In an exclusive interaction with the UNODC Regional Office for South Asia, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India, Mr. Syed Muazzem Ali, identified drug use and radicalisation as critical regional challenges, while calling for greater cooperation between South Asian nations to combat organized crime.
The interview was part of the ‘UNODC Conversations’ series that feature exclusive interactions with eminent personalities and experts on issues related to UNODC`s core mandate areas of transnational organised crime, human rights, terrorism and the rule of law.
Excerpts from the interview
Q: As the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India, what are the key highlights and trends in your country’s relations with India and other South Asian countries? What is your view on the role and vision of Bangladesh in strengthening regional cooperation in South Asia?
High Commissioner Ali: I am happy to note that Bangladesh and India during the past three years have been able to further strengthen and consolidate the friendly bilateral relations. There is now a greater recognition from the political leaderships on both sides that the destinies of our two neighboring countries are inescapably intertwined and we must grow together. As a result, the relations between the two countries has reached to a new height, which the immediate past President of lndia, Shri Pranab Mukherjee had termed as “best ever since 1974’. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her recent visit to Dhaka only in the last month had termed the partnership as “all encompassing” that goes “far beyond a strategic partnership” touching upon “virtually all areas of human endeavor.” She also told, “Parshi pehele, lekin Bangladesh sabse pehele” [Neighbors first, but Bangladesh is above all], which testimonies the priorities that India gives to our bilateral relations.
Bangladesh-lndia bilateral ties have also acted as a catalyst for strengthening regional and sub-regional cooperation and integration. Bangladesh figures prominently in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Look and Act East” policy and both countries are working on strengthening sub-regional connectivity within Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and North-East India under the BBIN initiative as well as strengthening inter-regional cooperation with South East Asian countries under the aegis of BIMSTEC and ASEAN. We are keen to establish seamless connectivity with sub-region and beyond which we believe would bring about unprecedented benefit to all the countries.
Q: In your view, what are the key challenges faced by Bangladesh with regard to organized crime, health, justice and security?
High Commissioner Ali: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government have set their vision since they assumed power in the 2009 to transform Bangladesh into a middle income country by 2021, the 50th year of Bangladesh’s independence and to transform Bangladesh into a developed country by 2041. In the pursuit of its visions, government has taken vigorous policy initiatives and the three areas that you have mentioned: health, justice and security are very much at the centre of our priorities. Our Government’s achievements in these areas have also been highly acclaimed. Improvement of public health is a constitutional responsibility of our government. In the health sector, Bangladesh’s achievement has been highly lauded around the world. Despite limited resources, Bangladesh has made commendable progress in achieving the health related MDGs such as life expectancy, total fertility rate, infant and under-5 mortality rate etc. and is on right track to achieve the health related SDGs. Bangladesh received UN Award for her remarkable success in reducing child mortality under the leadership of our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Our Premiere also received “FAO achievement Award” for her success in reducing poverty and malnutrition. Bangladesh has also received the “GAVI Alliance Award” for its outstanding performance in improving child health immunization.
The International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) has made significant progress in combating the water borne diseases. They are committed to solving public health problems through innovative scientific research that the lower and middle income countries are facing. However, there is no room for complacence. As we ensure the basic health services to all, we are now gradually focusing on how to improve the quality of health services further.
Justice is a very broad concept and it has multidimensional aspects. Constitution of Bangladesh encapsulates all the perspectives of Justice from social justice to criminal justice. It declared ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’ as the fundamental principles of the Republic. Bangladesh has taken a number of policies to ensure social and economic justice. We have significantly reduced the inequality. Several national laws and regulations have been enacted to combat crimes in all forms and ensure criminal justice. We have a separate and independent judiciary system. Surveillance of the law enforcing agencies has been heightened.
The term ‘security’ also has multidirectional meaning and multidimensional consequences in the society. Bangladesh in pursuance of its “zero-tolerance policy”, under the guidance of our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has been steadfastly condemning terrorism & violent extremism in all its forms & manifestations. Our country is also committed to work together with other neighboring countries for the eradication of the menace of terrorism from our South Asian region and beyond. We have also significantly reduced the prevalence of organized crimes such as smuggling and trafficking.
Q: Extremism and terrorism remain on the rise across the world. We are witnessing increasing polarization and radicalization of the youth. Could you share about the efforts being made by the Government of Bangladesh to address this, especially in the wake of the recent Rohingya influx?
High Commissioner Ali: Our world now stands at a critical juncture and we already have a series of formidable challenges on our hand. Extremism and terrorism is one such element which continues to threaten in various parts of the world creating unprecedented tension & uncertainty. In our region several armed terrorist groups are eager to exploit differences among the countries to further their own objectives. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, since assumption of power in 2009, has firmly controlled the situation and did not allow any terrorist activities, or any terrorist group, to use Bangladesh soil to launch any attack against any neighboring country.
Domestically, our Government did succeed in disintegrating the homegrown terrorist groups, plugging out their regular financing pipelines and flushing out the regional operatives from our territory. Bangladesh has undertaken massive awareness programs for the youth, for families, for educational and religious institutions to address terrorism at its roots. We have enacted Anti-Terrorism Act, 2009. We have also promulgated the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Act, 2012 that provides legal structure for inter-country cooperation to facilitate enquiries, prosecutions and trial of criminal activities including terrorism and terrorist financing. In addition to our domestic efforts, we are working closely with our neighboring countries, regional organizations and the United Nations to fight this menace. As a part of its commitment to the eventual elimination of terrorism in all its forms, Bangladesh has acceded to all of 14 anti-terrorism Conventions/Protocols of the UN.
Concerning Rohingya refugees, the UN Secretary General, in his latest report, has rightly opined that “the devastating humanitarian situation is not only a breeding ground for radicalization; it also puts vulnerable people – including young children –at risk of criminal elements including trafficking”. As far as Bangladesh’s stance is concerned, our Government has been very vigilant on this issue and we have so far shown “Zero Tolerance” towards terrorism. Our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has time and again underscored that Bangladesh would not allow its territory to be used for any terrorist activity. Therefore, we all should play a crucial role in persuading Myanmar for the early and safe return of these Rohingyas to their ancestral home. We also count on continued support from all in the international arena for this cause.
Q: How serious a challenge is drug use for Bangladesh? How is Bangladesh addressing this challenge in terms of policy interventions and in terms of cooperation with other countries in the region?
High Commissioner Ali: The government of Bangladesh attaches great importance to countering drug problem. Though drug use is not prevalent in Bangladesh on a larger scale, but we are not completely immune from the curse of drug, as sometimes the drug smugglers use our territory as transit. We have robust legal framework in place to combat production, transportation, trade and consumption of drugs. We have revised our “National Drug Policy -2005” and adopted “National Drug Policy-2016”. Law enforcement agencies remain vigilant. We have strengthened their capacity to fight against drug trafficking and abuse of drugs. Besides, we have been carrying out massive anti-drug awareness campaign in collaboration with all stakeholders and involving civil society, NGOs and relevant international entities. The drug addicts are being provided with necessary treatment and rehabilitation facilities.
It is a common and shared responsibility of the countries of the region to take a coordinated approach to fight the menace of drug. At the regional level, Bangladesh is a party to the SAARC Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic substance. We have signed MOU with many regional countries, such as India and Myanmar for preventing illicit trafficking of drugs. We are working very closely with UNODC, CNB, INCB, Interpol and SAARC Drug Offence Monitoring Desk to combat the challenge of illicit drugs.
Q: Could you highlight the different forms of human trafficking that are observed in Bangladesh? What have been some of the interventions that Bangladesh has brought in to combat Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants?
High Commissioner Ali: There are many forms of human trafficking, like, trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, forced labor, enslaving or organ trading. We have borders with our neighboring countries like India and Myanmar. As a source, transit and destination country, combating trafficking in persons, particularly women and children is a top priority for Bangladesh. Law enforcement agencies and border or coast guards have increased surveillance to prevent trafficking. We have operationalized a Monitoring Cell at the Police Headquarters to collect and analyze data on trafficking; set up a seamless intelligence network across concerned law enforcement and border security agencies and developed an effective mechanism for victim protection and rehabilitation through GO-NGO partnership. Besides, if any trafficked person is identified as Bangladeshi, our Missions abroad take measures to repatriate them promptly. We have promulgated laws and regulations to prevent and suppress human trafficking and to protect trafficking victims. We have enacted Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act 2012 to make it fully compliant with the international standards. A National plan of Action 2015-2017 is currently under implementation.
At the bilateral level, Bangladesh has been engaging with its neighbors. With India, we are successfully implementing joint anti-trafficking programs through multilayered institutional cooperation, including the Joint Committee on Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and lntegration (RRRI). With Myanmar we have initiated a process for setting up a Border Liaison Office across our borders with Myanmar. We have also proposed an MOU on security cooperation and dialogue that includes countering trafficking in persons, drug and arms smuggling. Regionally, Bangladesh took the lead role to adopt the SAARC Convention on Prevention and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution. Bangladesh is also deeply engaged in the BIMSTEC and Bali Process towards combating trafficking in persons since its inception in 2002.
Q: How urgent and important is it for Bangladesh to combat corruption and engage in criminal justice reforms?
High Commissioner Ali: Corruption hinders smooth functioning of all state/non-state machineries, endangering sustainable economic development, ethical values and rule of law. From Bangladesh’s perspective, what I can say is that our Government remains committed to adhere to good governance and enhance transparency and accountability in all sectors. Our current government has taken an initiative to transform Bangladesh into “Digital Bangladesh” with advancement of technology and automation of services which is expected to curb corruption drastically. Our people now have got more access to information and benefits of e-governance. Besides, there has been a massive awareness campaign against corruption. Our government has revised the pay scale of government services to discourage corruption. We promulgated Anti-Corruption Commission Act in 2004 and formed the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) which is a statutory independent corruption prevention and corruption detective body of the State. The Anti-Corruption Commission proactively carries out investigation on allegation of corruption. We also acceded to the UN Convention against Corruption in 2007.
Our government is equally paying attention to Criminal justice reform. We have a separate judiciary system. Government has taken various measures to upgrade the efficiency of the law enforcing agencies. We are also emphasizing on reforming the prison system to improve condition of the jails as well as expedite rehabilitation processes and create job opportunities for the prisoners once they serve their sentences out.
Q: In terms of organized crime, what are the present and emerging issues/challenges for Bangladesh that stand to impact its society and government?
High Commissioner Ali: As I said earlier, preventing and combatting trafficking, smuggling, illegal means of exchanging money are the key challenges. It is imperative for our neighbors to join hands to keep the bordering areas stable and peaceful. This necessitates UNODC to proactively coordinate with the countries concerned and organize dialogues on the issues. In addition, through knowledge sharing and technical cooperation projects, UNODC may reinforce countries’ capacities to combat the organized crimes. I would to like to reaffirm Bangladesh’s deep commitment in combating organized crimes. Bangladesh is a state party to the UN Convention on Transnational organized crimes and Palermo Convention. We believe simultaneous regional and international cooperation could be effective way forward in this regard.
Q: Bangladesh has been a very valued partner for UNODC South Asia since the last several years. How do you see the relationship between UNODC South Asia and the Government of Bangladesh growing in the years to come?
High Commissioner Ali: UNODC has a robust and extensive cooperation in the areas of health, justice and security. Joint projects to combat use of drug, human trafficking, extremism and terrorism have had significant impact in Bangladesh. We value the work spearheaded by UNODC in Bangladesh, especially in addressing organized crime and drug related issues. Besides drug use, the other thematic areas where UNODC’s expertise and experiences could benefit Bangladesh are prison reforms, cyber crime, and terrorism. We appreciate UNODC’s ongoing activities and initiatives and look forward to further strengthening the ongoing cooperation.