Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 8 April 2011

On 18 February 2011, the United Nations published its assessment of the implementation the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord of 1997.  If this important report hasn’t landed in your in-tray, or you feel daunted by its length of 19 pages – read on to read less.

Firstly though, some background. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord was signed on 2 December 1997 by the Government of Bangladesh and an indigenous political party, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti.  The Accord officially ended a 25 year low-intensity guerrilla war, fought by indigenous peoples (comprising 11 ethnic groups) against the government for “the erosion of their autonomy, the denial of constitutional recognition and their “political, social and economic marginalisation.”  The rights of indigenous people were left unprotected when Bangladesh drafted its first constitution in 1972 – both regional autonomy for indigenous people and special constitutional safeguards for them were rejected. During the prolonged conflict, human rights violations were committed against indigenous people.  According to the UN report, the violations were “mainly perpetrated by Bangladesh security forces,” and included “unlawful killings, detention without trial, torture, rape, destruction of houses and property and forcible occupation of ancestral lands.”

The 1997 Peace Accord is intended to “establish a regional system of self-government and the preservation of the area as a ‘tribally inhabited region.’”  However, as the UN’s Special Rapporteur Lars-Anders Baer states in his report, “Thirteen years have passed since the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord, yet many of its provisions remain unimplemented, or only partially implemented.”

According to the report, after signing the accord, The Awami League took “some initiatives” to “implement a few of the provisions.”  When the BNP came to power in 2001, it was “more inclined to solve the problems in the region by military means.” Lars further adds, “During this time [2001 until 2006], human rights violations against indigenous peoples in the region were frequently reported.”  During the state of emergency from 2007 to 2008, “a few positive steps were taken, including holding a number of meetings… related to the implementation of the Accord.”

Hopes for peace in the region were rekindled when the Awami League returned to power in 2008, as its election manifesto stated that the 1997 Accord would be fully implemented. “This pledge,” states Lars, “has been repeated in various national and international forums.”

However Lars believes that, “The reason for non-implementation of the Accord reaches beyond the political party now running the government. The region remains heavily militarised and there have been continued and consistent allegations that the army is interfering in civilian affairs in the region.”

The Accord stipulates that the region, which remains one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world, should implement a phased withdrawal of temporary military camps.  This is regarded as “as crucial for re-establishing normalcy,” because “the majority of human rights violations committed against indigenous peoples in the region [are] attributed to the extensive presence of security forces.”  According to the report, verifying troop numbers is difficult, but military officials have stated that a third of the army is deployed in the region — which comprises just a tenth of Bangladesh’s territory.  “This is an excessive amount, by any standard, especially in a country not participating in a war… and has no prevailing insurgency situation,” states Lars.

The report also highlights that the current government has failed to provide a list of dismantled camps and that some of these camps were, “re-established or replaced by other armed forces.”  No time limit for the withdrawal of military camps has ever been announced.

Another major provision of the Accord which remains unimplemented concerns land rights.  This issue, states Lars, is “widely recognised as the most critical.”  Indigenous people are still losing their ancestral lands at an “alarming rate, as a consequence of forceful eviction from and expropriation of their lands through development projects and occupation by the military.”

As per the Accord, a Land Commission was established to settle land disputes, and the first chairperson was appointed in 1999.  However the UN’s report found that, “the Commission remained inactive until July 2009, when its current Chairperson was appointed.”

The Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs was formed one year after the Accord was signed.  Its function was to handle major administrative and developmental matters and to establish a separate ministry for regional affairs.  An indigenous member of Parliament was appointed as Minister, and an Advisory Committee was formed.  However the gains were short-lived, “In the successive governments since that time, the direct responsibility of the Ministry has been kept under the control of the Prime Minister and almost all officers in the Ministry are non-indigenous persons.”  Furthermore, indigenous ministers  for Chittagong Hill Tracts affairs have “not been assigned the rank of full cabinet minister” and there have been incidents when “the Ministry does not seem to be working in the interest of the indigenous population.”

The report also recommends that all the Accord’s agreed subjects and functions are transferred to the Hill District Councils with immediate effect.  And all necessary steps must be taken to ensure the full functioning of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council, which would include advising the government on relevant legislation.

The UN makes two very important recommendations: firstly, that Bangladesh’s constitution be amended to provide long withheld rights for indigenous people.  The second is for the government to create a timeline that details the implementation of all remaining provisions within the remainder of its term.

The report somberly concludes that, “The lack of substantial progress is leading to an increasing sense of frustration and disillusionment among the indigenous peoples in the region.”  Moreover, “the continuing failure to adequately implement all the provisions… is likely to enhance the prospects of renewed political instability and ethnic conflict in the region.”

To download the full report, click here