- Purchase/rental options available:
Human Rights Quarterly 24.4 (2002) 1011-1034
[Access article in PDF]
Human Rights, Civil Society and Nongovernmental Organizations:
The Nexus in Bangladesh
Habib Zafarullah* Mohammad Habibur Rahman**
The establishment of human rights provides the foundation upon which rests the political structure of human freedom; the achievement of human freedom generates the will as well as the capacity for economic and social progress; the attainment of economic and social progress provides the basis for true peace.
U Thant, 3rd Secretary General of the United Nations
During the second half of the twentieth century, civil society organizations and international bodies took renewed interest in promoting equity and harmony in society by protecting the basic civil, political, economic, social, [End Page 1011] and environmental rights of all people.For them, human progress can only be attained if the civil and political rights of individuals and groups are established and protected. Development will undoubtedly falter if people are not liberated from poverty, provided with basic education, health, safety, a clean and protected environment, and empowered to represent and speak for themselves—all alienable human rights. The Teheran Proclamation of 1968 asserted that "[s]ince human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, the full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights is impossible." 1 Today, the perception that social and economic rights are an important component of the human rights array is widespread. This perception is vigorously espoused by civil society and its constituent—NGOs, both of which can play an effective role in promoting and protecting human rights in societies, especially where democracy is going through a turbulent period of consolidation.
Human rights activists and organizations have proliferated all over the world in the past few decades. They serve as the voice for the oppressed and the underprivileged, organizing them, taking collective action on their behalf, and fighting for their rights. These organizations empathize with the downtrodden and occupy the roles of advocate and facilitator in their quest for greater empowerment.
In Bangladesh the intensification of human rights advocacy has taken place for two main reasons: (a) the expansion of human rights issues in a society that has faced one crisis after another in political, social, and economic spheres; and (b) the gradual emergence of a powerful and effective civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This paper will attempt to highlight some of the key human rights issues relating to social and economic development in Bangladesh, explore the roles of civil society and NGOs in promoting and safeguarding them through various programs and strategies, and identify some of the contemporary challenges they face.
The Constitution of Bangladesh, reflecting the people's commitment to safeguard human rights, is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Constitution pledges eighteen fundamental civil and political rights, including equality before law, right to life and personal liberty, safeguards as to arrest and detention, freedom of assembly, freedom of occupation, protection in respect of trial and punishment, rights to property, etc. 2 In addition, the Constitution also promises to safeguard certain social [End Page 1012] and economic rights for specific segments of the population and social sectors. 3
However, as far as the issue of human rights is concerned, Bangladesh has hardly achieved positive results over the last thirty years. Democratic norms and civil liberties have been difficult to establish due to frequent military intervention into state affairs. The Constitution was either suspended during military rule or was tampered with by these regimes. As a result, nearly three decades after independence, governance remains ineffective in a volatile political order. There is a lack of political consensus, weak legislative authority, unhealthy modes of political competition, undemocratic political party structures, political and administrative patronage, and weak local governance. There is also a lack of accountability and transparency of political and administrative institutions. All of these problems have produced social tension, a lack of equal access to natural justice, and abuses of human rights. 4
Civil society in Bangladesh is not a new institution...