Outrage at the Polls

Casting one’s vote is a human right but many South Asian regimes ensure polling
goes their way because this enhances their stay in power, no questions asked.

By Minahil Mahmud | April 2020

In the troubled democracies of South Asia, the pattern of election cycles has always remained the same, with campaigns marred by violence and frequent incarceration, an opposition alleging vote tampering and a result that a large part of the country refuses to endorse.

In the final days of 2018, Bangladesh elected - for the fourth time - Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League, a seasoned politician with a cloud of scandals looming over her rule. Today, two years since the Prime Minister took office, the predicament of human rights in the country invites skepticism regarding her government’s role in the matter. The ever-growing list of blocked news agencies and imprisoned academics is reminiscent of all the human rights violations that the country’s National Human Rights Commission brushed under the rug over the past two years.

Only minutes into reading about the commission’s recent record online, one could unravel a grave history of an impotent institution, with a lengthy past of letting down the people it was mandated to protect. Its structural deficiencies allowed for the commission to skirt its responsibilities and for the government to exploit the gaping hole in accountability mechanisms to enforce a claustrophobic grip on the country.

Human rights activists have long complained to deaf ears the internal organization of the commission, which they say is designed to create chaos. For example, the sitting commission was selected entirely by a hand-picked committee of government appointees, through a process that was far from transparent or participatory. With only one civilian representative - that too an honorary member - and the entirety of its senior staff saturated with deputies from government ministries, the public was clueless as to who was running the institution - and how.

“We never know who the alternatives for the positions are. At the very least, two names should be nominated for each member’s position,” says Sayeed Ahmad of Front Line Defenders, an international human rights organization. All this undoubtedly contributed to Bangladesh’s NHRC being awarded B, rather than A status by the Global Alliance on National Human Rights Institutions, most recently in 2015, on the basis of its compliance with the Paris Principles, the global yardstick for measuring human rights institutions’ performance. To top it off, in August 2019, the Secretary General of the commission, Dr. Saiful Islam was arrested by the police for alleged misuse of official funds.

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