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Assessing Risks of Mass Atrocities in Bangladesh

Protesters try to break through a police barricade during a demonstration against a strike called by the opposition in Dhaka, Bangladesh. February 9, 2015. —Associated Press

A news search for “Bangladesh” and “atrocities” today will turn up dozens of articles about how this South Asian country is responding to a huge influx of Rohingya refugees from its neighbor to the east, Burma. An estimated 700,000 Rohingya have streamed over the border from Rakhine State in Burma into Bangladesh since brutal waves of operations by the Burmese military began in October 2016. The new arrivals joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh during previous episodes of mass violence. Bangladesh has thus far welcomed refugees and facilitated provision of humanitarian assistance, despite increased strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources.

While the Rohingya refugee crisis and the resulting humanitarian needs require immediate response by local and international stakeholders (as highlighted in a recent Simon-Skjodt Center report) our new report Breaking Cycles of Distrust: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Bangladesh addresses the underlying risks of mass atrocities within Bangladesh that also require attention by policymakers to prevent escalation of violence in the next 12-18 months.

When the Simon-Skjodt Center began this research on Bangladesh in mid-2016, some observers were skeptical that mass atrocities were a real risk in the country. After all, there is no current armed conflict in the country, while Bangladesh is seen to have embraced secularism and tolerance since its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh has made significant progress in social and economic indicators as well.

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Title: Breaking Cycles of Distrust: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Bangladesh

Author: Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide

Publication: November 2017

Yet, Bangladesh ranked among the top 10% of countries—ranging from 12th to 16th—for each of the last three years on the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s Early Warning Project’s global statistical risk assessment, all the while receiving minimal attention from the policymakers in terms of atrocity prevention. Bangladesh is the highest-ranking country in the risk assessment that is not currently experiencing an armed conflict. Widespread episodes of atrocities are quite rare across the world, and the overall risk according to the Project's risk assessment is under 3%. Elements contributing to the country’s relatively high ranking in the statistical risk assessment, as compared to other countries, relate to the country’s history of mass atrocities during the Liberation War in 1971, its status as a partial democracy with factionalism, and the existence of armed conflict elsewhere in the region. The apparent discrepancy between our statistical risk assessment results and the opinions of many Bangladesh watchers motivated us to deepen our understanding of the country-specific dynamics. Our research found that Bangladesh is not at risk of a systematic, violent campaign against an ethnic group, as is occurring in Burma, but is at risk of escalating political violence due to the intense rivalry between both political sides.

The goal of the early warning research was to identify the scenarios in which Bangladesh could plausibly experience large-scale, systematic attacks on civilians, and to explore ways to help avert those scenarios. We focused our research on those scenarios that could potentially lead to more than 1000 civilian deaths over the course of a single year—a high mark of mass violence—rather than considering less severe, albeit still serious, forms of violence against civilians. We focused on varieties of “worst case” scenarios in Bangladesh not because they are highly likely, but because their impact would be extreme. The imperative of prevention requires a deep analysis of the drivers of risk and relevant mitigating factors though our report does not presuppose such atrocities will happen for certain.

The report was informed by 106 interviews and discussions with experts in Bangladesh and the United States. Several themes emerged about worrisome trends from our analysis, including growing political factionalism, past violence around the 2014 election, authoritarianism, impunity for serious human rights violations, and crackdowns on civil society that could serve as a source of resiliency against mass violence. Nearly every person with whom we spoke raised the growing rift between Bangladesh’s two main political parties—the ruling Awami League, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—as a central driver of risk.

The two parties have rotated time in power since the restoration of democracy in 1991, but the political environment has become ever more polarized and contentious in recent years. The ruling Awami League alliance has consolidated power since its election in 2008, while the BNP opposition alliance is desperate to regain a foothold in government after being out of power for two terms. The report finds that the risk of mass atrocities is rooted in the zero-sum competition between these two main parties, making the general elections scheduled for late 2018 a potential flashpoint.

If, as we expect, the two major political alliances participate in the election process, we see a relatively low risk of violence in the pre-election period. But we detail concerns about post-election violence, especially in the case of contested election results. In various post-election scenarios, the deeply polarized political environment has created incentives for actors within each major party to use violence. While supporters of the competing party are likely to be the main targets in a scenario of mass atrocity, religious minorities face risks as well.

In addition to the competition between the two major parties in Bangladesh, our research indicates that the following factors are contributing to the risk of mass atrocities in Bangladesh:

  • Previous episodes of mass killings in Bangladesh, namely those committed during its 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, for which there were no effective accountability mechanisms for a prolonged period.

  • There have been acts of politically-motivated violence around the past election in 2014 by opposition parties in Bangladesh, but the particularly high stakes of the upcoming election may translate into an elevated risk of mass atrocities.

  • Increased authoritarianism and attacks on civil society have diminished constraints on the ruling party and undermined what could be a source of resiliency against mass violence, together raising the risk that the recurrence of a political crisis would lead to an extremely harsh, violent response. 

  • Members of the security forces have been implicated in serious human rights violations. Longstanding impunity for those crimes, with some exceptions, could encourage security units to act violently in the future.

  • Localized patronage systems have created a symbiotic relationship between some politicians and criminal actors, in which economic motivations could encourage acts of violence not necessarily endorsed by the party hierarchy.

At the same time, we found several resiliency factors that mitigate the risk of mass atrocities within Bangladesh:

  • Positive economic growth appears to reduce the risk of mass atrocities. There is almost no appetite for political violence amongst the aspirational middle class and youth, while the business community may be well-placed to broker political agreements between the two parties.

  • There is a broad societal rejection of violence and terrorism in Bangladesh, as seen after Holey terrorist attack in 2016 and political violence around the 2014 election.

  • Some recent attempts to reverse the culture of impunity, including the investigations, prosecutions, and convictions in several high-profile cases involving powerful elements.

  • Evidence of growing collaboration between the Bangladeshi government, civil society, and international community to promote nonviolence, tolerance, and social cohesion.

In light of the plausible ‘worst case’ scenarios, the report calls for political parties in Bangladesh to engage in formal dialogue and agree on election-related standards to mitigate the risk of mass atrocities around the 2018 elections. We recommend the Bangladesh government allow democratic space, while the opposition should desist from violence. The report also addresses the need for the government of Bangladesh to ensure accountability for human rights violations and the importance of atrocity prevention training for stakeholders working in or focused on Bangladesh.

We believe these recommendations will help mitigate the risk drivers and reinforce resiliencies related to the risk of mass atrocities in Bangladesh identified in the report, thereby sustaining social and economic development, strengthening democracy, and promoting accountability in the country.