There was an hour’s debate in the House of Lords last night on the political situation in Bangladesh, focussing on the political violence and kidnappings of opposition politicians that have taken place there. This followed on from the oral question that I had put in the Lords back in May.
The full debate is here and my contribution was as follows:
“My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. For me, this is a follow-on from the Oral Question that I asked on 23 May about what representations had been made about the disappearance of Mr Ilias Ali and other opposition politicians in Bangladesh.
In his Reply, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who was then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, talked about the representations that had been made by the United Kingdom Government with eight other EU countries, when they had called on the Bangladesh authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into Mr Ali’s disappearance. In reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what further representations or further dialogue there have been with the Government of Bangladesh since that Answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
At that meeting, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is to speak after me, raised the question of whether it was possible to engage the UN working party on disappearances. I would be interested to hear what the noble Baroness can tell us about whether that engagement took place.
Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his responses to various questions on that date, referred to £1 billion of aid being given by the UK Government. I am not clear about whether he was aggregating several years together, but it is important that the Government address whether there is a relationship between the sums involved, over whatever period, and the human rights record. Is that something that can legitimately be expected as a quid pro quo for the support that this country gives to the people of Bangladesh?
The most important point to make in this debate is that the case of Mr Ilias Ali is not an isolated one. Mr Ali and his driver disappeared on 18 April, and two weeks earlier Mr Aminul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, was allegedly picked up by members of a law enforcement agency and horribly tortured and killed. In December 2011, Nazmul Islam, another opposition politician, was found strangled just a few hours after he had been dancing with his wife. His wife received very little assistance from the police when she reported him missing. I would be grateful for guidance from the Minister on her understanding of the developments that there have been in the investigations of these cases since then.
What is the Government’s latest assessment of the level of political violence in Bangladesh? We need to understand that. One of the most concerning features of this is the alleged complicity of law enforcement agencies, in particular the Rapid Action Battalion. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, gave us a horrifying catalogue of cases which, it is suggested, are associated with their activities. There seems to be a culture of impunity among the security forces, and anyone who falls foul of the authorities is therefore vulnerable. Since 2004, there have been more than 1,600 extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. To UK eyes, there are horrifying levels of political violence, with 300 people killed in 2006, 250 in 2009 and so on.
We have to recognise that political violence is not all on one side. There has perhaps been a trend in Bangladeshi politics for supporters of the ruling party—whichever one that might be—to feel that they are able to attack opposition supporters with a certain level of impunity. I think that comes from the broad powers that the law gives to the Government, which means that the Government of the day is, in effect, given control of the police as one of the spoils of victory.
Bangladesh is a fragile democracy and one of the poorest nations of the world—though one with tremendous potential if it is given an opportunity. The levels of political violence and alleged abuse of state power to suppress the opposition reflect very badly on the Government of that country, and on the efforts that are being made to generate wealth and development there. I have a simple question for Her Majesty’s Government. What can they do to make clear that such violence and attacks on opposition politicians are not acceptable? What further representations have been made, and what are planned? Is this being made a condition of future aid?”