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Debates
Thursday, 14 April 2005 - Strasbourg OJ edition

25. Bangladesh
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  President. The next item is the debate on the six motions for resolutions on Bangladesh(1).

 
  
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  Schlyter (Verts/ALE), rapporteur. (SV) Mr President, imagine that, in one of our Member States, bomb attacks were to take place against former ministers, journalists were to be killed and opposition politicians murdered, and people were to be imprisoned and tortured by paramilitary forces. Imagine if these things were to happen in your own countries. In that case, we should be debating them every day in Parliament, demanding immediate measures and tackling the problems as rapidly as possible.

That is precisely what the government in Bangladesh has failed to do. It has not grappled with these problems in time and with sufficient vigour. This is all the more regrettable inasmuch as Bangladesh has for a long time been a country in which women have had a lot of freedom and the ability to exercise political power. In many ways, it has been possible to see Bangladesh as a good example of positive development in both economic and political terms. All this is now in danger of being destroyed if the Bangladeshi Government does not take vigorous action. I think we must do everything in our power to help solve the problems and improve the situation in Bangladesh. I find it sad that there are fellow MEPs in this House who want to weaken the resolution when we know how serious the problems are. I hope that we shall today obtain a majority in favour of maintaining the resolution, without it being weakened by amendments designed to describe the reality as other than it is. I am pleased that we have finally taken this initiative and are putting Bangladesh on the agenda. Its people need our support, and that is what we can offer them today.

 
  
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  Mann, Thomas (PPE-DE) – (DE) Mr President, Shah Kibria, a former finance minister of Bangladesh, had just finished a speech at an event of that country’s main opposition party, of which he was a member. There, upon the spot, he was blown to bits by a grenade; three other people were killed and fifty wounded. It is with attacks such as this that Islamic extremists have created a climate of fear. There are parts of the country in which public offices appear to be collaborating with them. This is an intolerable situation. Amnesty International and the United States confirm that members of religious minorities are being systematically intimidated, persecuted and are subject to arbitrary arrest.

No satisfactory improvement has occurred either in response to the last resolution by this House, in November 2002, or to the last visit to the country by our SAARC delegation, in February 2003. Recently, though, the government has had two leaders of Muslim criminal organisations imprisoned and their bank accounts frozen.

We call upon the government to be more vigorous in taking action against extremists. Bangladesh must also meet its obligations under the internal conventions on human rights that it has ratified. It must outlaw torture, guarantee press freedom and the free expression of opinion, and press on with the fight against corruption. Only if it achieves perceptible progress in these areas should the conditions of the 2001 EU/Bangladesh cooperation agreement apply, for it was and is founded upon respect for human rights and the maintenance of democracy.

The differences that exist between the government and the opposition must not stand in the way of their at least agreeing to allow the parliament, currently suspended, to resume its functions. Both sides must then work to create conditions that do not allow radicalism, paramilitary activity and religious extremism to operate.

 
  
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  Meijer (GUE/NGL), author. (NL) Mr President, when, in 1947, the enormous British colonial empire in South-Asia was divided on the basis of the regions’ predominant religion, the east of the province of Bengal was apportioned to the Muslim State of Pakistan. It was an overpopulated and flood-prone area, which attracted the sympathy of the entire world, and, in 1971, it broke away from Pakistan, the faraway land in the west that had no interest whatsoever in helping to solve the problems of this eastern colony. The new state could have made a good start had it, for example, followed the Dutch example of building sea walls and draining populated areas which flooded during storm tides; there would have been more space for the inhabitants and their food supply. Instead, we witnessed in Bangladesh a grim, clan-based struggle between two parties that are fighting a feud while both denying each other’s right to exist.

In addition, the country has for some time been dominated by the sort of intolerant religious fanaticism that hardly existed in other parts of the Islamic world until 20 years ago. This fanaticism leaves no room for religious minorities, including Ahmadiyya Muslims or Hindus. Intimidation and violent attacks by government supporters go unpunished. Paramilitary groups, which claiming to fight crime, commit acts of torture and murder. Bangladesh is at risk of sliding into a spiral of self-destruction. Widely supported though it has been, a statement denouncing intimidation, violence, torture, exemption from punishment and economic stagnation will do nothing to solve the problem; instead, it should be a starting point to determine how we in Europe can best deal with that unfortunate country in future. That presupposes, at the very least, solidarity with the victims.

 
  
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  Tannock, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. Mr President, about a third of this poor, over-populated but democratic country of 140 million people is landless and forced to live on, and cultivate, flood-prone land. Traditionally the majority Muslim population has lived peacefully with other religious minorities, and Bangladesh has a good record on education and civil rights for women. The majority BNP Government, in power since 2001, has particular problems with economic reform as it is often blocked by political in-fighting and corruption. Matters are not helped by the current boycott of parliamentary dialogue by the Awami League opposition.

There have been attacks on opposition figures, that is true, but the authorities to their credit have arrested eight suspects, in spite of them being part of the ruling party coalition, and two radical Islamist groups have recently been banned. Bangladesh also protests at India’s understandable attempts to fence off the porous international border which is subject to contraband, including illegal drug smuggling.

One encouraging note is that growth has been steady at 5% for the past few years, but Bangladesh now feels threatened by unlimited Chinese textile exports. We in the European Union need to be patient and give Bangladesh every political and financial support, encourage good governance and the fight against corruption and Islamic fundamentalism.

I call upon the House to support my amendments to produce a more balanced resolution.

 
  
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  Stroz, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group.(CS) The state of Bangladesh was established in 1971 following a struggle for independence. This predominantly Muslim country is attempting to find solutions to daunting problems in the face of a very high population density, natural disasters and poverty. The resolution leads one to believe that very little progress has been made, and ignores the fact that successes have in fact been achieved; for example, the country produces enough food to feed its citizens. It is a great shame that Bangladeshi government and opposition representatives could not have been asked in advance for their views on the resolution, which highlights the modest progress that has been made in a number of fields and emphasises the need to continue moving in the right direction. The fact that they were not does not reflect well on the European Parliament. Our attempts to boost democracy in the country are welcome, but it is a pity that we failed to mention any positive signs of democratic developments in the joint motion for a resolution. Even though we disagree with a number of unproven statements in the resolution, we support the country’s progress towards democracy and hope it will continue, particularly with regard to preparations for the next parliamentary elections.

 
  
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  Belder, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. (NL) Mr President, today is New Year’s Day in Bangladesh. It is my heartfelt wish that the blessing of the Lord may rest upon that country’s leaders and its inhabitants for the New Year. While there is room for improvement in Europe too, we also have a few suggestions for Bangladesh in terms of New Year’s resolutions. Although it is regrettable that the constitution has since 1998 declared Islam the state religion, it does allow other religions to be professed, practised and propagated, so it is odd that it does not protect the ‘right to convert’. Would it not be a sound resolve to better regulate the freedom of religion in the constitution and abolish state religion?

I should like to illustrate the need for this with a real-life example. On Monday 4 April, reliable sources confirmed that Dulal Sarkar, a Christian, was killed on 8 March of this year. He was the pastor of the Bangladesh Free Baptist Church in the village of Jalalpur in the south-western district of Khulna. This man was simply doing his job and was not offending against the constitution in any way. On his way home, he was attacked by ten armed Muslim extremists and subsequently beheaded. These Muslim extremists are reported to have links with the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party currently forming part of the government coalition. Dulal Sarkar leaves behind his mother, his wife and five children, and at present, his wife and family are forced to move from house to house in an effort to avoid retaliatory action from Muslim extremists.

The draft resolution that we co-signed is therefore extremely clear. We are indeed deeply concerned about growing Muslim fundamentalism with its paramilitary groups and the abuse of power by fundamentalist Muslim parties. I am at the same time emphatically opposed to moderating amendments that have been tabled in respect of this unambiguous draft resolution. I urge the Council and the Commission, in conjunction with the State Department referred to in citation 2(2), to fight these expressions of Muslim fundamentalism. This can be done by applying the penalties referred to in cooperation agreements to violations of democratic principles, all of this in a bid to improve the plight of the Bengali citizens.

 
  
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  Czarnecki, Ryszard (NI).   (PL) Mr President, Bangladesh is exactly 34 years and 19 days old, which means that it is a very young state. At the same time, it is a very poor state. Despite the fact that poverty levels have dropped by around 1% per year over the past decade, 50% of the population still lives below the poverty line. Every year 325 000 children die, or in other words 900 every day, and on average one woman dies every 20 minutes in Bangladesh, or 26 000 every year, due to childbirth-related causes. The proportion of low birth weight babies is between 30% and 50%, and 30% of the population has no access at all to clean water. On the positive side, access to sanitary facilities has doubled over the past decade, and now stands at 43% of the population.

The debate we are holding today is political in nature, but I see it as an opportunity to highlight the tragic conditions in Bangladesh, which was formerly known as East Bengal. I am delighted that the European Parliament has taken up this matter.

 
  
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  Deva (PPE-DE). Mr President, this motion is ridiculous. We are talking about a country of 143 million people. It is one of the poorest countries in the world still able to manage its own affairs. It has been a democracy for some time now. There are parliamentary elections, parliamentary democracy and governance. The country is about the size of Belgium but has 143 million people. They are managing to feed themselves for the first time after many years of independence and of course there are problems. In Sudan, 300 000 people were killed, but that does not relate to the issue about which we have just heard: the outrage at somebody being killed. A total of two ministers out of a government of fifty-six ministers does not make the government Islamist. We need to have proportionality in our debates otherwise the world will laugh at us.

The European Parliament is supposed to be an important institution, but look at how many Members are here. There are no more than fifty Members in this Chamber and they are apparently so concerned about this. We must use these human rights debates to talk about serious matters affecting people and their human rights. Three hundred thousand people have been killed in Darfur. What are we doing about that?

Let us introduce some proportionality and balance to our debates and give the issues we discuss in these human rights debates some serious consideration.

(Applause)

 
  
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  Borg, Member of the Commission. Mr President, the European Commission welcomes the European Parliament’s initiative to draw public attention to the serious governance and human rights situation in Bangladesh.

Today’s debate is very timely; it is being held against the background of a law and order situation that has suffered a serious decline since the last European Parliament resolution of November 2002. Abuses against human rights activists, journalists and minorities are on the increase. The governance situation is at an all-time low and political violence has reached a new climax, as sadly exemplified by the grenade attack in August 2004 and the tragic assassination of former Finance Minister Kibria in January.

We share your concerns about the dysfunction of the country’s institutions, the culture of impunity, mounting fundamentalism, the human rights abuses of minorities and the escalating confrontation between ruling and opposition parties. All these factors, combined with mounting religious militancy, make us believe that Bangladesh’s democratic and secular foundations are in jeopardy.

The European Community has been very vocal on these issues, not least in view of our development mandate and the human rights clause that provides the basis of our aid relationship with Bangladesh.

Over the last months the European Community and the Member States have repeatedly called on the government to condemn the persecution of political opponents, intellectuals, journalists, NGOs and minorities. The European Union has reacted strongly to the attack on Mrs Sheikh Hasina and the assassination of former Minister Kibria by urging the government to restore justice without delay and to give clear signals that acts of terrorism are not acceptable.

We are continuously stressing our concerns about the climate of impunity reigning in the country, the confrontational politics, the mounting attacks against the tribal people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Ahmadiyya Community and the extrajudicial killings in ‘crossfire’ by special police forces. Let me also note that the European Union showed great unity on Bangladesh at this year’s Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where the EU agreed to single out Bangladesh as one of five countries in its statement of principle on human rights in the world.

The deteriorating governance situation has compelled us to enhance donor unity. In February the European Community, the World Bank and the US Department of State convened a meeting in Washington with all major international donors to discuss how we can foster key governance reforms.

The exchanges confirmed that our concerns are fully shared by the international donor community. This donor unity has allowed us to define common priorities and to convey strong private messages to the government on the poor governance and the urgent need to deliver on reforms.

The gathering in Washington had a clear impact on the country: it prompted the government to admit publicly the existence of an Islamic fundamentalist problem. Alas, the government crackdown on Islamic militants is already petering out, as demonstrated by charges being dropped against a prominent Islamic leader.

For its part, the Commission will continue closely to monitor the political situation in the country and pursue these fundamental issues through our political dialogue with the government and close donor coordination. In that context we will also increase the focus of our attention on the next parliamentary elections in late 2006 and the conditions for free and fair elections. The political dialogue will be underpinned by our offer to support pressing institutional reforms in the next aid strategy which, if accepted by the government, would contribute to a meaningful change and thus to more progress and prosperity for the people of Bangladesh.

 
  
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  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place this afternoon following the debates.

 
  

(1) See Minutes.

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