Bangladeshi PM Ducks Human Rights Abuse Questions

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Sheikh Hasina

Host Stephen Sackur asks some hard questions about the human rights record of Bangladesh. Specifically, he cites a UN report that says, “human rights violations continue unabated in Bangladesh. Including extrajudicial deaths, torture and cruel treatment in law enforcement custody.” Hasina ducks the question by blaming the previous government. Attempts to push the issue further by Sackur are met by repeated denials.

On the question of the April disappearance and death of activist Aminul Islam, Hasina questioned if he was even activist and said that it was the Bangladeshi police who found his body. She neglects to say that the body was dumped near a police station in Ghatail. Islam’s brother told the New York Times, “We found several marks of wounds from his waist to his foot. His big toes and his ankles were smashed.”

From the perspective of development, Bangladesh has come under greater focus over the past year. The ouster of Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus from the Grameen Bank was orchestrated by the Hasina government. She made it clear in the past and continues to do so today that she considers Yunus to be an opportunist through his microlending scheme calling him a ‘bloodsucker of the poor.’ She tells Sackur that it is unfair to charge as much as 40% interest.

The 2010 microfinance crisis gave way for the Bangladeshi government to force Yunus out. A new proposed piece of legislation will further consolidate the government’s control over Grameen. David Roodman of the Center for Global Development summarizes the impact:

According to press reports, the amendment would change how the Managing Director of the Grameen Bank is appointed. Under current law, as I recall, the Bangladesh Bank (the central bank) appoints 3 of the 12 regular board members, plus the board chairman. The other 9 are elected from among the ranks of Grameen’s 8 million members. The 3-9 split reflects the law’s envisioned 25-75 division in share ownership. The members’ control of the board has thus far stymied the government’s attempt to intervene in the Grameen Bank after the removal of Muhammad Yunus as managing director.

The draft amendment would bypass this bottleneck. Now, the government-appointed board chairman will assemble a panel of three candidates for the position of Managing Director in consultation with the board, then pass that to the Bangladesh Bank for final selection. This will, um, emasculate the board, depriving it of what in an independent organization is a board’s most important function: hiring and firing the CEO. More fundamentally, the amendment will destroy the co-operative, democratic governance of the Grameen Bank.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is actively trying to keep out the Muslim Rohingya refugees who are seeking asylum from the sectarian violence in northern Myanmar. Reports in mid-July indicated that refugees trying to enter Bangladesh were turned back at the border. “The UN refugee agency has first-hand, credible accounts of boats from Myanmar not being enabled to access Bangladeshi territory. These reports indicate women, children and some wounded are onboard,” said the UNHCR at the time.

A few weeks later, Bangladesh ordered humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), to cease providing aid to Rohingya refugees. “We are astounded at being requested to cease our medical activities and deprive people of lifesaving services. We can only hope that the Bangladeshi government will re-consider,” said MSF operational manager for Bangladesh, Chris Lockyear to AlertNet.

Last week, EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva released a statement regarding the situation saying, “I strongly appeal to the Government of Bangladesh to act responsibly and offer a helping hand to all those in need, and to allow humanitarian aid organizations to do their work for the benefit of all communities.”

The issue of the Rohingya refugees and the Grameen Bank fall under the leadership of Hasina. Her interview with Sackur does little to get at her motivations. That makes it hard to know what these examples mean in terms of the development trajectory for Bangladesh. However, close attention should remain on the country that has given birth to modern microfinance and development innovators like BRAC.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.