British High Commissioner Beyond His Brief?

[Cross posted at E-Bangladesh]

Anwar Choudhury, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh

On August 26, the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury, apparently went off the reservation. After meeting with the foreign advisor in Dhaka Mr. Choudhury was the only foreign envoy to face the media. He apparently had a lot to say.

He described the protests and riots last week in Bangladesh as something "sinister". The Daily Star quoted him as follows:

"Our assessment from what we have heard is that it was initially spontaneous and then it was not. It became much more than the incident. It soon became something much bigger, something much sinister," said Anwar to the media, adding, "A lot of money and coordination came into the equation."

The Bangladeshi-born British envoy added, "Most neutral people could not understand why the escalation went into that dimension and that has caused a lot of question marks among the people."

Anwar said Britain’s assessment that the incidents were coordinated, stemmed from the fact that the demonstrations continued even after the government had issued an apology and met the students’ initial demands by withdrawing the army camp from the Dhaka University campus. [Emphasis added.]

It is striking that the High Commissioner makes the bombshell claim, a day after the Bangladesh army chief made the same claim, that "a lot of money and coordination" was involved and the protests had become something "sinister". He claims that his government’s "assessment" is based on the fact that the demonstrations continued even after the government apology and the withdrawal of the army camp. There is a giant leap from the High Commissioner’s observation to his claim. If indeed the High Commissioner has not gone off the reservation and was representing the position of the British government, it is incumbent on the United Kingdom to back up Mr. Choudhury’s claim with some evidence. Otherwise the British government is simply spinning conspiracy theories into a cauldron that is already spilling over with rumor and innuendo.

The High Commissioner went on to comment on the detention of five prominent university professors:

Asked about the detained university teachers, Anwar quoted Iftekhar as saying that the government will release those detained individuals who will be found not connected to last week’s incidents, but it will spare no one connected.

It is notable that a diplomatic envoy from the United Kingdom did not take the opportunity to raise concerns for the safety of the detained professors – especially after news reports from the previous day about allegations that at least on of the professors was tortured. Instead, he sounded like a Bangladesh military government spokesman when he echoed the Bangladesh foreign advisor that the government will "spare no one connected".

When asked for comments on the harassment and beating of journalists Mr. Choudhury’s stance was even more alarming:

The British envoy also condemned the reported harassment and beatings of journalists and called for an investigation, but added that the media could have exercised ‘restraint’ in their coverage for the sake of progress of the country.

Pressed for comments on the beatings and harassment of journalists by law enforcers during and between the curfews, Anwar said, "I condemn the incidents. I am really sorry to hear about that, I wish those didn’t take place. I hope the authorities will look into it and take action."

But, when asked about the requests for ‘self-censorship’, Anwar said the media was allowed to be ‘very free’ since the state of emergency had been declared. "All parties should act responsibly so the country can progress. So if you [the media] exercise restraint then it might also contribute to the country’s progress," he added. [Emphasis added.]

Mr. Choudhury’s comments were not made in a vacuum. Human Rights Watch has protested the intimidation and torture of journalists by this military government. Reports of the beating and arrests of journalists are widespread and television stations have been directly threatened by this government. The Committee to Protect Journalists has expressed serious concern about restrictions on the media in Bangladesh. In light of the military government’s suppression of the news media, the British High Commissioner’s comments urging the media to show "restraint" will only add international sanction to the stifling of freedom of expression in Bangladesh.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Mr. Choudhury’s employer, takes an uncompromising stand against torture and against the suppression of freedom of expression. Regarding torture, the FCO states on its website:

Torture is one of the most abhorrent violations of human rights and human dignity. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Yet torture continues to be inflicted on men, women and children around the world.

International action against torture has been a priority of the Government since the launch of the UK Anti-Torture Initiative in 1998. The Government’s position on torture has always been very clear. We unreservedly condemn its use as a matter of fundamental principle. The UK is committed to combating torture globally, and continues to implement an active campaign to help eradicate it. The UK is one of the most active countries in the world on this subject. We continue to work hard with our international partners to eradicate this abhorrent practice. This includes efforts to strengthen UN and other international mechanisms, diplomatic activity such as lobbying, and funding project work. [Emphasis added.]

Regarding freedom of expression, the FCO website quotes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and states:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through and media and regardless of frontiers.’

– Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Freedom of expression and opinion is a foundation without which many other basic human rights cannot be enjoyed. Allowing people to publicly investigate and report on human rights abuses makes it much harder for those responsible for them to hide behind a veil of silence and ignorance. Similarly freedom of expression makes a valuable contribution to other key areas of concern – good governance, rule of law and democracy. The media has a vital role in scrutinising and evaluating the actions of government, forcing them to manage resources and set policies in a transparent and equitable way. And without journalists having the right to report on court cases and legal judgements, it would be much harder to guarantee an independent and fair judicial process. Finally, the ability to hold, exchange and challenge the opinions of yourself and others is a necessary component of a functioning democracy.

Governments have a duty to eliminate barriers to freedom of expression and information, and to create an environment in which free speech and free media flourish. Media professionals should be able to work freely without fear of intimidation, violence or imprisonment. Sadly, there are still many countries around the world in which governments stifle dissent and criticism or fail to prevent other groups from targeting the media. A free and independent media requires governments to provide a fair and transparent regulatory environment, an equitable distribution of broadcasting frequencies and opportunities for all sections of society to access and contribute to the media. [Emphasis added.]

The British government’s commitment to human rights is laudable. The British government has made "human rights a central theme" of its foreign policy and has taken the view that human rights are universal. When the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh claims to speak for the British government and fails to raise concerns about allegations of torture, when the High Commissioner encourages press censorship by asking the press to show "restraint" in their reporting in the face of mass protests in the country and a government crackdown, when the High Commissioner spins conspiracy theories as the Bangladeshi military government uses those same theories to crack down on its citizens, the British High Commissioner – and by extension the British government – is promoting the suppression of human rights, by its own definition.

The British government must clarify whether their man in Dhaka, Mr. Anwar Choudhury, speaks for the government or has indeed gone off the reservation.


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4 Responses to British High Commissioner Beyond His Brief?

  1. AsifY says:

    Beyond his brief as he and his ilk have always been! It’s just that they’ve found a different set of cheerleaders this time. Do note, the same people who decry “Western interference” and “neo-imperialism” when he talks about freedom of the press and human rights are now actively bandying his statements about. Much like people who decry the “toxic” West and then think that Intel was the best thing to come to our shores since the East India Company…

    I don’t mind anti-imperialism. I just can’t stand that sort of rank hypocrisy.

  2. Mash says:

    yes, I saw that comment about Intel on DP. These guys are “anti-western” in their rants while basking in the fruits of western economies.

  3. AsifY says:

    Yes, I really don’t quite get that. I mean each and every NRB has their own self-image of where they fall along the Kipling-esque East vs. West spectrum. I’d doubt if most consider themselves “Western”.

    What I don’t get is the selective application of what “Western” constitutes. You might remember Asaad on DP, who called Hana’s article “pulling MIT on Bangladesh”. When I pointed out that the internet was developed at MIT among other places, he beat a hasty and ill-planned retreat.:) Same dynamic seems to be at work.

    Why is this? Why is “Western” technology/capital welcomed and “Western” ideas such as “human rights” so unwelcome? Is it a hard science vs. social science thing, or does it go deeper than that?

    Lastly, let me just express my sincere appreciation of this blog one more time. Never give up speaking out against injustice, no matter who’s in power!

  4. This is a little off topic, which I apologize for, but would you and your readers mind voicing your thoughts about the recent oil spill, you’re opinion seriously helps and I can’t thank you enough for taking a few seconds to give it. I left the URL in the appropriate field, thank you!

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