Australia has an opportunity to take the lead in generating international pressure to stop the repression of Indigenous peoples in the Chittagong Hills Tract (CHT) region of Bangladesh. This is the Gillard government's chance to show the world that we really do aspire to being a "good international citizen".
There are many conflicts in the world that do not make the news in Australia. But one that should is the ongoing repression of Indigenous peoples in the CHT region. We should be aware of this because the Australian government continues to give significant development assistance to Bangladesh.
It is laudable that the Australian government announces on the AusAID website that its aid to other countries is focused on maximising "the benefits for human rights in all development assistance activities". However, despite these proclaimed good intentions, aid does not always benefit those who are the most vulnerable within a country, particularly those who experience repression by government forces. Bangladesh is budgeted to receive $70 million in Australian development assistance in 2009-2010, despite the Bangladesh government continuing to violate the rights of Indigenous communities in the CHT region. Given this assistance, shouldn't the Australian government poke its nose into reports that Indigenous people in the CHT are still experiencing forced evictions from their land and violence if they resist?
Prior to and upon its election, the Rudd Labor government increased the rhetoric on the importance of human rights and development assistance. On 22 October 2008 Foreign Minister Stephen Smith declared that his government "came to office committed to enhancing Australia's reputation as a good international citizen." (PDF 75 kb) The Rudd government also symbolically indicated the importance of addressing Indigenous rights by signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and making a formal apology to the Stolen Generations, although it clearly has a long way to go to convince Indigenous Australians that the Labor government is committed to ensuring their rights are realised. But given these symbolic gestures, perhaps the new Gillard government may be willing to focus greater attention on the abuses of Indigenous people in Bangladesh.
Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1972, the history of the CHT region has been engraved with the illegal grabbing of Indigenous people's land by the majority Bengalee settlers. Despite being a signatory to a number of international human rights treaties, the protests of Indigenous people have been met with systematic human rights violations by government forces. In February this year the violence once again escalated when Bengalee settlers, with the support of the Bangladesh Army, resumed building houses on the land of Indigenous people. When the Indigenous people protested, Army personnel began to shoot and their houses and shops were set alight by Bengalee settlers. According to media reports, hundreds of houses and scores of villages of Indigenous people in the CHT region were burnt down and at least six Indigenous people killed by Army gunfire, although it is assumed that many more were killed or injured as the areas have been inaccessible to the media and foreigners. After the killings, many Indigenous people and human rights organisation officials, lawyers and students were arbitrarily detained until their recent release. Many continue to flee their homes in fear.
Whenever we discuss these events with Australian friends, they wonder why they have not heard of the violations. Congratulations must be given to the Bangladesh government for this information deficit – the foreign media have effectively been kept out of the area. Even if there is no "emergency" situation in the CHT region, any foreigner needs to have special permission from the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry to enter into this area, and everyone, including Bangladeshi nationals, who enter the area will be scrutinised by the Bangladesh Army.
With sustained protests from Bangladesh human rights organisations and other individuals, the Bangladesh government promised to hold an enquiry and give compensation to those whose rights had been violated. However, as usual, this is yet to happen. Since 1973 there have been thirteen cases of reported massacres in the CHT, and probably many more unreported. Not a single case has been brought to justice. The tears of Indigenous people and the loud roaring of Bangladesh human rights activists have merely echoed around and gotten lost amidst the beautiful landscapes of the CHT. And the land grabbing and marginalisation of Indigenous people continues.
So what should the Australian government do about the violations in the CHT region of Bangladesh? Apart from taking a keen interest in the actions of a government of a country that is a significant recipient of Australian aid, the Australian government has international obligations to investigate these violations and take appropriate action. Australia has signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a range of international human rights treaties. Together these suggest Australia is a country that should be acting on reports of human rights violations where ever they may be.
But what can Australia do? History testifies that sometimes strong international pressure can help make a human rights-violating government improve the treatment of its citizens. International pressure helped to promote the rights of peoples in countries such as South Africa, Chile and Indonesia. To stop and redress the violations in the CHT, international pressure is needed now. This means more than just expressions of concern communicated through Ambassadors, as Australia has already done – these merely attract the usual assurances of the Bangladesh government that something will be done. It means following up these expressions with discussions that link the future of Australian development assistance to Bangladesh with the end of repression in the CHT region. It also means actively pursuing the issue in multilateral forums to generate greater international pressure.
The Bangladesh government must be pressured to give international and national human rights organisations and the media access to the CHT. It must also be pressured to conduct an inquiry into the violations. The Bangladesh government must withdraw the charges laid against those it had arbitrarily detained, ensure effective compensation for those who have lost their houses, shops, temples and churches, and proceed to prosecute those responsible. The Bangladesh government must also ensure that these violations do not happen again. Some government needs to initiate the development of a network of countries to provide this pressure. What an opportunity for the Gillard government and its new Foreign Minister.
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