What are the Fundamental Flaws of the US Human Rights Report on Bangladesh?

On April 12, the United States published its annual human rights report. The report has included human rights practices of 198 countries and territories this year. Every year, publishing human rights reports is a routine task for the US State Department. 

However, the report is facing immense criticism this year from the respective countries. Countries are criticizing the report pointing its fundamental flaws. Traditional allies such as India also hit back at the US, citing the US domestic human rights situation. After a fortnight of the report, questions arise in our mind, what are the flaws of this report that is angering most of the countries in Global South? And why US report is affected by such flaws?

”Country Report on Human Rights Practices” is published by the US State Department every year. It is mandatory work for the State Department under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974. The report includes the human rights practices of all United Nations (UN) member states and countries that receive US assistance. The report is also submitted before the US congress. As it is a mandatory process under the Foreign Assistance Act and Trade Act, the report holds significance as it may have a role in deciding US assistance and trade relations in the future. But it seems the report is not of the best of qualities this year as it has fundamental flaws such as misrepresentation, statistical mistakes, and inconsistency with culture. After studying the country report on Bangladesh, it seems many accusations against the report are true.

Statistical Mistakes and Questionable Sources

The Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh has pointed out a statistical mistake in US Human Rights Report. The US report has wrongly cited its source. The US report mentioned that between May-June 2018, 606 extrajudicial killings took place in Bangladesh. It cited Ain of Salish Kendra (ASK) as the source. The report says in section-1 A, ”Between May 2018 and June, ASK reported a total of 606 incidents of alleged extrajudicial executions.” However, the ASK report has no mention of it. Instead, according to ASK, 427 extrajudicial killings took place between January-June 2018.

Again, there are also questions about the sources. The reports are prepared using data from NGOs, published news, and think tank reports. The credibility of the data is also worthy of questioning as there it is common to have vested interests and distortion in media reports. For instance, the US has relied upon an organization called Odhikar. But Odhikar was accused of spreading misinformation about Hefajat’s movement in 2013. In the aftermath of the event, Odhikar claimed that 61 people died at the hand of law enforcement when the crackdown of Hefajat took place. But it reportedly denied providing any list. Later, a case was filed against it, and a trial is currently underway.

Inconsistency with Culture

The US human rights report also fails to acknowledge the cultural practice of respective countries in many cases. Instead, there is a tendency to evaluate things from an ‘American’ viewpoint. For instance, the report raised concerns over LGBTQI+ rights in Muslim countries worldwide. The reports claimed in section-6 that members of the LGBTQI+ community in Bangladesh are denied of basic rights such as marriage, normalization, organization, and sexual conduct. But, the report fails to understand that LGBTQI+ rights conflict with Islamic culture. The existence of this practice is undeniable across time, space, and culture, but it is still considered a ‘taboo’. In the case of Bangladesh, it is also the same. The articulation of this section of the report seems that the US is trying to impose its values on Bangladesh while describing human rights practices.

Again, the report also fails to acknowledge transgender rights in Bangladesh. The ‘Hijra’ culture and the transgender issue are common in Bangladesh. But it’s been a while since Bangladesh granted the status of Hijra and ensured voting rights for them. A positive development indeed!

However, the law is the same for everyone irrespective of class, gender, race, and orientation. The violence against LGBTQI+ members are still a crime. The report also acknowledged the sentencing of the killers of Xulhas Mannan and Tonoy- two gay men who were hacked to death five years ago.

Another inconsistency of the report with culture is the articulation of child abuse and early marriage. These two issues are not acceptable to Bangladeshi society, and there are strict laws against them. But the articulation of the report provides an image that may lead one to perceive that these issues are burning questions in Bangladesh. The articulation of cases is also misrepresenting. There are only 453 cases of violence against children in Bangladesh. The number is very small, considering the population of 160 million. The number is even smaller considering the US scenario where one child abuse report is filed every 10 seconds.

Misrepresentation of Fact

Another fundamental flaw of the US country report on Bangladesh is the misrepresentation of spyware. The internet freedom section claims that ”Local media reported the country is among those allegedly using Pegasus, the Israeli-made surveillance application.” But local media reports do not claim that Bangladesh is ‘using’ Pegasus. Instead, they claim that it is one of the ‘infected’ countries. This news is based on Citizen Lab report and an article of the Washington Post. Examining these two reports suggests that there is evidence of possible Pegasus infection in Bangladesh by an operator called ‘Ganges’. ‘Ganges’ operates in South Asia with no country-specific focus (See Page 16). Therefore, the claim is an outright misrepresentation of facts and is not expected from the US.

Why ‘So many’ Flaws?

It is quite surprising that there are so many fundamental flaws in the report this year. Other countries are also reacting against it. For instance, the Philippines criticized the report by stating that it has nothing new and shows how ‘infirmed’ US intelligence gathering is. Though it is a recurring report, this year, it has also attracted more attention than it did in the past.

One major reason behind such flaws can be relying on NGOs and media reports. In many cases, these sources fail to provide the actual picture. In the age of ‘Post-Truth’, quite often, the credibility of these sources is questioned. Again, the ‘weaponization’ of human rights is another driving factor behind these flaws. In the new cold war against China and Russia, the US is using human rights as a weapon. As weaponization requires a negative portrayal to pressurize more efficiently, there is always a tendency to vilify the rights scenario worldwide. It is a fact that democratic backsliding is taking place, and the human rights scenario is deteriorating worldwide. But the US report is failing to provide the actual picture also owing to its fundamental flaws.

One must remember that ‘with power comes great responsibility’. As a global leader, the USA has a great deal of responsibility to uphold Human Rights. But for that, it must be sincere and avoid weaponization of it. The US must give up its traditional reliance on non-governmental sources to overcome the flaws. In the age of Post-Truth, official resources should be mobilized for gathering actual data. And last but not least, reports should maintain consistency with culture. Otherwise, the reports would lose credibility, and they would only create conflict rather than reconciliation.

[photo by U.S. Department of State]

Doreen Chowdhury is an aspiring author and analyst. She is currently pursuing her Doctoral studies at University of Groningen. Her areas of interest are Comparative Politics, Globalization, South Asian Studies and Migration Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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