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BANGLADESH: Elections proffer hope for human rights

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bdesh.jpgBangladesh's general elections is set to take place on 29 December, after almost two years of a military-backed state of emergency. The interim government said that the elections will happen under a 'relaxed' environment. It is unclear whether that meant a "relaxed emergency or no emergency".

It was earlier scheduled for 18 December but postponed following delayed response from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the two major political parties which decided to contest the elections.

BNP ruled Bangladesh since 2001 until it handed over power to a caretaker government to conduct the general elections on 22 January 2007. However, a state of emergency was declared on 11 January 2007 by President Iajuddin Ahmed, who stepped down as chief advisor.

Later that day, a banker Fakhruddin Ahmed was appointed as the new chief adviser. This was considered by many to be a coup. On the same day, the United Nations and the European Union suspended their election monitoring operations because they felt that conditions for a credible vote did not exist. With the declaration of emergency, the general elections were stalled for an indefinite period.

The state of emergency was welcomed by a large section of the society in the beginning, including several civil society organizations. Vowing to clean the political system of corruption, the interim government arrested many high-profile leaders.

However, it begun to militarize public institutions while implementing emergency rules, which at last cast a doubt of the government's motives and procedures.
Since the two year state of emergency, the caretaker government has installed numerous emergency laws which mostly target the opposition and civil society actors.

The Emergency Powers Ordinance and Rules introduced extensive restrictions on civil liberties, provision for arrests and detention and speedier trial procedure in special court. The ordinance led to mass arrests; Odhikar, FORUM-ASIA's member in Bangladesh reported over 50,000 people arrested in the month of May 2008.

Under this law, officials of law enforcing agencies have the sweeping authority to make arrests without warrants. While some laws were purportedly being used to detain political leaders and other top brass figures, all of whom have until now enjoyed blanket immunity for their illegal activities, the same laws were denying justice to innocent victims who were arbitrarily detained and tortured.

Section 5 stipulates no order issued under the emergency ordinance or rules can be challenged in any court.

However, the high court on 4 December this year declared this provision void, ironically a little too late as elections is set to take place on 29 December.
The upcoming elections will take place under a relaxed emergency rule, or most probably, it would be entirely lifted before the elections.

Earlier, the government had lifted the emergency rule, partially allowing political parties to hold rallies for election purposes but that was retracted as rallies were used to criticize the government. Under the rules of emergency, the right to assembly was curtailed.

Section 3 of the Emergency Rules bans all rallies, processions and meetings, while section 5 places strict restrictions on news, photos, statements, opinions and comments, editorials, talk shows and other discussion forums.

The student protest occurred on August 2007 was brutally suppressed using this rule.
If the general elections is successful, Bangladesh will be able to head towards an environment of respect for human rights in more than one ways. Rampant corruption in Bangladesh placed it on 7th position on the list of most corrupt countries this year.

Violence against women is an unfortunate reality and concern about religious extremism in this traditionally moderate and tolerant country is growing. Bangladesh has been named as among the worst countries in treating refugees and the ethnic and minority groups in the country also don't fare any better.

Bangladesh is at top five for number of child brides and top ten in neonatal deaths. The country's vulnerability was revealed regarding the food insecurity. The people lost their confidence in the caretaker government as it was seen incapable of checking the soaring prices.

Only a democratic government will be able to ensure realization of dealing with such challenges while upholding all their rights.
Human Rights in Bangladesh 2007, Ain O Shailesh Kendra
Militarization and human rights in Bangladesh, Asian Human Rights Commission
Odhikar Reports