Human Rights and Democracy Report 2017 - People's Republic of Bangladesh

The human rights situation in Bangladesh saw no substantive improvement in 2017. Credible reports of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture by government agencies continued, as did government pressure on opposition parties, civil society and the media.

No progress was made towards the abolition of the death penalty. More positively, there was no recurrence of large-scale terror attacks, while a successful visit by Pope Francis highlighted the country's religious diversity.

The UK Government praised the Bangladeshi government and people for having accepted and assisted over 688,000 Rohingya refugees who fled from Burma from August 2017 onwards. The UK also welcomed repeated government assurances that any returns of Rohingya refugees would be voluntary, safe, well-informed and dignified. The UK took an international lead in supporting the refugees and in mobilising international attention to the situation in Rakhine State.

Media and reports from civil society indicate an increase in the number of enforced disappearances, probably involving security forces. Human Rights Watch reported over 80 cases of secret detentions and enforced disappearances in 2017 with at least 17 people still missing. Many incidents from previous years also remain unresolved.

Law enforcement agencies are alleged to have carried out extrajudicial killings, which they sought to explain away as "cross-fire" deaths. Odikhar, a local human rights organisation, reported 154 such incidents in 2017. There has been no significant reduction in the incidence of torture and ill-treatment in custody. We repeatedly raised concerns about these issues with the Government of Bangladesh.

There has been no progress towards the abolition of the death penalty. 253 death sentences were reportedly issued in 2017, and six were carried out. We repeated our position that we oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and have called for a moratorium on its use in Bangladesh.

Opposition political parties continued to raise allegations of politically motivated court cases against their members, including senior leaders, and of the government restricting their ability to campaign publicly. The resignation under pressure of the Chief Justice, Surendra Kumar Sinha, in November following a Supreme Court ruling against the government in a constitutional case, raised questions about the independence of the judiciary. There was no significant progress in eradicating corruption from the justice system. We supported programmes to improve access to justice, including for women and girls.

Bangladesh ranked 146th out of 180 countries cited in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, a drop of two places compared with 2016. According to figures from Ain o Salish Kendra, a local human rights organisation, 54 journalists were charged in 2017 under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Telecommunications Act 2006, which criminalises the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals. The government is proposing legislation to replace Section 57, but human rights organisations have expressed serious concerns about the most recent draft. We are funding work to support journalists, including advising them on their rights and safety.

Pope Francis' visit in December highlighted Bangladesh's religious diversity. There was no repetition of the terrorist attacks of 2015-16 against religious minorities, atheist bloggers or LGBT rights activists. However, local level discrimination and occasional violence against Hindu, Buddhist and Ahmadiyya communities continued.

Homosexuality remained illegal in Bangladesh, and there was little public discussion of LGBT people's right not to suffer discrimination. LGBT people generally kept a low profile, for their own safety.

Bangladesh took steps to address problems relating to modern slavery, but progress was slow. Our work in this area focuses primarily on combating child labour, irregular migration and human trafficking and child marriage.

We worked with international partners to help improve labour rights in the ready-made garment sector, and to ease freedom of association for workers in line with ILO conventions. Bangladesh has endorsed the Prime Minister's Call to Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking and we will continue to work together to eradicate Modern Slavery in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has continued the progress which saw it become the top-ranked country for gender equality in South Asia in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index. DFID-funded programmes assisted this by supporting the health, education and economic empowerment of women and girls and their access to security and justice services. Bangladesh has achieved gender parity for educational access in both primary and secondary education but factors like early marriage mean that girls have a greater drop-out rate at secondary education. Only 52% of girls complete their education and female illiteracy rates remain high at 41%.[27]

Despite improvements, child marriage remained widespread. The country still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world with over half of women currently between the age of 20-24 having married before their 18th birthday; and almost one in five having married before their 15th birthday. The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 included welcome provisions on strengthening prevention and on prosecution of offenders. However, it also included a controversial clause allowing marriage under 18 under special circumstances – with parental consent and court permission. With other partners, we are helping the government to develop a set of rules to help implement the law to minimise the use of the special provision and prevent abuse.

Bangladesh also saw high levels of violence against women and girls. Over 80% of married Bangladeshi women report suffering abuse – physical, sexual, emotional or financial – from an intimate partner at least once during their marriage. Conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps raised particular risks of violence against women, many of whom had already suffered appalling violence in Rakhine State. Working with UN and other agencies, the UK ensured that the humanitarian response included help and support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2018, we will continue to engage closely with Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue; support progress towards gender equality, including on girls' education where a focus will be to promote equity in access, retention and learning outcomes for the most marginalised girls; combat modern slavery; press the authorities on enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions; support freedom of expression and other democratic freedoms and stress the long-term importance to Bangladesh's development of free, fair, inclusive and peaceful elections.




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