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Bangladesh: Emergency Treatment

by South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, 14 November 2008

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Human Rights Features, 7 November 2008

- Emergency Treatment
- We have the cure, the world sang to Bangladesh

Gotterdammerung, Wagner’s moving death march, rather than Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was the concert for Bangladesh organised by certain democracies – with the UN providing backup vocals. And what a show it has been. The performers clamoured for a ‘change’ in Bangladesh’s turbulent politics, muttered darkly about the financial consequences of the bickering among the country’s two key political figures, and went on to endorse the installation of a military-backed government that has now lasted two years.[1]

They sang hosannas to the regime.[2] The General responded in kind. The change of guard of 11 January 2007 was part of the ‘reinvention’ of the country, he crowed. The people had accepted the intervention and the international community had “seen its logic and provided us with full support”.[3]

Support for an endeavour that has seen the progressive whittling down of fundamental freedoms, the detention of hundreds without trial, the use of torture and extrajudicial executions[4], and the replacement of fair-minded judges[5]. Protest rallies by students have been beaten back,[6] and the preferred method of beating down rising prices has been to strike unscrupulous vendors with truncheons.[7] There was little by way of due process in cases brought under the Emergency Powers Rules (EPR).[8] The Rules were also used against workers protesting against their redundancy and farmers demanding the distribution of fertiliser.[9] In addition, the Election Commission announced recently that those convicted under the EPR will not be allowed to contest the planned elections even if their appeals are admitted by the higher courts.[10] The High Court refused to hear a petition challenging the legality of that EPR provision.[11]

No wonder Bangladeshis refused to applaud.

Two years on, as the country inches towards possible elections in December, the international community has expressed its willingness to send observers to test the genuineness of the scheduled elections. The United States, while admitting that “an election under a state of emergency would not be as credible”,[12] has promised to send 120 observers.[13] The Commonwealth plans to send an assessment team ahead of the vote and then decide whether to send observers.[14] The European Union has been delightfully ambiguous. The head of the European Commission delegation in Dhaka, Stefan Frowein, who was very much taken by the ‘distinctive’ nature of the Bangladesh emergency[15], said in September 2008 that “[w]e do not normally observe elections under the state [sic] of emergency. We normally don’t do that.”[16] More recently, he stated that observers would arrive “when conditions are right.” However, “it does not necessarily mean the lifting of the emergency; it can be relaxation that creates a situation where the emergency will not be felt [sic]”.[17]

The presumptuousness is breathtaking, the hypocrisy even more so. Apparently, what is good for members of the European Union, the United States, and for some members of the Commonwealth is not good for Bangladesh. Their dissimulation would be almost comical if it was not for the enormous implications they have had for Bangladesh, for the practice of good diplomacy, and for the credibility of their much-touted endorsement of universal democracy.

The state of emergency has been ‘relaxed’ but not withdrawn, drawing disquiet from political activists and civil society.[18] The election schedule has been announced and the armed forces have ostensibly been pulled out from emergency duties. Some restrictions on gatherings and processions have ended, but this only applies to election rallies, not to demonstrations for other purposes or causes. Curbs on the media have been withdrawn, although as a newspaper editorial points out, it is an acknowledgement of the fact that restrictions had indeed been imposed despite the regime insisting that there were none.[19] There are no indications that the emergency will be withdrawn ahead of the polls.[20]

Further, both the military-backed regime and the Election Commission have attempted to re-engineer the internal dynamics of the main political parties, and have often been partisan in their dealings with the political parties.[21] In this, the international community has quietly acquiesced.[22] 

This makes it all the more necessary that the elections are seen to be credible.

There were certainly signs that the ‘change’ of 11 January 2007 was welcomed by ordinary Bangladeshis (although the extent of the welcome is still open to debate). However, the country has historically been loath to accept authoritarianism of any kind. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of students’ movements in Bangladesh and the Liberation War of 1971 would have known that opposition to a military-backed regime would arise soon, whether the rest of the world liked it or not.

In the hopeful eyes of the international community, the successes of the military-backed caretaker government have been many – from the ordinances pertaining to a Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information to the regime’s ‘campaign’ against corruption.[23] The irony of a caretaker government seeking to promote human rights and the right to information while clamping down on fundamental rights has clearly been missed. Expectedly, the language of the ordinances is weak and vague. The anti-corruption campaign has often been partisan, and was carried out with little regard for the rule of law.[24]

The appropriate – and dignified – route for the international community would have been to draw the regime’s attention to the fact that it was merely a caretaker government, that it was mandated to hold parliamentary elections at the earliest, and that any state of emergency had to have a finite timeframe. Diplomatic parleys should have focused on Bangladesh’s constitutional and international obligations, the latter involving explanations to the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the persistence of the state of emergency.

What then is the way forward? The countries concerned must emphasise that they will not send election observers if the state of emergency is not withdrawn immediately. Let them consult their own rule books. The ‘Handbook for European Union Election Observation’[25] lists examples of best practice which includes: ‘Any state of emergency rules [must be] lifted before an election process begins”. Further, laws are to be “implemented in a manner that all rights are respected”. And here are some of the issues to be considered by any EU Election Observation Mission (EOM):


Have any candidates or their supporters been detained or arrested? Are any candidates, or persons who were likely to be candidates, in exile?

Have any prospective candidates been prevented from running because, for example, they are held in custody or are subject to administrative sanctions or a criminal investigation?


Are there any state-of-emergency laws or regulations in place? If so, how do these affect the electoral process?

Are the military involved in politics? 

According to the ‘Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections’ unanimously adopted by the Inter-Parliamentary Council of the Inter-Parliamentary Union[26]:

In order that elections be fair, States should take the necessary measures to ensure that parties and candidates enjoy reasonable opportunities to present their electoral platform.


In time of elections, the State and its organs should … ensure – [t]hat freedom of movement, assembly, association and expression are respected, particularly in the context of political rallies and meetings…

Clearly, as far as the international community is concerned, none of these standards are applicable to Bangladesh. As the country attempts to make sense of two years of wasted opportunities, broken promises and curbs on fundamental freedoms, those who professed their concern and goodwill for Bangladesh must take a long, hard look at what they have achieved and what they have left behind.

[1] See “Our kind of emergency”, Human Rights Features (HRF/179/07), South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, at See also Rahnuma Ahmed, “Re-configuring the nation’s political map during emergency”, New Age, 29 October 2008, at Also Mir Ashfaquzzaman, “D for diplomacy, D for duplicity”, New Age, 14 May 2008, at

[2] Ibid. See also “EU for early elections”, United News of Bangladesh, published in the New Age, 9 May 2007, at

[3] “Army chief feels need for constitutional review”, The Daily Star, 11 July 2007, at

[4] “14 months of emergency in Bangladesh”, Odhikar Report, 12 March 2008, at

[5] “Justice Nayeem stripped of writ powers”, New Age, 18 March 2008, at See also “Change in jurisdiction of a High Court bench”, New Age, 19 March 2008, at

[6] “10 DU students jailed for holding demo”, New Age, 9 May 2007, at

[7] “RAB action at kitchen market”, New Age, 26 September 2007, at

[8] Adilur Rahman Khan, “Direct democracy: challenges for Bangladesh”, New Age, 14 November 2007, at

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Follow EC’s list to bar EPR convicts from polls”, New Age, 29 October 2008, at

[11] “HC refuses to hear Huda’s plea against EPR provision on polls”, New Age, 28 October 2008, at

[12] “US calls for end to Bangladesh emergency”, Agence France Presse, 13 October 2008, at

[13] “US to send 120 observers for Bangladesh polls: ambassador”, Agence France Presse, 22 October 2008, at

[14] “Commonwealth to Bangladesh: End emergency rule”, Associated Press, published in The Hindu, 28 October 2008, at

[15] See “Our kind of emergency”, op. cit.

[16] “European Commission in dilemma over sending poll observers”, New Age, 6 September 2008, at

[17] “Restore civil, political rights for EU poll observation”, The Daily Star, 5 November 2008.

[18] Politicians, rights groups unhappy”, New Age, 5 November 2008.

[19] New Age (Dhaka), 5 November 2008, at See also “Tough time for media”, New Age, 15 January 2008, at

[20] “Emergency withdrawal depends on law, order: Anwarul”, New Age, 5 November 2008.

[21] “Govt, EC in discord over BNP leadership”, New Age, 22 May 2008, at See also “Talks failure could diminish prospect of peaceful transition”, New Age, 22 May 2008, at, and N.M. Harun, “Resilience of political process vs brute force of authoritarianism”, New Age, 22 April 2007, at

[22] Mir Ashfaquzzaman, op. cit.

[23] “Emergency inconsistent with normal polls: C’wealth secy general”, New Age, 28 October 2008, at

[24] “ACC must carry on fight against corruption, lawfully”, New Age, 26 September 2007, at

[25] Available at:

[26] Available at