Last Sunday (18th of October, 2009) I attended a conference on the Bangladeshi Genocide. It was organized by the Human Rights Institute and the Bangladesh Genocide Study Group at Kean University. This was the second such conference at Kean. The first one, which I also attended, was held in December 2007.
The conference consisted of multiple panel discussions as well as the presentation of a documentary on the 1971 genocide. The focus was on eyewitness accounts, documentation and memorialization of the Genocide, and the upcoming Genocide trials in Bangladesh.
Mofidul Hoque of the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum – a privately funded effort in Bangladesh – kicked off the discussion in the morning with a presentation of the efforts of the Museum to preserve the history of the War and Genocide. He was followed by a speech from the Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States, Akramul Qader. The Ambassador outlined the Bangladesh government’s plan to begin genocide trials to bring to justice those who have enjoyed impunity for their actions for nearly 4 decades. Following the Ambassador, a number of eyewitnesses to the genocide of 1971 presented testimony of their experiences.
After a lunch break, the discussion moved to a number of expert panels on the genocide. Notable amongst these were a panel discussion on atrocities committed during the Genocide and the expert panel on prosecutable crimes during the Genocide. The panel on atrocities – with Dr. ABM Nasir of North Carolina Central University, Dr. Shelley Feldman of Cornell University and, via phone, Dr. Adam Jones of Gendercide Watch – brought into focus the dearth of source material on the Genocide available in the English language. This lack of material available in English has seriously hindered scholarly study of the 1971 Genocide.
The panel on prosecutable crimes consisted of experts on international law and war crimes. Dr. Keith Nunes, Coordinator of the Holocaust & Genocide Studies program at Kean, moderated the discussion involving Dr. David Matas, Senior Counsel of B’nai Brith of Canada and a member of Canadian delegations to conferences on the International Criminal Court and the Holocaust, Dr. Roza Pati, Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Intercultural Human Rights program at St. Thomas University, and Dr. Roger Clark of Rutgars University School of Law and a former member of the United Nations Committee on Crime Prevention and Control. The discussion focused on the 1973 International Crimes (Tribunals) Act which the Bangladesh government will use as the legal framework for the upcoming Genocide trials. It was pointed out by the panel that the 1973 Act defines genocide more broadly than the legal definition of genocide used in International Law. Specifically, the 1973 Act adds acts against a “political group” to the crime of genocide as defined by the 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Given that the 1973 Act was passed after the crimes of 1971, there is a serious question as to the fairness of the trials if charges are brought against the perpetrators using the expanded definition of genocide beyond what is defined in International Law. In a subsequent conversation I asked Dr. Matas, given the problems with the 1973 Act, should the Bangladesh government go ahead with the Genocide Trials under the Act. He pointed out that it was important to get the process of the trials going, even with the flaws in the Act. He said as long as the charges stayed within the genocide defined in International Law, there was no need to rework the 1973 Act further to maintain the fairness and legitimacy of the trials.
Apart from a few minor hiccups, the conference was a success and a major step forward in the study of the 1971 genocide. I commend the organizers for their continued dedication to the important work that needs to be done. Important issues were raised at this conference. I hope these issues will be addressed.
The conference at Kean highlighted the embarrassing dereliction of duty by the Bangladesh government in preserving for posterity the history of the genocide of 1971. Apart from a wholly inadequate attempt in the early 1980s to bring together and document eyewitness accounts and historical records from the genocide, the failure of the government has been total. It should be a badge of shame for the government that it is left to private citizens to launch efforts like the Liberation War Museum to do what their government should have been doing. The government’s failure has been directly responsible for the distortion of Bangladesh’s history and for the lack of substantial scholarship surrounding one of the most concentrated acts of genocide in modern history. The conference at Kean was a clarion call to the Government of Bangladesh to do what it must do and should do to fulfill its obligations to its citizens and to those who gave their lives in the bloody birth of the country.
Another key takeaway from the conference is the importance of holding Genocide trials that are not only fair but that are seen to be fair as well. The Bangladesh government has a responsibility to the victims as well as posterity to see to it that it maintains the integrity of the upcoming trials. To this end, it should heed advice from international legal experts as it follows through with its obligation to try those responsible for the 1971 Genocide and to bring a measure of justice after nearly four decades of delay.
In terms of who the Bangladesh government intends to prosecute, a comment made by Ambassador Qader during his speech bothered me greatly. I did not get a chance to ask him to clarify his comments, so it is possible that he (I hope) misspoke. The Ambassador mentioned that the Bangladesh government only intends to bring charges against Bangladeshi citizens during the Genocide trials. He said that this decision was made so as not to “upset” foreign governments (read Pakistan and countries of the OIC). This, it seems to me, is a bizarre criteria to use in the pursuit of justice. I can understand the need to first bring to justice those that are within Bangladesh’s jurisdiction. But to exclude those that do not hold Bangladeshi citizenship is wrongheaded and legally unsound. It is well known that many perpetrators have either fled Bangladesh or were members of the Pakistan army. If Bangladesh government is indeed going to use this criteria for prosecution many key actors will continue to escape justice. Some of these perpetrators have taken shelter in Western countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. To give these perpetrators of genocide continued impunity for their crimes is not only immoral, but will do nothing to convince future perpetrators that the world is serious about preventing genocide. In effect, the government of Bangladesh is saying this: that if you commit a murder or rape in Bangladesh, all you need do to escape justice is flee to another country and become its citizen. This stance will make a mockery of justice. I hope either the Ambassador misspoke or that the Bangladesh government will reconsider its ill considered stance.
Mashuqur Rahman [http://www.docstrangelove.com] is one of the highest read Bangladeshi-American bloggers. Critically acclaimed for his incisive analysis on Bangladesh, US foreign policy and dedicated advocacy of human rights.