Monday, April 3, 2017

Inter-parliamentary union in Dhaka: Is this really going on?

Prime minister meets with speakers of 19 ipu member states
One must have more than a sneaking regard for how the Awami League government has managed to persuade the Inter-Parliamentary Union to host its assembly in Bangladesh this week with more than 650 MPs from 132 countries apparently attending.

The IPU may not have a high threshold of standards for membership, but one would expect - or at least hope - that since the organisation’s constitution suggests it is concerned about ‘representative institutions’ it would scrutinise the parliaments of the countries which sought to host its assemblies.

Well, in relation to Bangladesh, it seems it did not.

At the last election, in 2014, a majority of the parliamentary seats were uncontested and the remaining ones remained mostly uncompetitive. Even though polls showed that a free and fair election would have resulted in a close contest, possibly with the BNP alliance winning, just about every seat went to a member of the Awami League or its alliance of parties.

Not quite so representative.

Indeed, the so-called ‘opposition’ in Bangladesh’s parliament has ministers in the cabinet, and they are rarely – if ever - critical of the government. That is of course because before the election they were, and remain, political allies of the Awami League.

The blame game
The Awami League - which had been in power since winning the 2009 elections – argues that it does not hold responsibility for the situation. It was a victim of circumstances. What else could it do with an obstructive opposition which boycotted the election, it argues.

But there are two reasons why it must shoulder the blame for the current unrepresentative parliament – and why the IPU should not have come to Bangladesh.

First it was the Awami League government that triggered the opposition boycott of the election by unilaterally removing the constitutional provisions requiring the establishment of a pre-election non-political caretaker government to hold the polls. Whilst this provision was far from perfect, the caretaker government had been the only means by which fair national elections had been able to be held in the country since 1990 and it had wide popular consensus.

And, secondly, after the elections, the Awami League government did not keep the commitment it had given to international diplomats that soon after holding the January 2014 elections (which it said was a ‘constitutional necessity’) it would initiate talks with the opposition parties to discuss holding a new election.

Not only did this never happen - but soon after the election, the Awami League government initiated significant repressive measures that effectively prevented the real opposition parties from functioning.

The lack of interest of International Parliamentary Union should perhaps not come as much of a suprise when one learns that the president of the IPU is Saber Hossain Chowdhury, one of the 153 members of parliament who won an uncontested seat in the 2014 elections.

A ‘puppet show’?
A little over a year after the controversial election, the highly recognised non-governmental organization Transparency International published a report on the Bangladesh parliament which showed that only 6 percent of the parliamentary time was taken up with legislative debates, and that it was not functioning like a normal parliament.

“Members of the Parliament indulged in criticizing the political opponents that are not in the parliament in unprecedented number of times often using indecent and un-parliamentary language,’ the report noted. ‘Similarly, praising the government dominated the proceedings with high intensity, often without relevance.’

In launching the report, the TI executive claimed that the Bangladesh parliament had become a ‘stage for a puppet show’ with the so-called opposition party working as “B-team of the government”.

“It has become an institutional forum to defeat the political opponent outside Parliament,” he said. “On the other hand, the so-called opposition’s culture of kowtowing to government has become acute.”

The parliamentary response to this was predictable. No introspection or acceptance of legitimate criticism.

In parliament, one Awami League lawmaker threatened to close down the organization, and others questioned its source of funds. ‘The main object of TIB is to undermine Bangladesh, tarnish its image as well as hinder the country’s progress,’ one member of parliament was quoted as saying.

Just over a year later, parliament enacted a law allowing government authorities to suspend the registration of an NGO or to close it down if it made any "derogatory" remarks against parliament, the constitution or any other "constitutional bodies".

Don’t expect to hear much criticism of the Bangladesh parliament in the future.

Human Rights
If the Inter-parliamentary Union is not concerned about the representative nature of a parliament hosting its assembly or the manner or that parliament’s functioning, one might have hoped that the IPU would have given a bit more consideration to one of its four goals concerned with human rights.

This says that the IPU seeks to, ‘Contribute to the defence and promotion of human rights which are universal in scope and respect for which is an essential factor of parliamentary democracy and development.’

A week before the IPU started, the United Nations Human Rights Committee published its conclusions about Bangladesh’s compliance with its international commitments on civil and political rights. This was pretty damning, criticizing, amongst many other things, the government for its "high rate" of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

This goes back to the election period when a month before the 2014 national elections, law enforcement forces picked up 22 opposition activists, 19 of whom remain disappeared.

And just days before the IPU started, it has been reported that an opposition activist was picked up by police, and his dead body found.

In August 2016, the sons of two opposition leaders – the lawyer Mir Ahmed bin Quasem and Brigadier-General Abdullahil Amaan al-Azmi – were picked up by law enforcement authorities, and remain in secret state detention.

Quasem’s lawyer has released a video calling on the IPU to pressure the government to release him.

The targeting of opposition activists by the Bangladesh government should have been well known to the IPU. In April 2016, the International Crisis Group published a report claiming that Bangladesh jails were overburdened by political prisoners put there, it argued, by a partisan system of justice.

Yet, neither the hundreds of parliamentarians nor the IPU itself has shown an inkling of interest in this – despite human rights being a key priority of the organization.

In Bangladesh, it is now the norm to self censor. Few dare risk the retribution that may come about from voicing criticism. However, one would expects more from at least some of the independent parliamentarians who find themselves in Dhaka this week.

No comments:

Post a Comment