Culture of Impunity in Bangladesh: A Barren Land for Rights of Indigenous Peoples

12-10-2014

The Government of Bangladesh failed to take concrete steps to protect rights to traditional lands of indigenous peoples that created an unsafe environment fuelling with violent attacks against indigenous peoples due to land disputes. Despite existing legal provisions to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, discrimination based on ethnic identity continues since constitutional recognition of indigenous people has not been provided. Impunity continues to shadow and prevent the enforcement of legal provisions that can ensure equality and access to justice for indigenous peoples. [1]

Incidents of sexual and gender base violence against indigenous women became pervasive in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which is inhabited by several indigenous groups. Rape is used as a weapon to terrorize indigenous women to force them to leave their homes that makes it easier for perpetrators to grab their lands. The impunity for violations committed against indigenous women is caused by collective oppression, ineffective justice system and reluctant law enforcement agencies.[2] Kapaeeng Foundation, prominent human rights organisation working to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples, published a report in 2013 stated that 175 incidents against indigenous women in CHT were reported from 2007 to 2013. 49 of these incidents were rape and gang rape cases.[3]

GHRD interviewed Kapaeeng Foundation to discuss organisation's ongoing activities, the human rights violations against indigenous peoples, the situation of indigenous women and Kapaeeng's involvement in Human Rights Alliance Bangladesh (HRAB) - a national human rights platform supported by Global Human Rights Defence.

Bangladesh has promised to uphold the principles of the UN Charter on international peace and security and respect for international law. It has also ratified the ILO Convention No.107 on Indigenous and Tribal populations to safeguard the traditional land rights of indigenous people. However, it has not properly implemented the CHT Accord and the constitutional recognition of indigenous people. This has displayed an attitude of non-compliance towards its commitment to international human rights mechanisms.

Given this background together with the documentation of  violations against indigenous people, how would you rate the government success in honouring its international commitments? Can you also highlight the current status regarding the rights of indigenous people in Bangladesh and what more can be done to preserve these rights?

It is true that Bangladesh has ratified and acceded to most of the major human rights treaties, some of which are specifically related to indigenous peoples in the country. However, the proper implementation of the promises made by the Government through those treaties is questionable. The rights of indigenous peoples, one of the most marginalised groups within the national community, have been routinely violated. Violations include mass killing, killing of individuals, rape, torture, land grabbing, harassment and so on. Though the State was supposed to be play the role of duty bearer,  in many cases it is seen to be a major violator of the rights of indigenous peoples. So, it can undoubtedly be said that the performance of Bangladesh in honouring its international commitments to international laws is very poor.

As I discussed earlier, the situation of Indigenous peoples in the country is alarming. The suffering of indigenous peoples is multifaceted. Indigenous peoples and their rights are not recognised by the constitution. Moreover, their very rights, cultures, traditions, institutions, language, beliefs, identity and way of life are on the verge of extinction.

In order to improve this situation, indigenous peoples need to have a strong systematic approach for ensuring the respect of their rights. To achieve this, indigenous peoples need to strengthen their organizations at the grassroots and national levels. They also need ensure capacity building in relation to different areas of advocacy, lobby and campaign.  Furthermore, relations and networks need to be strengthened and expanded with different minority and mainstream community civil society, as well as progressive groups at the local, national and international level. Moreover indigenous people need to have allies within the government, the UN and other support groups.

Could you please tell us about the Dhaka declaration initiated by indigenous women during the Second National Indigenous Women's Conference during which several objectives were highlighted to better the lives of the indigenous community?  Could you please elaborate on what is the current status of this declaration and what practical steps have been taken both by organizations and government to implement the Dhaka declaration in practice?

The ‘Dhaka Declaration’ is an immediate result of ‘Second National Indigenous Women's Conference’ held in CBCB Centre, Dhaka from September 6-7, 2014. The Dhaka Declaration focuses on strengthening communication, unity and solidarity among and between indigenous women’s organizations at the local, national and international levels, and mainstream women’s organizations at the national level. Its main purpose is to combat the constant discrimination, deprivation and oppression experienced by indigenous women in domestic, social, racial and national environments.

Currently, the implementation of the Dhaka declaration is underway by the newly formed committee of Bangladesh Indigenous Women Network (BIWN). As one of its core activities, BIWN has undertaken a preliminary plan of action for the period September 2014 to January. The plan includes organising a strategy-formulating workshop, organising demonstrations, making submissions to the UN, particularly the CEDAW Committee, and undertaking initiatives for sourcing funding and capacity-building opportunities. 

Land grabbing has been one of the biggest concerns with regard to the rights of indigenous people. Is it possible for you to elaborate on the purpose and objective of the seminar entitled 'Land Rights and Protection of Indigenous Peoples Rights in Bangladesh' to be jointly organized by Association For Land Reform And Development (ALRD). What would you like or hope to achieve through the seminar?

The seminar organised by BIPF, KF and ALRD addressed land rights and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples in the country. Land is at the heart of all rights and identity of indigenous peoples. Economy, culture, way of life, belief, customs, heritage etc. of indigenous peoples revolve around land. Therefore, a threat to the land means a threat to the existence of indigenous peoples. Over the years, indigenous peoples in Bangladesh have lost their land and territories. Thousands of acres belonging to indigenous peoples are under occupation of influential people, corporations, and government officials. It is claimed that the forest department and security forces departments are the major land grabbers. Only in last one year, thousands of acres of lands of indigenous peoples have either been occupied or undergone the process of occupation by the government and different non-state actors. Unfortunately, however, land grabbing is always accompanied by other violations—it is often accompanied by other forms of human rights violations—killing, rape, torture, harassment etc. In fact a large amount of violence experienced by indigenous peoples in the country is either directly or indirectly connected to the land. For example, the torture and gang rape of indigenous leader Bichitra Tirki in August 4, 2014 was related to land grabbing. 

As such, a seminar was essential to  raise awareness about the current situation of land rights of indigenous peoples and related human rights violations and ways to address them before the media, civil society and the people of the country. The seminar was targeted to create awareness among both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples about the harsh reality of land rights of indigenous peoples and sensitize media, government, civil society groups and different support groups.

Kapaeeng Foundation has been a valuable partner of Human Rights Alliance Bangladesh (HRAB) for over a year. What is the value for you of this partnership and the alliance as a whole? What do you hope that the alliance will achieve in the years to come?

The partnership and alliance as a whole has been valuable for Kapaeeng Foundation. The alliance has been useful in sharing information and communicating as well as  sharing ideas about campaigning among the alliance members.

I would like HRAB to be a powerful network and alliance of indigenous and other minority groups in the country. I would like to see it making more and more contributions for the protection and promotion of the rights of the groups that I mentioned earlier. However, in order to have the network a grown and a powerful one, it needs to have greater capacity and need to be more empowered.

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