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Over the past decade Bangladesh has made substantial progress economically and the new Sustainable Development Goals are a good opportunity for further positive changes. However, political polarisation has increased the threat of violence, and the country’s fragile democracy faces multiple challenges to public security, the rule of law and access to justice.
Saferworld has been working to promote security and justice in Bangladesh since 2006. Our earlier work included providing support to Bangladesh’s Police Reform Programme, researching perceptions of human security, and promoting small arms controls. More recently we have focused on encouraging greater citizen participation in preventing and transforming conflict and building peace, with a particular emphasis on engaging youth and business actors.
Business for Peace
Our newest strand of work aims to harness the potential of domestic business actors to build resilience against political conflict and use their potential as advocates for peace. By promoting the peaceful resolution of political conflict, rather than perpetuating civil unrest, Bangladeshi business actors can help to stabilise political institutions and create sustainable economic growth.
A case study from our community security programme is featured in our 2013-14 Annual Review. It includes photos taken by participants in our photo project, in which community members use images to highlight places and issues that are relevant to their security.
Capacities for Peace
Saferworld works with a range of civil society actors in the districts of Satkhira, Jessore and Faridpur to analyse conflict and plan joint action to manage risks stemming from community insecurity. This work is part of an EU-funded Capacities for Peace project, which aims to enhance the early warning and early action capacities of local civil society members.
Control Arms campaign
In the run-up to the July 2012 diplomatic conference on an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), Saferworld mobilised government and civil society actors in Bangladesh to call for a comprehensive and robust treaty.
Perceptions of safety and security
Saferworld and partner BEI carried out research into public perceptions of safety and security in Bangladesh. One survey focused on the youth's perception of safety and security in North Bengal, where concerns have grown over the past decade that young people in this impoverished region are an easy target for recruitment by extremist groups. This survey concluded that young people should be directly consulted with, and actively engaged in, ways in which to improve safety and security in their communities. This would help address the conditions leading to crime and support for extremist groups.
A second survey focused on Bangladesh’s south-east border area, a region plagued by human insecurity and perceived as a hub for the illegal trafficking of arms, drugs and people. We used the research findings to develop evidence-based recommendations and influence national-level security processes including the Police Reform Programme.
Linking youth justice with conflict prevention
Saferworld and partner BEI are working to enhance the role of youth-led civil society in democratic engagement. The project focuses on Satkhira district, a known hotspot of political violence, and aims to empower youth to enhance access to justice and promote the rights of vulnerable groups.
In January 2014 political violence marred the national elections in Bangladesh, and heightened insecurity throughout the country. The inclusivity and credibility of the elections themselves was also questioned, with an estimated voter turnout of only 20-40 per cent. All major opposition parties refused to participate, so while the ruling Awami League (AL) political party won 232 seats out of a total of 300, 127 of these seats were unopposed. Some media reported that in several dozen centres not a single ballot was cast.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which led the opposition before the elections, led the call for the election results to be annulled, demanding fresh polls under a non-party interim caretaker government. Internationally, there were calls from the US, UK, Canada, Commonwealth and some others for the major political parties to hold a dialogue and come to a consensus for an inclusive and a peaceful political transition with a truly representative government chosen by the people.
In April 2015 the AL had an opportunity to prove its credibility, with elections in three city corporations – Dhaka North, Dhaka South and Chittagong. However, again these elections were condemned as illegitimate by opposition parties, who claimed widespread vote-rigging. The Election Commission have refused to acknowledge the illegitimacy of the vote.
Over the following two years the situation has become increasingly precarious, with renewed violence erupting on the first anniversary of the elections in January 2015, and continuing throughout the year. According to Odhikar Monthly Human Rights Monitoring Reports, nearly 200 deaths resulting from political violence were reported from January 2015 to January 2016. Country-wide strikes (hartals), are frequently called by the opposition, and have badly affected the country. They can cause additional violence, and also disrupt people’s livelihoods since travel is difficult and dangerous, and businesses must often remain closed. Some estimates calculate that economic losses during the hartals at the start of 2015 have amounted to $2.2 billion. Particularly worrying has also been the increase in small scale terror attacks, with secular bloggers and foreign workers being targeted and murdered - such attacks demonstrate Bangladesh’s growing problem of dangerous radicalisation. While the current government has taken a number of initiatives to resolve long term conflict around land borders and sea area settlements from Myanmar and India, more strategic steps are needed to gain awareness of the issues internationally.
The prolonged stalemate between political parties is threatening the country’s potential for lasting peace and security, and the resulting political void has left Bangladesh open to exploitation by extremist groups and criminal networks. Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals provides an opportunity for Bangladesh to address the root causes of some of these conflict drivers, hopefully resulting in a more secure environment for the next general elections in 2018.
This map is intended for illustrative purposes only. Saferworld takes no position on whether this representation is legally or politically valid.
Saferworld and partner BRAC have been working on a community security project in south-western Bangladesh. Our case study presents case stories from the people we work with, including participants in our photo project.