Elsa Stamatopoulou, Co-chair of the International CHT Commission, and Director of Columbia University’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program, said that the 1997 CHT Accord has been stagnating as it is still not being implemented by the government in any meaningful way. She added that impunity was not new in the CHT as major massacres and the burning of villages, as well as systematic rape and limitations of religious freedom in the CHT have not been investigated in any fair and impartial way by the state in the past decades, both before and after the Peace Accords. In addition, the systematic, state facilitated settlement of the area over the years coupled with land-grabbing, the displacement of Indigenous Peoples by the state, especially by settlers instigated or supported by the state/the army, is worsening the human rights situation. She said that, as is established under international human rights law, governments bear the primary responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of the people in their countries, while the international community along with the human rights and other UN bodies also have a responsibility to promote and monitor the respect of human rights. In that regard she mentioned a call by the UNPFII to the Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO) to develop a mechanism to strictly monitor and screen human rights records of the Bangladesh army personnel prior to allowing them to participate in peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations. She also pointed out that there was responsibility in the UN system, as well as bilateral donors, to promote respect for human rights and peace through their engagement with the Government of Bangladesh. Another aspect of international responsibility lay with the exercise of international criminal justice, as expressed via the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has been ratified by Bangladesh.
Devasish Roy, the Chief of the Chakma Administrative Circle and the Expert Indigenous Member from Asia to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues since 2011, spoke about identity, demographic engineering, and implementation of the 1997 CHT Accord. He said that although the Government of Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge the existence of indigenous peoples in the country it has ratified the ILO Convention No. 107 in 1972. The convention’s provisions apply equally to “indigenous peoples” as they do to “tribals”. International human rights law does not distinguish between tribals and indigenous anymore. Roy further mentioned that Bangladeshis would be better peace keepers if they respected human rights in their own country. The military presence in the CHT should not be just be seen in term of their numbers, but also their role in civil matters. He pointed out that it was very difficult for indigenous peoples’ NGOs working on human rights issues, as NGO Bureau registration is denied to them in a discriminatory manner, depriving them from receiving direct foreign assistance. He felt that they might have to seek redress in the Supreme Court if the current trend of discrimination against them did not end. He expressed disappointment that even though since independence in 1971 it has been common for bills approved in the cabinet to be almost automatically passed in parliament, the amendment bill of the 2001 Land Commission Act has not followed the same trend. The Government of Bangladesh cited the need of “inclusiveness” for the delay in passing the amendment Act in parliament, which was totally unacceptable, given the decade-long delay over the matter. Deprived of remedies at home, the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have no option but to seek support in international human rights processes, but they need support from other human rights actors in the process. Talking about government-sponsored settlers in the CHT, Roy said that food rations were provided to them, unlike other sections of the CHT population, in a discriminatory manner, merely to minoritize the indigenous people, leading to ethnic conflict and tension over land and other matters.
Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, an indigenous woman from the Mountain Province in the Philippines and a lawyer by profession, who coordinates the Legal Desk of Tebtebba Foundation (Indigenous Peoples' International Center for Policy Research and Education) said that she visited Rangamati and Khagrachari in the CHT in 2009 and felt nervous by the fact that she had to be registered at the entrance by the security forces . Speaking about indigenous people’s access to justice in Philippines she pointed out that the approach is defined in law. The law in the Philippines says that indigenous people have the right to resolve conflicts among themselves in their territory. Appeals can be made to higher courts if that doesn’t work out. She said that the Philippine approach has been to strengthen indigenous people’s systems and sensitize communities on the rights of women. She thought that the indigenous people’s advocacy was on the right track as they were using the international advocacy mechanism but it was also important to do better documentation work. She said that although Bangladesh has ratified most of the human rights treaties the Government of Bangladesh does not implement the treaties’ provisions and seems to be insensitive to international pressure.
Bipasha Chakma, a human rights activist and a researcher for Kapaeeng Foundation, spoke about research she conducted on sexual violence against indigenous women in the CHT. She said that indigenous women face discrimination based on gender and ethnicity but the Bangladesh National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) did not address the issue of violence against indigenous women and in the parliament there are no reserved seats for indigenous women. Although the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107) was ratified by Bangladesh it has yet to be implemented and ILO Convention no.169 is yet to be ratified. She pointed out that during 2007-2013 at least 245 cases of violence against women were carried out and none of the perpetrators were prosecuted through the formal justice system. Based on her research she found that the root causes of such violence could be found in non-implementation of the CHT Accord, impunity, land grabbing, and militarization. She pointed out that there was a lack of systematic documentation of these cases and access to legal procedures. The biased and corrupt administration led to this situation at the courts.
A report titled “Marginalisation and Impunity: Violence Against Women and Girls in the Chittagong Hill Tracts” written by Dr. Bina D’ Costa of Australian National University and published by the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC), International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network (BIWN) was disseminated at the event. The report looks at cases studies of violence against women in the CHT during the period 2011-2012 and emphasizes that militarization and transmigration programs illegally settling Bengalis in the CHT have created extreme vulnerability and poverty for the indigenous peoples, and have deeply affected indigenous women’s and girls' safety and security in the CHT. The report identifies that impunity has been the most important factor contributing to increased incidents of sexual and gender based violence in the CHT and the biases of the administrative, political and judicial systems prevent access to equality and justice by indigenous peoples. The report places several recommendations to the Government of Bangladesh and to civil society groups based on the findings of the research.
Lola Garcia, the Executive Director of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) moderated the event.
Indigenous rights researcher/adviser of Amnestly International Mr. Chris Chapman, Advisor of Kapaeeng Foundation Mr. Mangal Kumar Chakma, executive director of KF Mr. Pallab Chakma, assistant general secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum Mr. Binota Moy Dhamai, PCJSS member Ms. Ujana Larma Talukdar, Jumchab Metta Foundation’s executive Ven. Shubhadarshi Bhikkhu, coordinator of International CHT Commission Ms. Hana Shams Ahmed, coordinator of Maleya Foundation Mr. Dipujjal Khisa and international delegates of indigenous peoples organisations and human rights organisations attended the event.
(A Human Rights Organization for Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh)