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Protecting National Interests under the Guise of Human Rights and Democracy

Sheikh Hasina

The protection of fundamental rights and the promotion of democratic principles is a duty on all States. Upholding such principles are admirable and necessary.  However, when States pursue national interests under a veil of human rights and democracy the damage that is done can be irreparable.

Foreign policy is complex and never straightforward. Policies may often appear contradictory. What is good for one state, is not necessarily good for another. This is something that is often accepted but rarely understood. Policies may appear contradictory at best, and more often, downright hypocritical. There are always vested interests which dictate policy.

If the focus was solely on the protection of fundamental human rights and the advancement of democratic principles, we would not be signing important trade and arms deals with a military regime in Egypt nor would we be lobbying UN Member States to soften its criticism of the regime in Bahrain or supporting Saudi Arabia’s appointment on a human rights panel. If the focus was on genuine policies based on the fundamental protection of the Rule of Law, there would be equal criticism of States that have an appalling human rights record, as the principles must apply equally and without discrimination.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently published its report on “Human Rights and Democracy 2015”. The Foreign Secretary, The Rt. Hon. Philip Hammond, is quoted as saying that the report “…provides examples of the important work we have undertaken to support and strengthen human rights, under three broad themes: democratic values and the rule of law; human rights for a stable world; and strengthening the rules-based international system”. The report introduces a focus on 30 countries “…where we judge that the UK can make a real difference…” These are truly encouraging words from a nation that has been at the forefront of the development of human rights for more than six decades.

Regrettably, the approach taken to some of those countries under review is disappointing and the tone adopted demonstrates a clear connection to the protection of national interests.

The section on Bahrain states “that there was progress on human rights in Bahrain throughout 2015, although challenges remain.” The report focuses on some of the concerns related to freedom of expression, allegations of torture in police custody and the use of the death penalty, but the tone is very much that progress is being made and there is more confidence in national institutions. It is notable that a recent report in The Guardian entitled “Britain lobbied UN to whitewash Bahrain police abuses” disclosed reports of the UK lobbying UN Member States prior to a critical UN review.

The most startling contradiction in the FCO report concerns two ‘strategically important’ South Asian Nations: Bangladesh and Maldives.

Over the past few years Bangladesh has been characterised by hundreds of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture in police custody, extra-judicial killings, the targeting of free media and complete closure of any democratic space. A number of atheist and secular bloggers and foreign nationals have been brutally murdered by extremists on the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere in Bangladesh. It has further presided over a ‘judicial process’ that has been strongly criticised by the UN, members of the UK Parliament, US Congress and Senate and every credible international human rights organisation. Recently, the United States has elevated Bangladesh to a ‘country of concern’ on its Atrocity Crimes Prevention Board and the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is currently reviewing whether the ‘situation in Bangladesh’ warrants a preliminary examination into Crimes Against Humanity.

The Maldives, on the other hand, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean consisting of 1,190 coral islands grouped into 26 coral atolls, has recently attracted international attention largely over the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed was convicted of ordering the army to abduct and detain a judge, a matter that the former President has publicly admitted to and was the main factor in bringing an early end to his presidency in 2012. The issues, however, surround the circumstances of his trial and whether it was fair.

There have been allegations of political prisoners, a politically influenced judiciary, attacks on the free media and the erosion of democratic rights. Many of these allegations are either wholly incorrect or grossly exaggerated. What is relevant however is that the Maldives has been the subject of non-binding resolutions in the United States Senate and European Parliament and threatened with ‘sanctions’. The U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron has even gone so far as to make personal public statements on the issue, and reasserted the threats of sanctions.

The purported justification for such a position being taken is that as one of the world’s oldest democracies, the UK promotes such ideals, and seeks to defend those that it sees as being oppressed and subjugated. Further, as a proponent of a fair and just society along with adherence to the rule of law, the UK must condemn those that we see as rejecting such principles.

This is the right position to take, subject to one caveat. That it is applied equally; namely without prejudice and unconditionally. It is therefore regrettable that the position adopted is neither principled nor transparent.

In its Report, the UK declares that “There was no improvement in the human rights situation in Bangladesh in 2015.” It goes on to state NGOs reported on “excessive use of force, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances were conducted with impunity” and regarding the International Crimes Tribunal stated that NGOs “continued to express concern over the process and independence of the ICT.” It is striking that the Government refrains from any direct criticism of the judiciary or security services. This could be explained by the fact that it later confirms that it has contributed £3.7 million towards judicial reform and £1.2 million towards police reform, the very institutions that are responsible for “excessive use of force, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances”.

Conversely, the section on the Maldives is significantly stronger in tone and does not rely on the reports of NGOs. From the outset it criticises the current Government and declares that there is “a sustained decline in democracy and judicial independence”.

Regarding the Nasheed case it states that it was ‘internationally condemned’. Interestingly, so were the war crimes trials in Bangladesh, but there the UK Government refers to concerns expressed by ‘NGOs’. It is all the more interesting considering that those convicted by the Bangladesh tribunal have been or are awaiting execution; a fact the UN has ruled is in violation of the right to life.

The Maldives is not strategically important to the UK, it is not economically important to the UK, and therefore the UK can make any demand it sees fit.

In Bangladesh there is recognition that the Government is becoming increasingly autocratic although the FCO report makes no mention, but does criticise President Yameen’s alleged “grip on power”. Interestingly, the last election in the Maldives was held to have been lawful and the transfer of power constitutional. There is an active opposition party that frequently challenges the ruling party in parliament. In Bangladesh, by contrast, the Awami League was largely elected without a vote being cast, primarily due to the main opposition party boycotting the election for fear of election rigging, and the parliamentary opposition is its former coalition partner.

In Bangladesh we have seen a complete departure from the rule of law and a complete breakdown in law and order.

Clearly therefore there should be a plethora of criticism and condemnation from the UK Government, as such actions are an anathema when compared to its own ideals. Unfortunately, however, such condemnation has been deafeningly silent.

The furthest the UK Government appears to have gone in its report is that it notes that there is “tension” between the two main political parties. Now, compare this report with that of the Maldives and we see phrases such as “The UK was at the forefront of international efforts to encourage Maldives to improve its human rights record”, and further “In 2016, we will continue to remind Maldives of its commitment to protect human rights”, thus suggesting that it will continue to play an active role.

The Maldives is not Bangladesh. Hundreds of citizens have not been brutally murdered by state security forces with the full support of the State, many more are not being subjected to enforced disappearance, nor has there been a wholesale rejection of the rule of law.

The President of the Maldives has stated publicly that the country’s judiciary requires urgent reform. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh has spurned offers of assistance from the UN and EU and claims trials before the International Crimes Tribunal surpass international standards and the rest of the world could learn from them.

What Bangladesh does have however, is importance to the UK Government. Perhaps this is the reason that they were given £5 million to assist with justice sector and police reform; money that the British public may now wish to question.

Bangladesh is seen as being of strategic importance in the region, and of clear economic importance given the scale of the garment industry. The UK Government appears to act carefully in what it says about Bangladesh, and in doing so it is prepared to reject its own publicised position on democracy and human rights, openly demonstrate its own hypocrisy, and in doing so wholly undermine its position internationally.

In Bangladesh the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is the leader the West wants. In Maldives, President Yameen, is not the leader the West wants. This may go some way to explaining the reasons for the divergent position adopted.

The question therefore is whether our attention to human rights and democracy is measured by national, political or economic interests.

For once, we need to tell it as it is. It has nothing to do with promoting fairness, human rights, and democracy; it has everything to do with protecting our national interests and simply ignoring the flagrant violations of human rights perpetrated by others clearly demonstrates this

Hypocrisy abounds.


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