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EFSAS Commentary

Bangladesh's deadly War on Drugs


In early May 2018, the Government of Bangladesh, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, launched a campaign of cracking down on the severe drug trade in Bangladesh by engaging in a cold blood onslaught against those considered drug addicts, dealers or smugglers. It is being carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism paramilitary force, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence service of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. By this date, the death toll stands at more than 200 people killed and 25,000 arrested.

Bangladesh has been fighting with the narcotics problem for years, with ‘yaba’, a cheap methamphetamine and caffeine pill flooding the market and circulating predominantly among the young population. This does not come as a surprise since the country is located at the crossroad of two major narcotics conglomerates - the 'golden triangle' (Myanmar, Thailand and Laos) and the 'golden crescent' (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran). Moreover, due to its easy access by land, sea, and air, the country is becoming an important transit point with supply chains going through Dhaka, Chittagong, Comilla, Khulna and other big cities.

According to Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control, out of the seven million drug addicts in the country, five million are addicted to ‘yaba’, which is primarily smuggled through Bangladesh’s porous border with Myanmar. Yet, the government has never designed any comprehensive strategy to curb down the drug trade and suffocate the imports and manufacturing, let alone an elaborate and conscientious programme intended to provide adequate treatment to those suffering from drug addiction.

Therefore, the current Philippines-style campaign in Bangladesh is widely condemned by civil society organizations, human rights activists and other states as a gross violation of human rights, a breach of the principles of humanitarian law and thus, extrajudicial. In a recent statement, the US State Department expressed its concerns over the anti-drug operations in the country and urged Bangladesh to administer an independent rigorous and transparent investigation into all accounts of extrajudicial killings.

Despite numerous calls for immediate inquiry, the death toll continues to rise. Furthermore, there are growing allegations that the anti-drug operation is actually a window dressing for justifying political killings and intimidation aimed at the political rivalry ahead of the general elections scheduled for the end of this year. Jyotirmoy Baru, a lawyer at Bangladesh’s Supreme Court, argues that the campaign is against the law and the constitution, with the police visibly acting as a judge, jury and executioner.

And indeed, in a country where the profitable drug trade is deeply intertwined with state affairs and police corruption, such campaign conveniently creates the ideal situation for intimidating the opposition and silencing those whose opinions are considered undesirable.

The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose leader was imprisoned and five of its members murdered, claims the crackdown is politically charged: "They are murdering innocent people to create a climate of fear, so nobody can hold protests against the government", says BNP’s spokesperson Rizvi Ahmed.

Countless other examples of innocent people gunned down by RAB officers have also come to surface, sparking panic and terror across the country. The RAB consists of members of the Bangladeshi police and military and has been used as a tool of oppression since its very establishment in 2004. It has been branded as a ‘death squad’ due to its history of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Ironically, one of the first people who publicly denounced the techniques deployed by the RAB during its initial years was Sheikh Hasina, who is currently managing their operations. In a recent statement, she provocatively asserted that: "no drug godfather will be spared... I can say this because whenever I deal with something, I use an iron fist".

Yet, the question is whether she will manage to sustain her iron reign for long. The female South Asian version of Rodrigo Duerte might soon find herself in the same situation as him - under an investigation of the International Criminal Court on the grounds of crimes against humanity.

What is even more alarming is that other countries from the Indian subcontinent start following the steps of Duerte and Hasina by initiating a brutal war on drugs and triggering apprehensions of a vicious domino effect. For example, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena announced on 11 July that his government will begin hanging drug offenders, hoping to “replicate the success” of the Philippines’ deadly campaign. Such radical move will virtually put an end to the country’s 40 years moratorium on the capital punishment.

Dinushika Dissanayake, deputy director for South Asia at Amnesty International condemned the action in an official statement: “By resuming executions after more than 40 years, Sri Lanka will do immense damage to its reputation. The government must immediately halt plans to carry out any executions, commute all death sentences, and establish an official moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty”.

Despite all admonitions on behalf of the international community and any dissenting views in the country, the death sentence in Sri Lanka in regard to drug-related offences appears to be back on the political agenda. However, what Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines need to acknowledge is that the war on drugs is not a genuine solution to the pervasive drug problem. The numerous cases of incarceration, forced detentions, beatings, whippings and executions only suggest that the drug problem in those countries has been framed as a criminal justice issue, rather than - what it actually is - a public health issue.

Narcotics indeed slowly erode the fine fabric that binds society together, yet the assassination of drug addicts, dealers, traffickers and especially innocent people, further deteriorates social relations and only leads to gross human rights violations, public unrest and moral panic. Instead, the problem must be tackled from its roots by investing in developing people’s welfare and improving their quality of life. Educational establishments must launch anti-drugs campaigns, which highlight the harmful effects of drugs. Rehabilitation centres and medical facilities should be established in order to treat those who are already suffering from addiction. Adequate public healthcare, education and rehabilitation services will discourage people from embarking on the path of narcotics in the long run.

Simultaneously, law enforcement and criminal justice bodies must be responsible for breaking down the supply chain, while this should take place only after their members receive integrative and extensive training, in order to prevent cases of corruption. And finally, civil society groups and the mainstream public must remain alert and raise their voices when state harassments and infringements take place, since often political ill-intentions overshadow the needs of the nation.

The use of the death penalty to manage the narcotics problem is simply a political tool for those in power to achieve their objectives. The lives of those suffering from drug addiction should be placed in the hands of healthcare professionals and not politicians. Experts in the field of border security and transnational organized crime must also enter the discussion. Asia’s hard-line policy towards drugs must be conscientiously and meticulously redesigned in order to prevent any future cases of human rights abuses; otherwise, it will amount to failures – failure to reduce drug use, failure to prevent drug-related crime, and failure to provide the most fundamental human right, the right to life.