Political rights

Without civil and political rights, development is incomplete

international human rights day

Adiba Hridi breaks down in tears at the Jatiya Press Club as she talks about her father Parvez Hossain, a BNP activist, who disappeared after he was supposedly arrested by law enforcement officials in 2013. The enforced disappearance remains a thorny issue for the authorities in Bangladesh, and a concern for civil and political rights defenders. PHOTO: AMRAN HOSSAIN

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Adiba Hridi breaks down in tears at the Jatiya Press Club as she talks about her father Parvez Hossain, a BNP activist, who disappeared after he was supposedly arrested by law enforcement officials in 2013. The enforced disappearance remains a thorny issue for the authorities in Bangladesh, and a concern for civil and political rights defenders. PHOTO: AMRAN HOSSAIN

The traditional notion of development encompasses a set of indices of economic development that can undoubtedly create favorable conditions for the realization of many economic and social rights. However, development thinkers have gradually adopted a broader definition of development that includes people’s civil and political rights. Nevertheless, some people, including politicians, continue to insist on a narrow definition that ignores or even denies aspects of civil and political rights.

In recent years, several leaders, including some from Bangladesh, have implicitly argued that some rights are more important than others. For example, in an interview with The New York Times in December 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina argued that “if I can provide food, jobs and health care, it is human rights. What the opposition says, or civil society or your NGOs, I don’t care. This is indeed a very controversial position on the question of what development means.

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The real question that can be asked is the following: does development only mean progress on certain economic and social indices? Is the concept distinct from civil and political rights? Those who define development as an economic concept argue that some countries are achieving breathtaking economic progress, improving many economic and social rights of their citizens, even as they restrict civil and political rights. This is a popular line among the Bangladeshi political class. The countries usually referred to in this category, China in the forefront of which, are special cases. Many more countries that systematically deny civil and political rights could not develop economically.

However, the problem with this argument is a matter of definitions. The traditional concept of development focuses primarily, narrowly, on economic aspects, emphasizing growth, median income, consumption, and other economic indices. Since the early 1990s, however, the mainstream development discourse has gradually witnessed a paradigm shift, broadening to include notions of social justice, human development, human rights and well-being. In his seminal work Development as freedom (1999), the eminent development thinker Amartya Sen redefined development as an idea that “consists in the removal of various kinds of unfreedoms that leave people with few choices and few opportunities to exercise reasoned power “. Along with Sen, scholars, experts and development thinkers also embraced this broader definition, which has since influenced the United Nations, many governments, non-governmental organizations and other multilateral agencies. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals, which Bangladesh and other countries have explicitly agreed to, include political freedoms as one of the key development goals (SDG 16).

As development now becomes an inclusive concept composed of both elements of material progress and those necessary for the achievement of human agency, politicians and leaders must step up and commit to a development agenda both inclusive and meaningful. This is necessary to respect the concepts of human rights, as reflected in international standards. Any selection of the idea of ​​development to serve a partisan political purpose would constitute an abandonment of the commitment to human rights.

There are implications when leaders compartmentalize development to a set of economic goals without considering aspects of political freedom. When citizens are not free to have an opinion, to express it or to organize themselves to put pressure on their demands, they lose their human agency, their capacity to make choices and to pursue them. In the absence of a functioning human agency and protected civil and political rights, accountability institutions are likely to suffer as their mandate would be redefined to protect their arbitrary powers instead of protecting people’s human rights. It corrupts the rule of law. And with this corrosion, several important aspects of economic development, which are directly linked to economic, social and cultural rights – for example, the rights to education, health and livelihood – are likely to be affected. There may be outliers, but these are the most likely results.

There are growing signs that this may be manifesting in Bangladesh in different forms. Civil and political rights in the country have been eroded in recent years. For example, since October 2018, according to media reports, almost 400 people have been charged under the recently enacted Digital Security Act 2016, simply for expressing their views on Facebook and other social media platforms. It is a draconian law that criminalizes the right to free speech, and it must be amended.

The continued backsliding of the civil and political liberties regime in several countries, including Bangladesh, and the inability of the system, particularly the institutions of accountability, to stem the tide may be a sign that restrictions on civil and political liberties are taking hold. their toll on the system. For example, attempts by the National Human Rights Commission to seek clarification of 112 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions between 2012 and 2016 did not even elicit a response from Bangladeshi authorities. This lack of accountability is the result of people’s voices being restricted, leaving a lack of compulsion to act within.

As it stands, Bangladesh has a lot to think about. While Bangladesh must continue to strive for progress in the economic and social spheres to advance the rights to health, adequate living standards and education, it must not create a false choice between development and freedom. The two are inseparable, all the more so for a country founded on the idea of ​​a shared vision of freedom, equality and justice. Politicians should remember that the struggle for independence of 1971, in which three million lives were lost, was prompted by the demand – as the preamble to the Constitution puts it – for “a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be ensured for all citizens.” Bangladesh must remain faithful to these founding aspirations.

Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is a South Asia researcher for Amnesty International. He tweets @smzakaria