Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal: a critique of the critics

While criticism of the ICT is important, its chief critics have dehistoricized the context in which this trial is taking place, and expressed disdain in terms which position Bangladesh as the under-developed, untrustworthy ‘Other’.

Mubashar Hasan
12 March 2012

Bangladesh’s international war crimes tribunal (ICT) has attracted criticism across the globe, including on openDemocracy. In a healthy environment of debate, criticism of a political process is a useful tool to make the process better.  In fact it is a principle factor of the democratic process and is embedded in the concept of democracy. A policy cannot win support from everyone. While a large number of people support a democratic process at the same time a good number of people will not support the same process. But the key is that majority opinion wins in a democracy. This view applies in the case of Bangladesh’s ICT.

Critics of the ICT, including Aisha Rahman, David Bergman and the grandchild of Ghulam Azam, point out several serious apparent shortcomings in the trial. They point out that the accused come from the opposition party only, that major media outlets including the Daily Star and Prothom-alo have united against leaders of Bangladesh Jamaat Islami (BJI). Aisha Rahman even heavily criticised the role of Daily Star and Prothom-alo for criticizing ‘Al-Jazeera’s towering reputation for responsible world-class journalism and integrity’.  Fruthermore, Rahman is true  in her depiction of the autocratic authoritarian image of the present government, giving examples of the Law Minister threatening David Bergman, an American journalist based in Dhaka, for his criticism of the ICT.

The list of criticisms of the ICT in Bangladesh can go on. But my intention here is neither to endorse the criticism of the ICT nor to reject it. My intention here is somewhat different but directly relates to its critics. I argue here that the rhetoric constructed by the critics of the ICT shows three serious shortcomings in their articulation of the ICT’s failings.

Firstly, the articles de-historicise the political culture of the country, and present the context to the reader in an appalling way. Secondly an attempt to evaluate the activities of the ‘other’—in this case Bangladesh – through a lens of classic orientalist purview is evident in those critiques. This orientalist purview is not a standalone factor, but rather intertwined with the process of de-historicization of the political culture of the country by the critics. Finally all critics either intentionally or mistakenly have missed the fundamental point, which deals with the emotion of the majority people of the country. Unless someone combines these three factors while criticising the ICT in Bangladesh, their analysis will fall far short to potray the fact on ground

De-historicization of Bangladeshi politics

It has been 40 years since Bangladesh won its independence. In order to understand a process taking place today one must understand its context in the light of history. Unfortunately, I don’t see such reflection in any critics of the ICT. The way they present the context before the global readership seems as if a lack of international standards in the media in Bangladesh, police brutality in the country, political vendettas are being invented just now against the backdrop of this trial. It is a fact on the ground that the Bangladeshi media is heavily divided by partisan journalists. It is also a fact on the ground that confrontational politics including general strikes known as Hartals, bombings, political murders and serious subjugation of the political and civil rights of the people are core features of the Bangladeshi state. This is a state which is endorsed by the world as a democratic state with many challenges to overcome – you have only to see the country factsheets produced by the UN and the US and UK governments.  Such endorsement underpins a critical factor: democracy and its standard varies from context to context.

Over the 40 years of independence, a body of cultural artefacts has emerged which reifies the bond between Bangladesh Jamate Islami (BJI) party leaders – including Ghulam Azam – and the Pakistani military in 1971. These include photos, videos and academic publications.  Whether he and other captives actually commited the crime or not now depends on the ICT to prove. On March 26th 1992 the celebrated writer Jahanara Imam (now deceased), who lost her son and husband  in the war of 1971 and was popularly known as Mother of the Martyrs, staged a mock trial of Ghulam Azam with approximately 50,000 fellow countrymen. In return, she was charged with sedition. This action of framing the mother of a martyred freedom fighter for criticising Ghulam Azam was right in the view of the democratically elected ruling party of that time. Now, in 2012, with Ghulam Azam in jail and awaiting trial in a real court, we are forced to reconsider the universal myth of right and wrong in politics.

It is a bitter truth that right and wrong in politics cannot be seen through the frame of morality all the time. Morality is a myth closely related with power. To take an example from elsewhere, in the view of the US it was wrong that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s and it was right to arm the Taliban’s ‘holy jihad’ against the Soviets because this served the purpose of winning a cold war and legitimization of capitalist democracy. Similarly it was ‘right’ in 2001 for the US and its allies to invade Afghanistan and eliminate Taliban because this group is involved in a ‘heinous jihad’ against the legitimization of capitalist democracy.

Orientalist view of Bangladesh ICT and  media as the Other

The lack of international standards in Bangladeshi journalism, the media bias against alleged war criminals and the lack of freedom of speech for the critics of the ICT are common allegations of the critics. However, the motives behind such allegations derive from an essentialized orientalist view of an underdeveloped Bangladesh. This perspective becomes vivid if we remember that CNN and the BBC were heavily criticised for alleged bias in their coverage of the Iraq war, as a result of which we saw the growing popularity of Al Jazeera. BBC has a history of being criticised for its pro-Israel coverage of the Palestine and Israel conflict. Moreover, objectivity itself is a fluid concept: a report can be objective to one group of people while the same report can be biased to another. Aisha Rahman quotes David Bergman’s analysis of the Daily star’s criticism of Al Jazeera, highlighting the lack of professionalism in critical journalism in Bangladesh. Rhetorically it looks perfectly fine. In practice how often do we see the reflection of critical journalism in global media?

American journalist David Bergman in his recent article responding to Rahman’s critique uses phrases such as ‘Rahman is correct’, ‘the Bangladesh government is correct’.  Such rhetorical terms left me wondering what constitutes Mr Bergman’s standard of correctness? In other words, how we are to understand what is correct about his worldview and who is to ratify his correctness?  He further provides examples of the debate regarding the actual number of people killed in 1971 and the ‘massacre’ of the Bihari community by Bangladeshi freedom fighters and their aides.  Interestingly, he avoids terming ‘civilian deaths’ of Bangladeshis in 1971 as ‘genocide’ by Pakistani military, though this is now well documented in international textbooks of genocide. He further neither defines ‘massacre’ nor mentions how Bihari communities acting with the Pakistani military killed and looted Bangladeshis, and how as a reaction to save their own lives Bangladeshis confronted Biharis. Such essential distortion of history through the assumption of the purview of correctness derived from his American orientation fails to constitute constructive criticism. Rather it leaves people wondering about his intentions in making such criticisms.  In my view, constructive criticism must not be captured by a framework of simple ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. Rather constructive criticism should demonstrate ample understanding of complex process of history, democratic practice and media-bias, and thus must move beyond the simple opposition of good and evil.

Putting aside the case of the Bangladeshi media, a web search brought me to a news headline (not an opinion piece) from the UK’s Telegraph newspaper which says ‘Islam's war on the Cross: Egypt's move to democracy under threat after latest attack on Coptic community’. I could give many more such examples. I don’t see reflective or critical journalism in this ‘news’, which derives from a conflict between Egyptians. Why it is termed as a war between Islam and Cross? It is a global reality then there is biasness in media reports and a lack of practice in critical journalism.

 Moreover, freedom of speech too is an abstract concept. In every society, every country, there is a limit imposed on freedom of speech. Living examples lie in the fates of Manning and Assange of Wikileaks in developed democracies

Thus, these critics intentionally or unintentionally avoid global reality and see the role of our media in terms of the under-developed Other – Bangladesh.

Emotional factor

If any researcher now conducts a survey among Bangladeshis, they will find that the majority of the people want this trial to happen. It is a matter of emotion to them. This emotion is derived from the heroic deeds of fellow countrymen in 1971 as well as the pain of being betrayed by other fellow countrymen. Some of these alleged betrayers are now behind bars facing trial over committing crimes against humanity. Before the election of 2008, the present government of the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) came to power with overwhelming support: AL won 230 seats out 300 in the parliament. One of the main reasons behind such a landslide was that AL made it an election promise to hold a trial for the crimes against humanity committed by Bangladeshis against fellow countrymen in 1971. It is because of such popular support that the largest papers in the country, Daily Star and Prothom-alo have been able to show bias and that the Law Minister could threaten an American journalist. Such popular support forced the archrival of AL, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to take a U-turn from publicly opposing the trial to demanding ‘international standards’ for the trial. On the other hand it is due to this overwhelming popular support for the trial that the international community, which has a history of intervening in the domestic matters of Bangladesh, is not stepping beyond occasional criticism of the ICT.

Concluding Comments

There is little doubt that the ICT has a public mandate. However, there is doubt about the honest intention of the AL government to complete this trial within the tenure of this regime, which has a mandate to run the country until December 2013. The government of AL is under serious criticism against the backdrop of its uneven friendship with India, failure to curb sky rocketing price of essential food items and deteriorating law and order situation. It seems prolonging the process of the ICT is the only way out for AL in the next election. Criticism may emerge about how AL is over politicizing and exploiting a collective emotion of the majority through partisan politics. Even from that perspective, critics must undertake a better approach to convincingly criticise the process by considering the history, the facts on the ground and the political reality of right and wrong.

Correction: David Bergman is a journalist of British origin who has lived in Bangladesh since 2003. Ed.

Also read:

The arrest of Professor Ghulam Azam: a grandchild's account, A. Azam

Trial by media: Bangladesh's 'International' Crimes Tribunal, Aisha Rahman

Bangladesh war crimes tribunal: further bias is no answer, David Bergman


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