PEN International at the UN - Oral Statement on the Situation of Concern in Bangladesh

Delivered by PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee Chair, Salil Tripathi.

PEN International and Coalition: Item Four - Situation of Concern Bangladesh

Recent years have seen a significant decline in respect for freedom of expression and the associated rights of freedom of association, assembly and of religion or belief in Bangladesh, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Bangladeshi civil society has expressed serious concern, highlighting how fundamental freedoms are at risk. Since 2013, radical Islamist groups have claimed the killings of nine people, including bloggers, free thinkers and a publisher, of which six have occurred since February 2015. The attacks have since widened to include civil society actors, academics, and religious figures, covering a diverse range of individuals.

While condemning these attacks, the Bangladesh authorities have repeatedly made statements and taken actions implying that the responsibility for avoiding such attacks lies with the victims. A list of 84 bloggers who had posted allegedly blasphemous content has become a ‘hit-list’ for those carrying out the attacks. The response of the Bangladeshi authorities has continued to be ambiguous with each attack. Mass arrests – of some 11,000 people - in recent days ostensibly in connection with the attacks raise fears that the government may be using the attacks to settle political scores rather than conducting robust investigations to threatened voices.

Over the years, successive governments in Bangladesh have been accused of conducting extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture against opponents and critics with impunity. While Bangladesh offers constitutional protection to free speech, it has several laws which place burdens on artists, writers, and journalists, and restrict free speech. Editors, journalists, and bloggers have faced prosecution under defamation and contempt laws and politicians have said they may invoke sedition laws against them.

The failure of the state to uphold fundamental rights allows extremist groups to spread fear and intolerance through violent acts committed with virtual impunity, and that drives those with opposing views into self-censorship and/or exile.

Bangladesh’s ideal should be what the great Bangla poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free…

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

  • We welcome the High Commissioner’s condemnation of these attacks at the opening of this session, and urge the Council to make this issue a priority and: press the government of Bangladesh to thoroughly and transparently investigate these murders;
  • bring to justice those found responsible;
  • ensure the protection of individuals at risk;
  • end the culture of impunity for human rights abuses in Bangladesh and
  • comply fully with its international legal obligations in upholding the rights to freedom of expression and information.

Thank you Mr/Ms Chair

[1] Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Center for Inquiry, Committee to Protect Journalists, Dansk PEN, English PEN, European Humanist Federation, Finnish PEN, Freemuse, Icelandic PEN, Index on Censorship, International Humanist and Ethical Union, International Publishers Association, Norsk PEN, PEN America, PEN Bangladesh, PEN Melbourne, Reporters without Borders and PEN Sweden.