Trading diplomacy: Why is Britain silent on a growing human rights crisis in Bangladesh?

The rollback of democracy and human rights in Bangladesh should matter to the UK. As a long-term ally, Britain is Bangladesh’s third largest
export’s destination, the fifth largest source of remittances, and the second
largest foreign investor. On the 17 th January, a court in Bangladesh issued
an arrest warrant for a respected independent newspaper editor, after a student
was killed at an event organised by a sister publication. Matiur Rahman edits
the Prothom Alo daily and has been an outspoken champion of freedom of
expression in a country that rights groups warn is marching towards
authoritarianism. Rahman already faces more than 50 charges for defamation and hurting religious sentiments. His case and dozens like it are considered part of a larger, organised assault on independent media – and wider threats to human rights in the country. Just over a year ago Bangladesh held its 11th national
election since independence in 1971. The questionable results ended in a
resounding victory for Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League party, securing 288
out of a possible 300 seats in Parliament – more than 90 percent of the popular
vote. Few analysts considered the election free or fair; at least 17 people were
killed in election-related violence and there were widespread allegations of
voter intimidation. Human rights abuses – particularly in the garment sector – are rife in Bangladesh. Our latest briefing at the Labour Campaign for Human Rights (LCHR) documents how Britain’s biggest retailers have “chased the cheap needle around the planet”, importing low-cost clothing in vast quantities from countries including Bangladesh in the pursuit of “ fast fashion ”. This desire for cut-price clothing products has come at the expense of the rights of those who make them. In 2013, the infamous collapse of a Dhaka garment factory
building pushed the issue of workers’ rights onto the international news agenda
and put pressure on Western brands to do more to stamp out modern slavery and
audit their supply chains. The uproar that followed the collapse prompted about 190
European brands – including Marks and Spencer, H&M, Tesco and Carrefour –
to form the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord”). Seven years later, the safety of workers in the country
still hangs in the balance, despite some progress being made. Last week, Accord
announced it was leaving the country after the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers
and Exporters Association, a powerful body for factory owners, lobbied for the
responsibility of factory safety to return to the government. Whether it is able, or willing, to enforce the new standards
at a time when unions are being stifled – and wages remain among the lowest in
the world – will decide the real legacy of Rana Plaza. Almost 100 UK businesses
operate in Bangladesh, including HSBC, Unilever and GSK. Bangladesh is one of the top recipients of UK official
development assistance. In September of last year, the UK government made
available an additional £87 million for sustaining the Rohingya refugee operation
in Cox’s Bazar, taking the total since the start of the crisis in August 2017
to £226 million. However, the longer the Rohingya crisis remains without a
suitable diplomatic and political solution, which includes citizenship for the
Rohingya in Burma and accountability of those who perpetrated the genocide, the
more likely human rights abuses will occur on Bangladeshi soil. Their rights
are further reduced by the failure to recognise the Rohingya as refugees in the
country. Despite Bangladesh being a priority country to the UK Foreign
Office, the UK remains a major supplier to its military, with which it has a
longstanding relationship. Despite the reported political suppression over the
past decade, UK arms sales to the country doubled under Theresa May’s
Conservative government. In addition, with two thirds of the country less than five
metres above sea level, Bangladesh is on the front line of climate change and
the most basic human right of Bangladeshis – to live safe from disaster – is no
longer guaranteed. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced,
and thousands have been killed by natural disasters and extreme weather events.
Such events are likely to get worse in the years to come. Frustration with the corruption and nepotism that has
characterized seemingly secular regimes in Bangladesh has fostered a belief that
Islamist parties may prove less crooked. While some of these entities have been
formally banned, Islamist zealots have targeted and killed secular activists,
political dissenters, and the country’s shrinking Hindu population. Successive Conservative British governments have paid little
attention to political developments in Bangladesh. It seems highly unlikely
that Boris Johnson’s new government will expend any political capital on the
deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The UK government has many tools at its disposal – such as
ensuring workers’ rights are protected in trade arrangements, adopting a more
rigorous and transparent system of arms export licensing, and pushing for a
thorough investigation into allegations of violence against the Rohingya in
Myanmar. The post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, a champion of free trade
and democracy and leading a league of like-minded nations, is not credible
unless human rights are at the forefront of everything we do. Stephen Delahunty is a spokesperson for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. On 4th February, LCHR are hosting a panel event on human rights in Bangladesh, and what the UK’s future diplomatic relations should look like. Ft. Rupa Huq MP, Dr.Halima Begum, Murad Qureshi, Mabrur Ahmed and Dr. Rumana Hasem.

2020-01-29 | Brexit & Foreign Policy, Media Bias, global britain | English |