Human rights organizations: the ‘radical ‘reformers

The role of human rights organizations is to ensure state accountability and adherence to national and international laws; prevent human rights violations, where possible; raise public awareness; and advocate for rights. Monitoring and documenting human rights transgressions are vital components of their work, alongside helping citizens know their rights and access justice mechanisms. An organization’s effectiveness is based on its ability to gather credible information about authorities (state and non-state), policing, and law enforcement practices across institutions and administrations. The work is based on the ability to detect and expose rights violations and abuses to establish patterns of misconduct, negligence and violence (Andersen 2019). The rationale is that holding transgressions to public view may prevent repetition. The information is used in national and international arenas to display responsibilities and pressure a state into abiding by obligations within national and international law (Alston and Crawford 2000). This includes examinations undertaken by UN bodies, such as the Universal Periodic Review or the Committee Against Torture. So-called shadow reports are used to insert information, often ignored or downplayed by the state under public scrutiny, into the evaluation process. Nonetheless, it all begins with the collection of documentation and other evidence at community and/or individual levels.

In Bangladesh, the respected and credible human rights organizations are few in number but well-known in society, as in politics. The most prominent is Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust: BLAST, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) and Odhikar. ASK was founded in 1986; it provides legal aid, undertakes documentation of human rights violations, and advocates for the rights of victims and the poor. ASK operates in just less than a third of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. BLAST, founded in 1993, is a legal services organization, specializing in women’s and constitutional issues that operates in less than a third of the country’s districts. Odhikar, founded in 1994, specializes in the documentation of torture and extra-judicial killings and has a network of supporters in two-thirds of Bangladesh’s districts.

Since 10 August 2013, Odhikar has come under increasing political and economic pressure from the Bangladesh government. Their leaders, often among the founding members, are strong and charismatic personalities that participate in public debate on individual cases of violations and legal principles. The organization’s members are professionals who have dedicated themselves to enhancing human welfare. They are closely connected to and represent the organizations in private and public life, and their work carries risks of repression and repercussions from influential quarters of society, including law enforcement, the military and politicians.

These organizations have taken on their tasks on behalf of the Bangladesh citizenry and, more precisely, the victims of state-sanctioned violence (by direct involvement, tacit support and acceptance or disregard), of ensuring state accountability to its own constitution, laws and policies and governance. As such, they address the substantial fundamental political changes with respect to taxation, social security, military spending, monetary policy, commodity pricing, and political accumulation that Sara White is calling for, to avoid the inherent ‘danger that the overall outcome (of development interventions) will be to ensure systemic reproduction: the entrenching of dominant interests through the depoliticizing of development and the representation of poverty and the poor as a technical problem’ (White 1999, p. 325). Contrary to mainstream development organizations involved in credit and service provision, most human rights organizations do not compete with state agencies; rather, they often find themselves in a hostile, antagonistic environment with few positive, productive supporting relationships within state institutions, even among government-funded independent oversight institutions, such as anti-corruption and human rights bodies. If, in the very unlikely situation that the state upholds and respects all its obligations to its citizens, then the need for human rights organizations would dissolve. It is difficult to advocate for issues if they are actualized in policy and governance. As such, human rights organizations are radical in the sense that they address fundamental issues and inequalities in society and their voice and influence fades as (or if) they succeed.

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