Welcome to Human Rights Commision South Asia Official Website  



back to home......


The issue of Rab and Human Rights


So long as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its extra-judicial killings exist and so long as well-meaning or insidiously motivated human rights advocates and activists exist, the issue of human rights violation by RAB in the process of dispatching criminals with extreme prejudice will be debated. Essentially it will be a debate between idealism, including of the pure ivory tower variety, and exigencies employed in dealing with the harsh reality of an untenable situation. And, as an interesting and significant sidelight, most of the attention falls on RAB rather than on similar activities of the regular police force, including its own special teams, where the number of “crossfire” deaths at its hands is considerably higher than at those of the elite unit. And the human rights advocates also seem to dwell mostly, at times exclusively, on RAB to illustrate their charge of human rights abuse in Bangladesh. Educated guesses may be made on this phenomenon, and it is worth a few moments of ones thought.

Recently, another in an irregular sequence of public discussion on RAB and human rights led to some curious consequences, one of which is troubling. Briefly, the organization called Ain-O-Salish Kendro (ASK) held a public discussion on the publication on its report on RAB’s modus operandi and its impact on human rights. The reaction to the report from a section of the audience is instructive, though hardly surprising. Several spoke out in favour of RAB activities, using the argument that they were victims of terrorists and the elite force has been taking effective measures against them. This was inside the Dhaka Press Club premises, in the conference room. An entire group of protesters demonstrated to the same effect by forming a human chain around the premises. While ASK was presenting legal norms and ideal presumptions, the protests were reflecting the harsh reality of prevailing conditions. The matter of such differing perspectives will be looked at after a troubling issue is taken up. 

Reportedly, following ASK’s publication of its report, the officials of that organization have been subjected to telephonic threats and intimidating tactics. Such behaviour is clearly wrong. Whatever may have been ASK’s motive in publishing the report, it is free to express its findings and opinions. And no one has considered it to be seditious, most of all the state. One is free to disagree with its views, as the dissenters inside and outside the Press Club clearly did, and may even question the findings, but one cannot resort to threat and intimidation to express dissent and displeasure. To slightly modify a famous aphorism on freedom of _expression that Voltaire’s biographer summed up about one of the great philosopher’s thinking, one might disagree with every word that another utters, but would defend to the death that person’s right to say it. Obviously, the part about sacrificing ones life is heroic and idealistic, and will seldom be acted out in practice, but the point about a fundamental human right is well taken.

Interestingly, and pertinently, the dissenters also brought up the point about their human rights being violated by the terrorists and the hardened wrongdoers. To reiterate, that is reflective of reality, against which ASK and other well-meaning or special agenda-carrying organizations’ and individual’s arguments fall short. In an ideal situation of society and political economy, which simply does not exist anywhere in the world, the human rights issues raised by them would not only be utterly applicable, but would probably be hardly ever used. However, even in those countries considered advanced, human rights are not infrequently compromised, either directly by the government or in a myriad of subtle ways. Very often they are done so in response to situations that the government considers to be of national importance. Currently, the two stalwarts of liberal pluralist democracy, one professing a parliamentary system and the other a presidential type, Great Britain and the United States, have instituted measures that are not even disguised compromising of human rights. The Patriots Act, the Department of Homeland Security, Guantanamo Bay and other measures taken by the US, and a parliamentary act in Great Britain that directly infringes on human rights are some of the policies that have been adopted for national interest in the face of the post-9/11 state of the international system and for combating global terrorism. 

That word “terrorism”! It is the big issue in the RAB controversy. Back in late March 2005, ASK had expressed its concern over the elite force being equipped with armoured vehicles. Then it said that, while creating an environment of indemnity for RAB, the government was investing in it since its formation with a view to giving the elite squad a military shape, whereas the reform of the police force has been overlooked over the years. Whether RAB, comprising mostly of armed forces personnel, is purportedly being made into a military look-alike is yet to be seen, although special police units like SWAT in the US and the carabinieri in Italy are distinctly quasi-military in training and operational procedure, the point about the neglect of regular police reform is well taken. It is what brought about the introduction of RAB in the first place.

The law and order situation had over the years deteriorated to such an extent that the general citizenry had become hostage to increasingly audacious hardened criminals. The human rights of the overwhelming majority had become hostage to a comparatively infinitesimal group of wrongdoers. A cardinal expectation from a democracy is the security and welfare of the general population. Sometimes, however, it has no other choice but to compromise the civil liberties of a few to ensure the welfare of the many. No armchair ivory tower dwellers’ importuning, or ranting and ravings, which sometimes in this country are politically motivated, will change that. Democracy is not a monolithic concept, as the examples of the US and Great Britain cited above will attest to. And the human rights tradition, like all normative traditions, is a product of its time. It is very much a reflection of a society’s culture and values.

The cultural relativist view that values are not universal, but a function of contingent circumstances, that morality is significantly determined by culture and history, has a lot of validity. Even George W Bush, representing that great proponent of cultural universalism, the United States, recently conceded (while undergoing a chastening experience in Iraq) that democracies have to grow according to each nation’s culture and traditions. A scholarly discourse has it that different conceptions of human rights, particularly the emerging conceptions, contain the potential for challenging the legitimacy and supremacy not only of one another but, more importantly, of the political-social systems with which they are most intimately associated. As a consequence, there is sharp disagreement about the legitimate scope of human rights and about the priorities that are claimed about them.

The RAB situation needs to be viewed from the differing perspectives angle. It is an expediency brought by the exigencies of a situation. Moreover, several important people, like quite a few foreign envoys in Dhaka, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs at a recent Congressional hearing, and others, while expressing concern about human rights abuse, have also stated that the country’s law and order situation has improved significantly since RAB’s introduction. ASK and anyone else should be asking more about the progress of regular police reforms and the necessity for the criminal justice system to come up to par so that RAB and its actions become a stopgap measure. Meanwhile, carping about human rights violation of a few would not be recognising the reality of the situation. The law and order situation in this country is a case where idealism has to take a backseat to realism.