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Bangladesh Court Erodes International Standards

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In 2009, the Government of Bangladesh, led by Sheikh Hasina’s newly-elected Awami League Party, announced its intention to prosecute war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Liberation, thus establishing the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The crimes committed in 1971 have indeed gone unaddressed for too long, and it is right for the government to bring accountability to those responsible. However, the basis for the creation of the ICT, the International Crimes Act of 1973, is deeply flawed and outdated, and the holding of trials under its auspices threatens not only to compromise the pursuit of justice on behalf of the victims of 1971, but also serves to undermine the entire international war crimes justice movement.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion last week, which stated in no uncertain terms that the Tribunal’s activities represent several violations of Bangladesh’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This is perhaps the strongest indictment yet, from the highest levels of the international community, of the Tribunal’s violation of international law. It follows along the same lines of opinions issued previously by Human Rights Watch, the War Crimes Committee of the International Bar Association, the International Center for Transitional Justice, the Crimes of War Project, and numerous other NGOs and war crimes experts.

Post-conflict resolution is vital to ensuring security and fostering inclusive and effective governance. Many nations around the world are the result of violent conflict, spurred by long-standing ethnic and political differences. This kind of destructive creation continues to take place, and we see it today in Africa and the Middle East. Since 1945, the world has increasingly seen the utility of in-country and multilateral mechanisms for settling post-conflict disagreements peacefully and arriving at solutions that beget long-term stability. Over time, international criminal standards have matured, and whether pursued through a multilateral institution or unilaterally, constitute the established benchmark.

To allow the ICT to continue under the current circumstances is to help set the international war crimes justice movement back over half a century. While the world focuses intently on Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, trials under the Bangladesh ICT proceed quietly and contribute daily to this winding back of the clock. The international community and U.S. policy makers must push harder on the government of Bangladesh to bring ICT into compliance with international standards, lest we find ourselves having this conversation again, several years from now, on another Tribunal, which this time sits above the fold.
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