people, etc.
The third cycle state report of Bangladesh stated that the government of Bangladesh held multiple consultations with the government ministries, departments, agencies and CSOs in the process of drafting this report. However, members of civil society informed that on February 7, 2018, a day before the submission of the state party report, the government invited selective CSOs for a consultation meeting where no draft was shared but a PowerPoint presentation was given. The report was not shared with CSOs or with media even after submission and till date it has not been made available in any government website.
The state report also claimed that a midterm review was held in November 2015 to follow up on the progress towards implementation of the recommendations. However, members of civil society said that they are not aware of any such midterm review conducted by the government; no such document is available at any government or OHCHR websites; CSOs were not consulted for any midterm review.
Were these things adequately highlighted by the NHRC or the media?
This UPR process is also a test for states to measure how sincere they are in upholding the values of human rights and its principle of universality. Their recommendations should be driven by their respect for human rights, not by other interests related to bilateral relations. By making strong recommendations, other states do not just help to improve the human rights situation in Bangladesh, but also fulfill their responsibility to uphold the universal values of human rights to which they are committed.
As members of the civil society, we should also make this process as grounded as possible, not leaving it as a Geneva-driven process. For that, we should ensure that the media in particular closely monitors and covers the review process—not only what is happening in Geneva on May 14, but also the reporting process and other activities of the state, the NHRC and the civil society.
Hopefully, members of civil society are well aware of all this and have a plan to make the best use of this process. We will have to remember that states have learned a lot from the previous cycles. It is time for us too, to show how much we have learned.
Sayeed Ahmad is a human rights activist.