Question for Short Debate
My Lords, for at least a decade I knew Bangladesh to be only a progressive, multi-party democracy and a thriving economy in south-east Asia. It also receives £250 million in aid from the United Kingdom every year—until 2015, at least. However, in the past few years reports of corruption, torture, extrajudicial killing and the sudden disappearance of journalists and political activists from opposition parties have energised me to call for this debate.
According to Amnesty International, hardly a week goes by in Bangladesh without people being shot in Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, operations. The RAB is a special police force created to combat criminal gang activity throughout the country. However, since its inception in 2004 the RAB has been implicated in the unlawful killing of at least 700 people. The Amnesty International report goes on to say that such deaths are typically explained away as accidental or as a result of RAB officers acting in self-defence, as victims are said to have been killed in “crossfire”. In many cases, the victims were killed following arrest. Nevertheless, investigations carried out either by the RAB or by a government-appointed judicial body have not resulted in judicial prosecution. The outcome of the judicial investigations has remained secret and the RAB has consistently denied responsibility for any unlawful killings. RAB officials say that other wrong-doings have been addressed through administrative action against offending RAB personnel. Reports that the RAB has widely used torture and excessive force have similarly gone nowhere. Despite persistent allegations, Bangladeshi authorities have taken no action to prosecute RAB personnel. I shall give some of the examples in the report.
Rahima Khatun was shot in the head by Rapid Action Battalion officers on 3 June 2011 in a slum near the central Bangladesh district of Narsingdi. Rahima, aged 35, had objected when officers tried to arrest her husband. Seconds later, she was seriously injured by a bullet fired from one of their weapons. Now out of danger after receiving intensive medical care and detained for allegedly dealing in drugs, she is the first woman known to have been shot by the Rapid Action Battalion.
Another example is Limon Hossain. On 23 March 2011, Limon, a 16 year-old student, was shot in the leg by RAB officers in Jhalakathi. His injuries were so severe that four days later his leg had to be amputated. Limon Hossain’s family said that he had been shot while bringing the cattle back from the fields. Like the families of many other victims, they said that the RAB had no reason to shoot Limon and that the officers involved should be brought to justice.
There are other cases where deaths are not explained. In some cases, the RAB has not even explained how people whom witnesses say were detained by the RAB were later found dead. Nazmul Huq Murad, Forkan Ahmed and Mizanur Rahman went missing on 17 April 2010. On 18 April, Murad’s brother received an anonymous phone call saying that Murad was in RAB custody. The family’s inquiries brought no news of him until 27 April, when his body was found in the Mohammadpur area of Dhaka. It was buried in a ditch with the other two men, Forkan and Mizanur. The bodies bore severe injuries, including knife wounds. Ligature marks on the wrists showed that they had been tied with rope. The families of Mizanur and Forkan had also received messages that the two had been arrested by the RAB on 17 April. The RAB has not acknowledged that the men were in its custody and no credible investigation has ensued. According to the human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra, known as ASK, 216 deaths occurred in custody this year, including 116 deaths in prison. Many of the deaths were allegedly the result of torture.
I turn to the disappearance of a former Member of the Bangladesh Parliament, Mr Ilias Ali, and his driver. According to Amnesty International, Ilias Ali, the organising secretary of the Sylhet division of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, disappeared together with his driver, Ansar Ali, on 17 April 2012. I had the opportunity of meeting Mr Ilias Ali in Luton during his visit to the United Kingdom in 2011. He spoke to a hall full of British Bangladeshis passionately about Bangladesh and showed his concerns on the growing human rights situation and corruption in that country. He did raise fears about his own safety on his return, but was determined to go back and fight for the rights of his people through democratic means. Since his disappearance, his family has been in touch with me asking for help from the British Government to secure his safe return. The family firmly believes that government secret agents or the Rapid Action Battalion are responsible for Mr Ali and his driver’s abduction. These fears are shared by many both in the country and abroad. According to Amnesty International:
“His is the latest in the spate of disappearances in which security forces, including the Rapid Action Battalion ( RAB) have been implicated, though they deny detaining those missing”.
Its report goes on to say:
“There appears to be a pattern of disappearances—a concentrated effort to eliminate people deemed undesirable”.
On the investigation procedures, the Amnesty report further adds:
“Prime responsibility for investigating deaths during RAB actions has so far fallen to the RAB itself. This is a clear conflict of interest. When the accused is tasked with investigating an accusation against it, the basic principles of independence and impartiality are compromised. The accused is free to destroy the evidence, distort the records and engineer the outcome. The content of RAB inquiries remains secret; their results have repeatedly been the same. None of the publicly available RAB investigations has ever blamed RAB personnel for an extrajudicial killing; rather, these investigations, where they have occurred, have blamed the victims, calling them criminals and portraying their deaths as justified”.
War crimes tribunals are another anomaly that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will probably have something to say about.
With that information, I should like to ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary would raise the question of human rights abuses with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and ask for fair trials for the accused. Can UK aid to Bangladesh be linked to its human rights record? Finally, can I ask the Minister to pressurise the Bangladesh Government for Ilias Ali and his driver’s safe recovery and release?
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. For me, this is a follow-on from the Oral Question that I asked on 23 May about what representations had been made about the disappearance of Mr Ilias Ali and other opposition politicians in Bangladesh.
In his reply, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who was then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, talked about the representations that had been made by the United Kingdom Government with eight other EU countries, when they had called on the Bangladesh authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into Mr Ali’s disappearance. In reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what further representations or further dialogue there have been with the Government of Bangladesh since that Answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
At that meeting, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is to speak after me, raised the question of whether it was possible to engage the UN working party on disappearances. I would be interested to hear what the noble Baroness can tell us about whether that engagement took place.
Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his responses to various questions on that date, referred to £1 billion of aid being given by the UK Government. I am not clear about whether he was aggregating several years together, but it is important that the Government address whether there is a relationship between the sums involved, over whatever period, and the human rights record. Is that something that can legitimately be expected as a quid pro quo for the support that this country gives to the people of Bangladesh?
The most important point to make in this debate is that the case of Mr Ilias Ali is not an isolated one. Mr Ali and his driver disappeared on 18 April, and two weeks earlier Mr Aminul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, was allegedly picked up by members of a law enforcement agency and horribly tortured and killed. In December 2011, Nazmul Islam, another opposition politician, was found strangled just a few hours after he had been dancing with his wife. His wife received very little assistance from the police when she reported him missing. I would be grateful for guidance from the Minister on her understanding of the developments that there have been in the investigations of these cases since then.
What is the Government’s latest assessment of the level of political violence in Bangladesh? We need to understand that. One of the most concerning features of this is the alleged complicity of law enforcement agencies, in particular the Rapid Action Battalion. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, gave us a horrifying catalogue of cases which, it is suggested, are associated with their activities. There seems to be a culture of impunity among the security forces, and anyone who falls foul of the authorities is therefore vulnerable. Since 2004, there have been more than 1,600 extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. To UK eyes, there are horrifying levels of political violence, with 300 people killed in 2006, 250 in 2009 and so on.
We have to recognise that political violence is not all on one side. There has perhaps been a trend in Bangladeshi politics for supporters of the ruling party—whichever one that might be—to feel that they are able to attack opposition supporters with a certain level of impunity. I think that comes from the broad powers that the law gives to the Government, which means that the Government of the day is, in effect, given control of the police as one of the spoils of victory.
Bangladesh is a fragile democracy and one of the poorest nations of the world—though one with tremendous potential if it is given an opportunity. The levels of political violence and alleged abuse of state power to suppress the opposition reflect very badly on the Government of that country, and on the efforts that are being made to generate wealth and development there. I have a simple question for Her Majesty’s Government. What can they do to make clear that such violence and attacks on opposition politicians are not acceptable? What further representations have been made, and what are planned? Is this being made a condition of future aid?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Hussain on initiating the debate, and in particular on focusing on the horrible catalogue of disappearances and extrajudicial executions, most of which are attributable to the Rapid Action Battalion. I will ask my noble friend, pursuant to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Harris—we have not really had an answer—what the Government have done to persuade Bangladesh to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and what they have done to persuade the Bangladesh Government to issue visitor invitations to the working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, or the special rapporteur on torture. As far as I know, the Bangladesh Government have not issued invitations to any of these groups, so there is no open invitation for these mechanisms to come to Bangladesh.
I will talk about recent attacks on minority communities. I will begin with the mob violence against indigenous Paharis in Rangamati on 22 September, in which an estimated 60 people were injured, eight of whom were admitted to hospital. The three co-chairs of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission—of whom I am one, and declare my interest accordingly—wrote to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, calling on her to instigate a full and impartial investigation of the event and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. The problem is that whenever these attacks occur, the police and army are either nowhere to be seen or, if they are there, stand idly by and allow the violence and destruction to continue.
Another instance was the orgy of destruction of Buddhist temples and houses starting in Ramu on the evening of 29 September and extending to a number of other centres before it was finally brought under control. More than 20 temples and monasteries, including one at Sima Bahar dating from 1706, and at least one Hindu temple, were torched, as well as scores of houses and shops. Muslim houses in the same areas were left untouched, proving that local people were involved. The police officer in charge said that he was unable to stop the rampage because 10,000 marauders arrived from elsewhere in lorries, well armed with gunpowder and petrol, machetes, sticks, iron rods and tomahawks. The following day the mobs descended on Patia in Chittagong and Ukhia in Cox’s Bazar, where again they were able to destroy sacred Buddhist relics, books and temples, and to burn houses to the ground without the police intervening.
These events should be seen in the context of previous attacks on Buddhist monasteries and indigenous people in the CHT, motivated by land grabbing. In this instance, too, the competition for land in a lawless situation may have been a material factor. In the letter to Sheikh Hasina that I mentioned, we reiterated our concern that much of the violence in the CHT is related to the land disputes between Pahari and Bengali settlers. We pointed out that the land commission had failed to rule on a single dispute in the three years of its existence, that it is now without a chairman and that its rules of procedure are still under review.
The Prime Minister assured Buddhist leaders that those responsible for the appalling crimes would be prosecuted, and 300 people were reportedly arrested. However, a general investigation of the facts, covering the failure of the police to act when there were warnings several hours ahead of the impending violence, and the relationship of this attack on a vulnerable minority to others of a similar nature, should be conducted under the chairmanship of someone independent of the police, the political parties and the heavily politicised judiciary.
Finally, there are widespread concerns about the conduct of the war crimes trials. At the request of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, the International Bar Association assessed the legislative framework of the tribunal in 2010 and concluded that it fell short of recognised international standards and that it required reform. The IBA, the US war crimes ambassador Steven Rapp and others have also criticised the court’s procedures and the evident bias of the tribunal chairman. To address these concerns, the Parliamentary Human Rights Group is asking the IBA to conduct a fresh assessment of the tribunal, its procedures and practices to date in relation to international standards, seeking advice from Ambassador Rapp, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and its special procedures mechanisms. These proceedings are no longer a matter for leisurely discussion by legal scholars. The tribunal’s failings, and the looming threat of the death penalty on conviction of the defendants, are a stark reality. For this reason, I hope that the IBA will give this request priority and that when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, she will give her blessing to the request.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for securing this debate. We have heard some very powerful speeches about the horrific level of direct political violence, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, introducing the wider context of a culture of abuse of human rights. I will pursue that in a slightly wider sense, first, in terms of the treatment of the Rohingya refugees, who are Muslims. The director of Human Rights Watch says that the camps they are in are some of the worst in the world and that the Government seem to have no strategy for dealing with that problem. The Government of course claim that they lack resources, as a poor country, to deal with all these refugees and there is an issue about whether they are turning them away or trying to send people back. I ask the Minister and the Government, not least in relation to our investment in aid, what we can do to support efforts in capacity-building for good citizenship and changing a culture where this inter-group violence is so destructive.
I declare an interest as a trustee of Christian Aid and want to give three little examples of what Christian Aid Bangladesh is doing to build capacity between different groups for more harmonious living and better citizenship. First, there is a human rights education and community mediation programme, which is trying to change the mindsets of people who find themselves potentially in conflict. It is working particularly with women, who are often marginalised from any participation processes, and is trying to establish local organisations for mediation and proper, civilised engagement around issues rather than the direct action that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has just been referring to.
The second piece of work is to improve participation by different groups in local government. Again, the infrastructure is in its infancy. This is trying to encourage citizens to use that infrastructure and develop local ownership of what policy-making is about, rather than the frustrations that have been referred to.
The third area is to work with partners in rural areas of poverty, particularly to help single women and households headed by women to take a full part in economic development. Christian Aid Bangladesh is working, with its partners, in something like 175 villages, with 17,000 people involved. The issue I would invite the Minister to comment on is that clearly there are major issues about political violence, as we have just heard, and the use possibly of security infrastructure to deliver on that. Particularly in the way we use aid, and consider the future use of aid, to what extent can the Government take into account and encourage the kind of capacity-building of responsible citizenship among different groups that seems to be the only long-term hope for trying to create an atmosphere and a sense of responsibility of mutuality whereby people with different traditions and economic pressures might learn to work together, and therefore to undermine the pressures that surface, as we have seen in these horrific mutual attacks between groups and the killing of enemies?
My Lords, I declare my interest as an honorary president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bangladesh, which I chaired for more than six years. I want to concentrate on the briefing provided by the chair of the APPG, who has only recently returned from a visit to Bangladesh. I will restrict my comments to the briefing and particularly raise the matter of the empowerment of women and the UK’s role and support.
Over the past three and a half years, the Bangladeshi Government have taken some positive steps, including enacting the law against domestic violence and introducing a national policy to advance women’s rights. The Government have taken an important step to protect the rights of minorities. They passed the Vested Properties Return Act, and the Cabinet also approved the Hindu Marriage Registration Bill. While I understand and accept that Bangladesh has a strong set of laws to tackle violence against women, implementation remains poor. We would all acknowledge that. That is reflected in an article written yesterday, although I have not seen much of it, on the increasing number of underage marriages that are taking place. That is of deep concern. I know that we are all familiar with the commitment of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to advancing women’s empowerment, and I am sure that the current Government will be concerned by the matters we are raising today.
I know that the chair of the APPG has raised these issues with leading figures in Bangladesh and with organisations in the field, as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Dhaka this year, most notably on human rights. She raised her concerns publicly during her visit. The fact that Bangladesh has increased its visibility and presence in international forums and is seeking to enhance its reputation gives us all an opportunity to progress some of the concerns that have been raised.
During my time as the chair of the APPG, I deepened my knowledge about Bangladesh and have come to know much more about governance in Bangladesh, to which I had not paid much attention in previous years. Of course I should say that it is where I was born and I have family ties. I therefore visit frequently and have some understanding of what is happening on the ground. I listened carefully to what noble Lords said and it pains me to hear about the harrowing incidents and experiences that they referred to. I shall not comment on them because it would surely just be repetition.
I would add my voices to those, including my noble friend Lord Avebury, who are calling for an internationally recognised practice and procedure to be adopted by the International Crimes Tribunal. As someone who lived amidst the tragedy of the 1971 liberation war, I understand the deep-seated grievances of those who experienced and witnessed rape, pillage and death, and the desire and need of the victims of those atrocities in 1971 for justice and closure. So we must welcome some of the recent amendments to improve the procedures of the tribunal to ensure that the law and the trial process meet international fair trial standards. I can only imagine that the Bangladeshi Government would be interested in that.
Despite what has been said by some noble Lords, I should like to observe that there is significant independent coverage in the media of some of these issues, including disappearances and the deaths of journalists, as well as crossfire killings. We are not alone in raising these matters.
Human rights violation is not a phenomenon that is the exclusive prerogative of any one nation. As we all know, we in Britain have been accused of blatantly disregarding or ridiculing human rights both in the recent past and historically. It is therefore imperative that we ensure, whenever questions arise about the violation of citizens’ rights, that natural justice and due process is fundamentally adhered to in all that we do, so that we can ask our friends to do the same.
I have had a brief look at the many briefings about the UN reports that were sent out in the past 12 hours and observed that there is a huge distinction between the language used for the developed world and that used for the developing world. There seems to be a sense of superiority when referring to human rights violations in other countries, which makes it easy for those countries—who are, if you like, on the other side—to accuse us of double standards. We must be cautious when advocating human rights that we are advocating something to be practised everywhere, not just in one particular country. Deep concerns are expressed in the briefing material about the impact of the moratorium on schooling approved by the Government. This is impacting on a massive scale on girls’ education. I believe that DfID programmes support many of these schools, although not directly. I would therefore ask the Minister: should DfID work with some of the existing charities to ensure that schools remain open?
I would also ask the Minister: how does DfID strategy sit vis-à-vis women’s empowerment in Bangladesh? I understand that DfID has increased significantly its budget to enable the development of large-scale projects through, I believe, the NGO, the Manusher Jonno Foundation. It provides training, advocacy and seminars on women’s rights to minority women in Bangladesh. However, from what we are hearing and according to these reports, the impact seems to have been very limited. There are many questions for DfID to answer. Can the Minister tell us how DfID is evaluating this programme vis-à-vis the concerns raised both in this debate and by some human rights organisations? Are there specific criteria for increasing women’s participation and strategies to counter violence against women and ensure the protection of minority rights? If so, how does DfID explain these continuing concerns?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Hussain on securing this important debate on a subject that, frankly, needs to be discussed more openly for the safety of politics and democracy in Bangladesh but, more importantly, to save the lives of those who dare to oppose the Government.
For those of us who remember Bangladesh 40 years ago—the bitterly fought war, the emergence of the new nation, as well as the many natural disasters that Bangladesh has had to face—we recognise that this is a country struggling against many odds. Most of us have watched and willed Bangladesh to take its place as an open and emerging democracy in the 21st century. But the recent, continuing and increasing disappearances of people, especially politicians, is worrying. With elections due next year, it does not take much to see that the silencing of opposition individuals who may either be a threat to or a thorn in the side of the current Government is a useful but illegal tool. As has already been referred to by my noble friend, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both catalogued very specific examples in shocking detail. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says that her Government have zero tolerance for extrajudicial killings, but she has singularly failed to investigate allegations properly or to bring the perpetrators to book. Actions speak louder than words.
One of the most publicised disappearances, already referred to, has been that of Ilias Ali and his driver. I will not go over the details of that case, but I will say that when the Prime Minister asked the police to investigate, she also accused him, quite extraordinarily, of going into hiding so that his own party could cast guilt on the ruling Awami League party. Protests at the time objecting to politicians’ disappearances were quelled by tear gas, batons and bullets from the local police.
More recently, and perhaps more worryingly, when Sheikh Hasina was being feted in the UK during the Olympics, she had ordered the arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, a leading member of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, who is well known both as a politician and through his ability to reach people through the Jamaat newspaper and media group. It appears that his real crime has been to criticise the war crimes tribunal set up by Hasina, which seems to take a very retributional approach rather than the justice and reconciliation examples set in South Africa and, more recently, Northern Ireland. I hope that Bangladesh might turn to look at that model. During the Olympics when Sheikh Hasina had a meeting with Ed Miliband, she gave a public undertaking that,
“all the future elections in Bangladesh will be held in a complete fair and neutral manner”.
Let us hope that that is the case.
There are other human rights issues too, on which others have touched. There has long been concern at UN and international level about the role of women in Bangladeshi society, with a real worry that female education still is restricted to suitable domestic training. With a woman head of state, that is ironic. Forced marriage for young girls also remains a real problem, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, referred earlier.
One man who has done much to develop the economic independence of poor women in Bangladesh has felt the wrath of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister. We know Mohammed Yunus as the Nobel Prize winner who, more than 30 years ago, almost single-handedly developed microcredit for women desperately trying to survive on not even subsistence-level incomes. Lauded across the world, and teaching other countries how to model his Grameen Bank, most would assume that he would be equally celebrated at home in Bangladesh for his work that has saved the lives of millions, and has given meaning and brought income to millions more women—but not a bit of it. It is said that the Prime Minister thought that she should have received the Nobel Prize herself.
Regardless of that, there has been a very public vendetta against him. I am told that there is a Bangladeshi word for this and I apologise if I pronounce it wrongly. It is “hinghsa”, which means vindictiveness or jealousy. This seems to be a state form of jealousy. As a result, Mr Yunus has been forced to retire from the Grameen Bank at short notice on a technicality and a public tribunal. The Government say that they have the right to do this because the Grameen Bank is a government bank, but the majority of it is held by very small stakeholders with the Government owning 3%.
My noble friend Lord Hussain referred to the specific issues of the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh. I want to raise one matter that so far has not come up. In the past, the UK has provided training for the RAB, which is worrying. I understand that the staff from the NPIA have also taught the RAB appropriate intervention and interviewing techniques that meet international standards. But the flagrant breaches of these standards by the RAB must now cause us to question whether we can continue with this training. It is interesting that for exactly this reason the US has now stopped training in this method and financial support.
It also is worthy of note that the World Bank and the IMF have delayed payments and loans to Bangladesh because they are so concerned about the situation there. Despite that, we still provide £250 million a year to Bangladesh in aid through DfID. Surely, the time has come for us to review this in light of the human rights cases, especially those designed to undermine and prevent the democratic process from taking place, as a matter of urgency. Please can the Minister let us know what the Government are going to do to ensure either that payments are withheld or that there are proper strings attached to any aid we might provide. Worries about terrorism should not permit state-sponsored terrorism.
My Lords, perhaps I may take a minute in the gap of this important and timely debate. I have been taking an interest in the war crimes trials in Bangladesh. As a result, the Bangladesh law Minister, Shafique Ahmed, came to see me recently at his request. I asked him if I could take a group of senior lawyers of all parties from your Lordships’ House to see the war crimes tribunal and to have open access to everyone concerned, including the defendants in their place of incarceration. He agreed to this in principle and was very clear about his agreement. But that was done orally. I now await written confirmation that that can take place.
However, I have been awaiting that written confirmation for a considerable time, which is beginning to concern me. I would be very grateful if the Minister, in her response to this debate, would confirm that it is the Government’s view that such a visit would be timely; that it would give the potential to assess properly the war crimes tribunals; and that the Bangladesh Government should be encouraged to comply with the oral assurance that they have already given.
My Lords, I, too, must thank the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for initiating this important debate. Following discussions with some Bangladeshi friends at the beginning of September, it was an issue that I, too, intended to pursue, but I am very grateful to the noble Lord for doing so. These are matters of great concern to many people in this country, including the diaspora, many of whom are not only concerned about individual cases but are deeply ashamed of what is happening in their country.
This debate also provides me with an opportunity personally to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to her new post. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, was an excellent FCO Minister and I put on record my personal appreciation of his diligent work in the Lords at all times. However, I know that the noble Baroness will herself do a splendid job.
Of course, we celebrate the fact that Bangladesh is a democracy—albeit a fragile one—and there are some good things happening in the country, not least the empowerment of women thanks to the Grameen Bank, which now has projects in Glasgow and on the west coast of Scotland. That is an interesting development in our north-south relationship. We have much for which to thank Mr Yunus, who I believe is a very fine man.
However, this afternoon, we have heard some very disturbing facts and figures about torture, murder and enforced disappearances, including of politicians. Indeed, we have heard of some horrific cases of torture leading to death. This is an intolerable situation in any country but especially in a democracy which is a member of the Commonwealth. The rule of law should be an integral part of any democracy, especially in a country that is part of our Commonwealth family. These are the actions that one might associate with a lawless, despotic state, not a 21st-century democracy.
As we have heard, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations believe that there is a pattern of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, with the abduction and persecution of specific groups of people seeking to protect vulnerable groups or running opposition party campaigns. It is clear that human rights defenders, trade union activists, student activists and opposition party members have been targeted, and it appears that Bangladeshi security forces have been involved in the disappearances—particularly the Rapid Action Battalion. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I question whether it is any longer appropriate for us to provide training for the RAB, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
I understand that the Bangladeshi Prime Minister pledged to ensure that extrajudicial executions would be stopped, but the killings and disappearances continue. Indeed, there have been 216 deaths just this year. As my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey said, there is a culture of impunity no matter who is in power in Bangladesh, and that must be stopped.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, drew attention to the violence against minority communities in Bangladesh. For example, more than 20 Buddhist temples and monasteries and at least one Hindu temple, along with scores of homes and shops, were set on fire during attacks in the southern cities of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong earlier this month, according to Amnesty International reports.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, spoke of laws that have been passed to protect minority communities and to ensure the empowerment of women. However, these laws have to be implemented, and the action of government forces, with the culture of impunity, is counter to the laws that have been passed.
I was interested to learn of the assurance given by Sheikh Hasina to my right honourable friend Ed Miliband. I will discuss that with him to see how we might ensure that the next elections really are free and fair and bring about the necessary changes in Bangladesh.
What discussions are we now having with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and his Government bilaterally, at EU level and through the Commonwealth to ensure that these abominable practices cease? What progress has been made since the noble Lord, Lord Howell, answered the Oral Question from my noble friend in May?
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, quite rightly drew attention to the development aid that we give to Bangladesh. While I would certainly not wish to put the poorest people in Bangladesh in harm or to jeopardise their futures, I wonder whether there is any way of linking human rights to the future provision of development aid.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby spoke of the excellent work of Christian Aid in capacity-building, among other things. Although I recognise that our aid will be targeted at the poorest people, I very much hope that it also includes capacity-building, because the poorest people need that in order to be empowered. Therefore, I hope that we are able to support the work that Christian Aid is doing.
I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said about the war crimes tribunal and the invitation to him and Members of this House, and I very much look forward to the answer from the noble Baroness. Like the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Harris, I would also be interested to learn whether the UN working party on disappearances has been invited to Bangladesh. If not, we should encourage Bangladesh to issue an invitation and, together with our European and Commonwealth friends, put pressure on the country to ensure that the working party is invited in to do the work that it really must do to ensure that there are no further disappearances and to find out what has happened to those people who so tragically have disappeared.
My Lords, this is my first debate in my new job. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, for her kind remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was indeed a formidable Foreign Office Minister and truly will be a hard act to follow. It is apt that this is my first debate. My mother always says of my birth that Bangladesh was born a few days before I was, and indeed last year I had the privilege of celebrating my 40th birthday as Bangladesh celebrated its 40th.
I thank my noble friend Lord Hussain for introducing this important debate. I have found it both informative and stimulating. I know that noble Lords have taken a close interest in the human rights record of Bangladesh, including reports of disappearances. Human rights remain a crucial component of our bilateral and multilateral discussions with Bangladesh and form a key part of my role as Senior Minister at the Foreign Office. At the start of this Government, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made it absolutely clear that human rights are essential to and indivisible from the UK’s foreign policy objectives. While the UK enjoys a strong and long-standing relationship with Bangladesh, we will not shirk from our responsibility to highlight our concerns about human rights.
The UK Government are concerned, as are many noble Lords here today, over reports of disappearances in Bangladesh. I note that reports from human rights organisations suggest that 24 disappearances and more than 60 extrajudicial killings have taken place between January and September this year. My noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Alistair Burt, visited Bangladesh this year and raised the subject of disappearances directly with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, as well as the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Khaleda Zia. He also raised the disappearance of the well known politician, Mr Ilias Ali, the organising secretary for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and former MP for Sylhet. I had the privilege of meeting Mr Ali when he came to London in 2011, as did a number of parliamentarians. I note with concern that he has been missing since 17 April.
However, I can inform noble Lords that since the response given by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in May this year, we have continued to urge the Government of Bangladesh to investigate fully any reports of disappearances. Indeed, at a meeting with Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladeshi Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Dipu Moni, on 28 July, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary noted Members’ concerns and urged the Government of Bangladesh to conduct thorough investigations. The British High Commission in Dhaka continues to make representations to the authorities on this matter and has been assured that every effort continues to be made to establish the circumstances of any disappearances, including that of Mr Ali and his driver. Indeed, I raised our concerns just last Friday with Foreign Minister Moni. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, that we will continue to raise these matters.
This afternoon noble Lords have raised broader concerns about democracy and human rights in Bangladesh. As noble Lords may be aware, Bangladesh has a population of more than 150 million people living in an area the size of England and Wales. It is a physically fragile country and one of the poorest in which the UK’s Department for International Development works. In a country where one in three people lives below the national poverty line and 80% of people live on less than $2 a day, the need for support is clear. Problems with infrastructure and recurring hartals do not foster an environment for growth. Added to this, Bangladesh has a difficult political history and is set to hold elections as early as next year.
Strong, independent and democratic institutions working under the rule of law are fundamental to the Bangladesh of tomorrow and to the nature of UK-Bangladesh co-operation. This is why respect for human rights is integral to the UK’s large development assistance programme in Bangladesh. Alongside its work providing basic services to the poorest and most vulnerable in Bangladesh, DfID invests heavily in strengthening civil and political rights, provides extensive support to civil society organisations to help marginalised communities demand their rights, and promotes more accountable policing and access to justice. It is vital that law enforcement officials and the judiciary are impartial and empowered to investigate any complaints fairly and transparently.
I am encouraged by assurances from the Government of Bangladesh that they are committed to protecting human rights and follow a zero-tolerance policy on extra-judicial killings and torture. However, human rights will remain a crucial component of our bilateral and multilateral discussions with Bangladesh, as it did when the Foreign Secretary met the Prime Minister on 28 July. This is a country with enormous development potential that is making incredible progress working towards achieving almost all the millennium development goals. Our assistance is fully in line with UK values and our commitment to international human rights standards. We will continue to provide our support to Bangladesh through our development programmes and as a key international partner.
Specific questions were asked about the DfID programme. The UK’s aid programme is directed through non-governmental organisations. The Government of Bangladesh receive no direct budgetary support from the British Government. Any reduction would be felt hardest by the people who need it most, including women whose empowerment is a key part of the DfID programme.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby raised the important work of Christian Aid. Like other noble Lords, he rightly asked whether we could link DfID aid to human rights. I simply say yes—by avoiding direct budgetary support. Where we have concerns we have done just that.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about the UN working party on disappearances. This is a non-governmental body through which UN member states cannot raise specific cases or specific countries. However, I will explore that further and write to him.
My noble friend Lord Avebury raised the issue of war crime trials. The British Government support the principle of war crime trials to hold to account those who may be guilty of crimes committed during the war of independence. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, raised some important points in relation to her own experience of that period. We also believe that it is essential that any trial meets appropriate human rights standards. Defendants should be given a fair trial, including the right to conduct a proper defence, and trials should be open and transparent. We have called on the Bangladesh Government, publicly and privately, to ensure that trials meet appropriate international standards, and we will continue to do so.
With EU partners, the UK also continues to make clear our strong opposition to the application of the death penalty in all circumstances. This is quite pertinent when tomorrow we will remember the annual day against the death penalty.
The UK, along with EU partners and other likeminded countries, will continue to follow the progress of the war crime trials. We regularly discuss them with other interested groups, including non-governmental organisations. The UK has not offered any legal observers. However, the Government of Bangladesh have stated publicly that they would welcome independent monitoring. Any foreign-funded project, including trial observation, would require the approval of the NGO affairs bureau in Bangladesh.
My noble friend Lord Avebury made specific proposals. I will consider them and respond in writing, as I will do to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew.
My noble friend Lady Brinton raised concerns about the treatment of Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank. The British Government have huge respect and admiration for Professor Yunus. We strongly support the work of Grameen Bank in lifting the very poor out of poverty. To enable this to continue it is important that the integrity, efficiency and independence of Grameen Bank is protected. The concerns of the noble Baroness will be raised at future meetings.
My noble friend Lady Brinton also raised concerns about the conduct of the Rapid Action Battalion. We regularly raise with the Government of Bangladesh our serious concerns about allegations of human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies, including the Rapid Action Battalion. The British Government are not currently providing training to the RAB. The previous training programme ended in March 2011 and focused on the provision of human rights and ethical policing training.
My noble friend Lord Avebury also raised the recent appalling attacks on the Buddhist community. These have, quite rightly, been condemned by the Government of Bangladesh. In relation to concerns raised about citizenship and intercommunity tensions, again, there are specific projects which DfID is engaged in that help to empower and build communities to allow those relationships to sit with ease. However, I take this opportunity to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby in relation to the work of Christian Aid and of faith charities generally.
Let me conclude by thanking again my noble friend Lord Hussain for securing today’s debate. This is a story of two halves. While there is remarkable progress being made on poverty alleviation, there are considerable human rights challenges facing Bangladesh. I restate that the UK raises these and other difficult issues with the Government of Bangladesh regularly. Our public and private remarks to the Government of Bangladesh will continue to underscore our consistent message that values are at the heart of our foreign policy, and that it is neither in our character nor in our interests to have a foreign policy without a conscience.
Finally, why does this matter to the United Kingdom? As noble Lords may know, the UK enjoys a strong and long-standing relationship with Bangladesh. We were the first European nation to recognise Bangladesh and our two countries are united by ties of family, trade and education. There are nearly 500,000 people of Bangladeshi heritage living in the United Kingdom—indeed, some are Members of the House of Lords. We are determined to nurture our strong bilateral relationship and support Bangladesh to secure the stable and prosperous future that its people deserve. We want to see Bangladesh succeed and its human rights record improve. This requires effective governance, increased transparency and tackling the issue of disappearances. As recently as last Friday, Foreign Minister Moni and I agreed that these things are best achieved by working together.
The UK and international partners will continue to provide support to Bangladesh through our development programmes. I know that your Lordships will agree that this is in the interest of not only Bangladesh but all those who care about Bangladesh. I will certainly take your Lordships’ concerns on board and will make sure that they form the basis of discussions. I know that the Bangladeshi High Commission is represented today and that it, too, will be taking on board the concerns raised by noble Lords.
Committee adjourned at 7.27 pm.