International Development Law Organization

Bangladesh: Defending Human Rights in the Face of Disaster

May 9, 2013 - The head of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Bangladesh, Mizanur Rahman, has described the loss of life at the collapsed Rana Plaza textile factory as one of the most tragic incidents in his country’s recent history – but he insisted that any pullout by Western clothes retailers from what is seen as a severely tainted industry would be catastrophic for local workers. Speaking during a visit to IDLO, of which he is an alumnus, Prof. Rahman highlighted the cruel irony of this labor rights outrage occurring just as the United Nations Human Rights Council was preparing to assess Bangladesh’s record.

Nearly a thousand people, mostly women, are known to have died in the building collapse at Savar, a suburb of Dhaka. Bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble as Prof. Rahman deplored his country’s failure to enforce the building regulations that would make such recurrent disasters a thing of the past. It was later announced that a fire at another factory had caused further deaths. The NHRC is now trying to team up with the garment industry body (BGMEA), the Bangladeshi federation of Chambers of Industry (FBBCI) and civil society groups to set up safety monitoring committees in each textile factory. 

Industrial disasters speak of huge injustice, which affects women and the poor most. But there are other ills plaguing Bangladesh – political violence, religious intolerance, and attacks on the media are all on the increase, triggering more death and abuse. The country remains, for a democracy, intensely rights-challenged. Institutions are often unresponsive, prone to bribery and arbitrary intervention.

In Bangladesh even more than elsewhere, the paradox of working within the state to address human rights abuses perpetrated chiefly by the state means the NHRC needs to balance the desirable against the achievable. The task is further complicated by severe underfunding: the body has just eight legally trained staff and twenty support officers, in a nation of 160 million. 

Despite such limitations, and a seemingly perfect storm of bad news from Bangladesh, Prof. Rahman still relishes the task. “I remain,” Prof. Rahman said, “fundamentally optimistic about my country.” Most people would agree that to do his job, you’d have to be. He has IDLO’s full support.